The First Abbot of Thamkrabok Monastery

Phra Chamroon Parnchand


The 1975 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service

Citation read by the Honourable Frisco F. San Juan, chairman, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation

Drug addiction is a prime curse of modern urban life. Congested and accelerated living generates psychic pressures that are intensified by mass media often purveying fads. These circumstances have conspired to involve growing numbers of people with drugs: some profiteer, building the criminal networks for pushing drugs, while many more become the miserable victims.Luang Poh Chamroon Parnchand-01

This tragedy is compounded in Thailand as it is the chief export route for opium grown in the hilly “golden triangle” in the north where Thailand, Burma and Laos adjoin. Much of the harvest from this major world centre of opium production is processed clandestinely in Thai land, ten kilos of opium becoming one kilo of heroin. Although legalized opium smoking was banned in Thailand over two decades ago, known drug addicts have increased from 72,000 to an estimated 400,000. Instead of opium smoking being principally a vice of middle- aged and older men, derivatives, chiefly heroin, are increasingly an addiction of the young, faddishly made captive of the habit. Opportunity to buy for the equivalent of US$5 a quantity of heroin sold in North America for US$5,000, encourages the underworld of dealers and smugglers.

Phra CHAMROON PARNCHAND became aware of the drug traffic as a policeman. After the end of World War II, disillusioned with the tasks assigned to him, he resigned to become a Buddhist monk, shaving his head, donning the saffron robe and begging and foraging for his sustenance. He and his companions were twice arrested while on tudong (pilgrimage); their walking around the country and discus sing with people the Buddhist law, the dharma, was misunderstood as troublemaking. Release followed quickly when authorities became convinced of the sincerity and government help came when his treatment of opium addicts later became known.

Phra CHAMROON’S mentor in this work was his aunt Mian, a revered Buddhist lay nun, who because of her devotion and wisdom was treated as a senior monk. Together near Saraburi, 132 kilometres northeast of Bangkok, they founded in caves of the limestone mountains an interim shelter for tudong monks known as Wat Tham Krabok. At this “Temple of the BambooCave” Abbot CHAMROON 17 years ago began perfecting the treatment for drug addiction he and his aunt devised. Addicts volunteering for treatment at the monastery, which now has some 100 monks in residence, take sajja, a sacred vow, never to touch drugs again and commit themselves to a new life. Oral treatment with a decoction from a selection of 100 fresh and dried emetic and purgative herbs and barks for five days is accompanied by daily herbal steam baths and frequent regular bathing. Another five days of recuperation, with plentiful good food and light work, follow, under guidance of the abbot and 12 monks who take turns with their fellow monks caring for patients.

While some Western-oriented doctors still dismiss the value of the treatment at Wat Tham Krabok, about 1,250 Laotians, sent by their government, plus some 56,000 Thais have been treated. No one pays; the nominal cost calculated by the abbot at US$10 per person for 10 days is covered entirely by donations. There have been reversions, a few deaths in terminal cases, smuggled drugs, violation of the treatment regimen, and suicides of those overcome by the prospect of coping without an escape from life’s realities. Yet for the great majority of his addicted countrymen, and some foreigners both of Buddhist and other faiths who will accept the vow of restraint, Phra CHAMROON offers release from drug enslavement.

In electing Phra CHAMROON PARNCHAND to receive the 1975 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his curing thousands of drug addicts with unorthodox yet efficacious herbal and spiritual treatment in his monastery.


Read by Udorn Yenrudi

Phra Chamroon Parnchand

It is my honour to deliver the response of Phra CHAMROON PARNCHAND to the recognition he has received from the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation as follows:

Some 20 years ago I committed myself to a religious vow not to use any vehicular transportation. This vow prevents me from being present at the Award Presentation Ceremonies on the 68th birth anniversary of the late President Ramon Magsaysay.

I want you to know, however, that the Magsaysay Award for Public Service has brought to prominent public attention the problem of drug addiction and particularly the treatment service avail able at our monastery, Wat Tham Krabok. During this past week since the announcement was carried in our mass media, addicts voluntarily coming to our monastery seeking liberation from the cursed enslavement to drugs has sharply increased to more than twice the usual number. This means that more and more victims who have been lost to drug addiction will have the opportunity to return to respected, useful new lives in the community. The monetary portion of the Award will serve a very important purpose for it is sufficient to care for about 1,000 addicts. The fortunate 1,000 who will benefit from the Ramon Magsaysay Award shall be the aged over 60 years old, the young under 16, students and women, regardless of faith, creed or nationality.

