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Want to be drug-free? Thai monks prescribe projectile vomiting

Carrie Jeffers meditates at the Thamkrabok Monastery and rehab center in Thailand.

BANGKOK – Carrie Jeffers feared she would never kick her heroin addiction after relapsing repeatedly in her native Michigan. Then she flew to Thailand, and her life changed.

Jeffers, a 37-year-old yoga teacher, says she broke her dependency thanks to treatment at a remote Buddhist temple. The rigorous regime includes meditation and the daily ingestion of a foul-tasting herbal drink that induces projectile vomiting to cleanse the body of toxins.

“I got my strength back slowly but surely after the treatment,” Jeffers said after spending months at Thailand’s Thamkrabok Monastery, a drug rehabilitation center in Saraburi province about 90 miles north of Bangkok.

The center, in the heart of a sunlit forest surrounded by limestone crags, has won a worldwide reputation as a place with harsh but effective addiction treatment and has attracted thousands of foreigners from Europe and the U.S.

Harsh, but effective
Jeffers said she had been addicted to heroin since the age of 14 and underwent rehab treatment twice in the United States. The fees were $1,000 a day, which, fortunately, were covered by insurance. "A lot of drug addicts don’t have that [insurance] and they get turned away,” she said.

Thailand's Thamkrabok Monstery is an unlikely drug rehab center. But it has won a worldwide reputation as a place with harsh but effective addiction treatment and has attracted thousands of foreigners from Europe and the U.S

Thamkrabok, by contrast, offers its services for free. And Jeffers said she found it far more effective than rehab in the West.
“At other rehabs they feed you drug after drug; there is no meditation or teaching you to look into yourself,” she said.

Monks at the temple say another key to the success of their treatment is the special tonic, made with 108 herbs according to a secret recipe. 

“I remember feeling a kind of a burning sensation, but it soaked up all the toxins,” said Jeffers, who is now helping teach yoga to foreign patients at the temple.

The Thamkrabok monastery has another rigorous feature: addicts must take a vow swearing that they are 100 percent committed to being drug or alcohol-free. They can only be admitted to the monastery for treatment once; if they break their vow, they are not allowed to return. 
Same treatment for celebs to civilians
At Thamkrabok, everyone is treated equally regardless of wealth or status. Patients have to wake up early each morning to clean their bedrooms and bathrooms, and sweep the temple compound. They all wear the same red uniforms and sleep in dormitories on thin mattresses closely packed together.

The detox center is a complex of low-rise whitewash concrete blocks set apart from the main compound, which is dominated by several giant Buddha statues.

"It’s very humbling here. It doesn’t matter who you are, you are using the same bed,” said Jeffers, who plans to return to the U.S. in May.

Some don’t last. Pete Doherty, the controversial British singer and former boyfriend of model Kate Moss, was a patient at the temple but only completed three days in 2004 because he found the treatment too austere. One of the monks told me that Doherty lacked the patience that the treatment required and that he did not enjoy the spartan living conditions.

Ploy Bunluesilp / NBC News

Patients at Thailand's Thamkrabok Monastery trying to kick their drug or alcohol addiction line up to get herbal drinks; they often throw up after drinking the special tonic.

However, another British musician, Tim Arnold of the band Jocasta, returned home drug-free after completing the treatment. The temple said they have treated other celebrities, but they wanted to keep their names confidential.

The temple has treated more than 100,000 addicts since it started the rehab program in 1959 and about 30 percent of former patients, including Jeffers, become ordained as monks or nuns after completing their treatment to help out the new patients.

Many of the young Thai monks are tough-looking chain-smoking youths with tattoos. They enforce the temple rules and keep new patients in line.

"Only three more minutes, get inside. Just get inside,” one of the monks shouted at patients outside the packed herbal steam bath room during my visit. 

Patients are not allowed to carry money at the temple, in part to prevent them sneaking out to buy drugs. Instead, they buy coupons at the start of the treatment for food, which costs about $6 a day for three meals.

Cleaning body and mind
“When I first arrived, it felt very surreal because we all have preconceived idea of what the monastery or rehab might be – but this is very far away from any kind of imagination,” said Nick Thorp, a musician from London and one of many of the foreigners who found out about the temple through the Internet or from friends who had been treated there.

“They clean up your body and they give some input in your mind,” said 57-year-old Ong Boon Beng from Malaysia, who had been taking opium and heroin for more than three decades before seeking help. “At the other rehabs, you pay money, but it is just like you go for holiday. They give you sleeping pills – that doesn’t help.”

Mike Sarson, a founder of the East West Detox Center in southern England, works with the monastery and sends some patients there. He said about 95 percent of the patients the charity has sent to the temple remain drug-free.