At the present rate of admission it is likely that the stipend will be expended within the next two months, less than the duration of the monsoon rains. Remembrance of your far searching Award, how ever, shall be perpetuated. At Wat Tham Krabok a spacious new building, attractively designed and now in the final phase of construction, is intended for treatment of drug addicts. At another historic Ramon Magsaysay Award Ceremony on September 6, 1975 it shall be named Gusaling Magsaysay (Magsaysay Pavilion). In this building the Public Service Award medal and certificate will be on display to inspire and remind: that for man, good deeds bring forth merits.

Note: In respect for the abbot’s vow not to travel in any type of vehicle, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, for the first time in the 17 years of its history, saw fit to hold a second presentation outside the Philippines. In a formal ceremony at Wat Tham Krabok on September 5, 1975 the Award was presented to Phra CHAMROON by the Philippine Ambassador, the Honourable Manuel T. Yan, with opening remarks by Dr. Dioscoro Umali, former chairman of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, and reading of the citation by Dr. Jose B. Abueva, a former trustee.



Phra (monk) CHAMROON PARNCHAND, abbot of Wat Tham Krabok, was born on April 1, 1926 in the village of Bangli in the Thawong District of Lop Bun Province, about 140 kilometres north of Bangkok,Thailand’s capital. He was the eldest son of seven children of Chamlong Parnchand, a moh yapanburan (practitioner of traditional herbal medicine) and Liam Macharoen. At age seven he was sent to live with his uncle Sook Parnchand, who kept an herbal medicine shop in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok. His first three years of primary schooling were taken at Wang Burapha in the capital city. When his father began working on a coastal vessel and the family moved to Thon Buri, across the Chao PhrayaRiver from Bangkok, he transferred to a wat (temple) school in that suburb. His secondary schooling was continued in Thon Bun at a wat and a private school. To earn money for tuition he sold candy to his classmates and after school hours helped row a ferry across the river. Luang Poh Chamroon Parnchand-02

Upon his graduation from high school (Mathayom 6) in 1943 he obtained a civil service position in the water supply division of the Ministry of the Interior but did not find this work satisfying. Two years later he entered the PoliceTraining School in Bangkok and after the brief course enlisted for active service as a constable. In 1948 he won the Police Department’s Outstanding Record Award for apprehending criminals, for which he received a citation, a cigarette case, and 150 baht which was equivalent to two and a half months pay. As a policeman, however, he found that his job and his conscience were often in conflict. The, police, he later said, would sometimes arrest an innocent man, if they could not find the guilty one, in order to please their superiors. Since he refused to do this he could foresee that a career as a policeman was not his true calling.

Decisive guidance was to come from his aunt, Mian, a Buddhist lay nun, there is no official Buddhist order of nuns, who had earned by her sanctity and prophetic powers the deference accorded monks and the title Luang Poh Yai (senior father). Earlier when CHAMROON had consulted her about an opium raid, she had said he would find the material but make no arrest. He subsequently located the opium, but when his back was turned it was stolen, depriving him of evidence for detaining the suspects. On another occasion when he was ordered to kill 30 communists, his aunt told him that killing was not the answer; he arrested them instead.

The mitigating aspect of police work for CHAMROON was the adventure. He enjoyed risking his life climbing high buildings and walking into danger, but he felt that he should have a charm for protection. He asked his aunt whether such a charm existed, and they went together to search for a quicksilver amulet which would provide the protective quality he wanted. Starting near Ayutthaya, the old capital, they went toward Lop Buri and came at night to a temple in which a ceremony was being performed. CHAMROON heard a voice ask, “do you want this charm or something better?” He chose “something better” and remembers that the place turned bright and he saw a vision of a monk going toward the north. He followed the apparition until it entered a temple and disappeared into a statue of the Buddha. Seeking the answer to his quest, he approached the statue and was inspired to say aloud to himself, “religion is the best solution.” A monk standing nearby told him not to bother with religion but to take instead the valuable relics buried in the chedis (spired towers) on the temple grounds. When he refused, the monk, in a changed manner, talked to him seriously. The monk’s admonition that nothing can be achieved if religious devotion becomes distracted by secular matters made him realize, CHAMROON relates, that work, duty, family and friends are of no importance to the truly religious. He heard in his mind the Buddha image saying: “The people of this earth everywhere have not paid respect to me properly.” CHAMROON understood this to mean that Buddhist adherents had been neglectful of their faith. He was further led to understand that religion for him was in three parts: the physical, represented by donning the saffron robe; the spiritual, manifested by a commitment to monkhood; and salvation, which required that worldly values be set aside and whatever one did must be for the final release of the spirit.

After this experience CHAMROON says that wherever he went he had no feeling of fear. He also came increasingly to feel a sense of destiny about becoming a monk, and a belief that by following that vocation he could accomplish any task he set for himself. His aunt encouraged him to study the dharma (Buddhist law) from which he “learned the truth of life and knew exactly what he would like to be for the remainder of his life.” He was ordained on July 19, 1953 at Wat Klong Mao Thamkosol in the Thawong District of  Lop Bun Province and given the monastic name SORAJKASSAPA.

Choosing to be a tudong monk, one who goes on pilgrimage during the dry season, in contrast to a contemplative monk who re mains in a monastery, Phra CHAMROON during his first five years of monkhood (1953-1957) walked in west, north and north-eastern Thailand and in Cambodia. Sometimes in company with as many as 37 other monks he tested himself in the jungle, subsisting on what he could find that herbivorous animals and birds ate, believing that since he was a human being and a monk he should be better able to fend for himself than the wild life around him.

Phra CHAMROON’s new life presented other challenges. His travelling around the country on foot, for no apparent reason, caused the police in one locality in 1954 to suspect him and his companions of subversive activity and to detain them for three months.

In 1957 near Saraburi, 132 kilometres northeast of Bangkok,  Phra CHAMROON, his revered aunt and his younger brother (Phra CHAROEN), who had also become a monk, came to limestone cliffs with caves which offered attractive shelter. They had travelled much and wanted a place where they would not bother people and could meditate. Nine other monks joined them in their retreat. In his private soul-searching Phra CHAMROON meanwhile questioned whether the 227 rules for the sangha (Buddhist monkhood) were enough and concluded that they were not sufficient for people who were not purified. His aunt suggested nine more prescriptions which Phra CHAMROON readily accepted. As the leader of the group, and now abbot of Wat Tham Krabok (Temple of the BambooCave) as they named their sanctuary, he ruled that all monks who came there to stay must accept these nine further prescriptions:

  1. The duration of monkhood must be fixed (in Thailand it has been customary for young men to enter the priesthood for brief lengths of time); in Phra CHAMROON’S case it is for life.
  2. Only one meal a day may be taken, and that before noon, and only water or unsweetened tea thereafter until sunrise the following day.
  3. Monks may use no vehicle of any kind.
  4. No money may be accepted; monetary gifts must be placed on the floor and taken by a lay person and used for the wat.
  5. No gifts may be accepted that are unseemly; gifts must be for services rendered and must serve the purposes of the group as a whole.
  6. Each Person must stay with the group and go no place alone.
  7. Decisions must be arrived at by consensus and must be strictly observed; no one may take independent action.
  8. Loyalty to the Buddhist faith and to the ideal of a virtuous life must be absolute, for which constant cleansing of impurities is required.
  9. Meditation for the period of one incense stick, or discussion of the dharma with others for a fixed period, must be practiced daily.

Phra CHAMROON and his companions developed a liking for the jungle-covered limestone mountains with their cool caves. Secluded from any village, the location was ideal as an interim shelter for tudong monks, but the place lacked water. This condition deterred them from building until one day the Luang Poh Yai announced that this was no problem and instructed the monks to dig. As they prepared to follow her order she told them to cut into the cliff at a specific spot. They thought she was foolish but they obeyed and began on April 5, 1959 to dig where she had indicated. Each day the nun sat watching until, as she had predicted, they found a subterranean waterway.

That same year an old man came asking for a cure for opium addiction. Lacking knowledge of any cure, the monks nonetheless improvised. The old man took sajja (a sacred vow) before the image of the Buddha, and CHAMROON handed him one bud from the cluster of lotus buds traditionally placed before the alter saying “The lotus is a sacred flower. Whenever you want to take opium chew on a lotus bud instead.’ Finding in succeeding days that the treatment had given him complete release from his addiction, the old man quickly told others of this miracle. Between 1959 and 1961’ over 10,000 addicts came to the wat and Phra CHAMROON and his associates continued to use primarily the sajja and lotus bud to treat them. Many returned to give thanks for their “cure.”

On establishing Wat Tham Krabok Phra CHAMROON had originally thought only of creating a shelter for monks. His own goal was to “help people understand the truth of life, disseminate the dharma of Buddha with emphasis on the sajja and seek an appropriate model in approaching the religious way of life.” The Luang Poh Yai, however, told her nephews that the country was facing serious difficulties and they should each choose a problem to address. Phra CHAMROON chose drug addiction. His brother (Phra CHAROEN) chose illiteracy among the poor, and after their aunt died in March 1970 (her body is enshrined in a coffin in a special room at the wat) he left the monastery to make his headquarters at Lam Narai, about 70 kilometres east of Saraburi, to pursue a program of establishing schools for underprivileged children.

In 1959, when Phra CHAMROON first began to deal with addiction, opium had already been banned in Thailand for five years. The law was not enforced, however, until Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat assumed power in late 1958, primarily because of the involvement of senior government and police officials in the opium trade.

When Thailand outlawed the use of opium in 1954 there were an estimated 72,000 addicts, mostly men, middle-aged and older. By 1975, the government estimated, some 400,000 persons were addicted to drugs, ranging from marijuana to heroin. Most of them were young men between the ages of 14 and 24 and, during the 1960s, from the labouring class. However, more and more students from well- to-do and aristocratic families are becoming addicted and a large number of Phra CHAMROON’s patients today come from the upper echelons of society.

Three reasons for this quantum leap in drug addiction in Thailand stand out: the dramatic worldwide upswing in drug use, the ready availability in Thailand of opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin, and thus their cheap price; and the pressures of modern life.

For centuries opium has been grown in the “golden triangle,” so-called for the “yellow-gold” profit of the “black-gold” opium derived from the poppies that dot the rugged mountain terrain in the north where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Opium has traditionally been the cash crop because little else will grow in the rocky soil on handkerchief-sized plots. Moreover, opium poppies require intensive labour only when harvested, which is after the flowers have fallen. At that time the pods are slashed and a sticky white substance, which quickly turns brown or black, is gathered. Most of the crop is grown in Burma and smuggled into Thailand.

The problem of opium growing and selling was containable until the early 1950s. At that time the Chinese Communists successfully conquered YunnanProvince in southern China and remnants of the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) army fled into the triangle. Selling their weapons to dissident Burmese tribesmen, they eventually settled down to raise poppies or to set up as shopkeepers or middlemen in the opium trade. Official reports state that today both Burmese insurgents and Chinese communists seeking to overthrow the Burmese government, who finance themselves through the drug trade, and former Chinese nationalists, who are making a tidy profit, smuggle opium into Thailand and through their confederates move it to markets throughout Southeast Asia and the West.

A new factor entered into the trade in the early 1960s. Since opium has a strong, easily identifiable odour and is bulky, it began being reduced into morphine and the more highly refined heroin. These lack odour and are less bulky (ten pounds of opium reduces one pound of heroin and are therefore more easily portable. As much as 700 tons of heroin comes out of the triangle through Thailand yearly. As a result it is both readily and inexpensively available.

The pressures of modern life and rapid change are particularly evident in urban areas like Bangkok, which is an overcrowded “modern city” with a pace unknown a few decades earlier. Many young men, insecure, often unable to find a job in a society where 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15, estranged from traditional values and accepting peer values instead, have turned to drugs. Their choice is usually heroin; only the old smoke opium. The police in both Malaysia and Thailand also report that the communists in Southeast Asia are actively pushing drugs, both as a means of acquiring funds and of demoralizing “bourgeois’ societies. Cited as an example arc the actions of the communist government of Laos which, when it came to power in August 1975, legalized and encouraged the growth of opium poppies in the triangle.

By mid-1961 Phra CHAMROON was ready to begin treating in a more organized way the addicts who came to Tham Krabok seeking a cure. The wat still offered for shelter only caves and a few crude wooden sheds, but much of the 10-day regimen he had worked out required minimal physical accommodation.

Phra CHAMROON realized from the outset that the lotus bud treatment was inadequate and discussed the problem with his aunt who developed a non-traditional herbal medication. Between 1959 and 1961 he had tested various mixtures on a few patients and had arrived at a decoction, the ingredients of which were chosen from among 100 herbs and barks, depending upon the availability of particular ingredients at a given time. It is this emetic medication, with modifications he has made over the years, that is given to addicts at the temple today. Though a trusted assistant at the wat supervises the preparation and brewing of the decoction only Phra CHAMROON knows the exact formula, because he does not want the medicine to become commercialized lest it be abused in unprincipled hands and its ingredients become more costly.

Phra CHAMROON also carefully thought out the schedule he would insist upon for his fellow monks. The wat would be closed and only caretakers would remain during the tudong which would involve roughly two months each year, depending upon the distance to be walked. The tudong would allow the monks to find quietude and to collect herbs in some localities and to discuss the dharma in others. Ten months were to be given over to treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts. Though admission of addicts was regularized in 1961 in terms of acceptance days and period of treatment, it was not until 1963 that admittance forms were introduced. By then, 7,000 patients a year were being treated for addiction, primarily for heroin, some for morphine and a very few still for opium.

An incident that occurred in 1961 had important repercussions for Phra CHAMROON’S work with drug addicts. In February of that year the abbot and his companions, who had by then increased from 11 to 67, were in Bangkok on tudong when a riot broke out at the penitentiary near Don Muang airport. The Chief of Police had asked monks to go into the jail to preach to the unruly prisoners, but none had been willing to do so. Hearing of this unanswered appeal Phra CHAMROON, with one companion, walked out from the city and entered the institution. By his account he went straight to the leader of the troublemakers, asked him and his fellow rioters to accept sajja and “talked reason into them.” The press heard what happened and printed the story.

On a second tudong the monks revisited the penitentiary and then continued into Bangkok where they put down their umbrellas on the lawn in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many people came to discuss dharma with them, but word was spread that the monks were there to create trouble; Phra CHAMROON assumes this was done by some policemen who had taken offence when the monks had refused to accept train fare after their first prison visit, insisting on keeping their vow and walking back to Saraburi. The Religious Department reported the story to Prime Minister Sarit who, in his function as Police Chief, ordered their arrest. Sarit then learned from his own agent, whom he sent to mix with the monks in their cell at Crime Suppression Headquarters, that they were not subversive, but devout men who ate only one meal a day and spent most of their time talking religion. Angry that he had received a false report from the ecclesiastical council, Sarit ordered their release after six days and the monks walked back to Saraburi.

Soon afterward Sarit received reports that some drug addicts had gone to Wat Tham Krabok for a cure that seemed successful. Remembering this group of monks from the false arrest incident, he ordered Air Marshal Dawee Chullasapya, then chief of the National Security Council, to ascertain whether the reports were true. Dawee sent his own younger brother, who was an opium addict, to Tham Krabok to seek treatment. When his brother did not return Dawee learned that after his cure he had asked to be ordained and remain at the wat. This was reported to Sarit who then instructed Dawee to divert 400,000 baht (about US$20,000) from the secret service fund to build a decent shelter at Tham Krabok. Thirty rai (4.85 hectares) were purchased and a long building, to be used as the main dormitory, was constructed. Dawee assigned Air Marshal Prasit Sukrapaed, pay master of the air force, to oversee the construction and look after the wat. Dawee himself made a gift of land, and since the death of Sarit in 1964, has maintained an informal but still close interest in Tham Krabok.

Phra CHAMROON’S own reputation for rare powers of perception and prophecy has been financially beneficial to the monastery. Today many come to him for business advice, and a main source of the wat income is the share of profits that they give in thanks. For example, among those coming for advice was a contractor who asked whether he should participate in a road construction bid. Phra CHAMROON advised him to do so, gave his blessing and chose the cost figure he should submit. The contractor won the tender and donated a part of his profit to build a fairly good, unpaved road about one kilometre long to link the temple grounds with the main northeast highway.

By 1975 a total of about 120 rai had been donated to the wat. The land not used for the monastery buildings and treatment area is planted in rice, corn, vegetables, peanuts, fruit trees (mango, coconut, banana, guava, jackfruit, tamarind, custard apple, papaya) and herbs.

The treatment facilities at the monastery are still simple, consisting of a roofed area provided with a few wooden benches and tables for the reception of patients, a small plain open hall used as the shrine where the vows are taken and, until recently, the single hall for the patients’ living quarters, which was meant to sleep 200 but often slept more. Now a new building, named the Gusaling Magsaysay (Magsaysay Pavilion) in honour of Ramon Magsaysay and the Award Foundation, has been completed that enables the wat to accommodate 400 patients comfortably.

Besides the 250-400 patients there are about 100 monks living at the monastery. Of the latter, four are mainstays, Abbot CHAMROON, the registrar, the supervisor of the treatment-medicine and the general supervisor. An average of 12 others actively take care of the patients. These rotate with the remainder who spend the days in meditation collecting herbs or working on crops. At any time an average of 40 percent of the monks are former patients who were ordained after treatment and remain at Tham Krabok for varying periods of time Although the patient turnover rate indicates a substantial work load, management of the treatment continues to be carried out by the monks, not by hired help. The temple reports that active assistance of willing patients and public volunteers, sometimes university students, keeps daily chores running smoothly.

The treatment that Phra CHAMROON and his aunt devised for drug addicts is divided into two complementary components: spiritual and physical. The spiritual side involves taking sajja never to touch narcotics again. Sajja is a Pali word found in Buddhist texts which has the broad meaning of embracing truth, loyalty, purity and honesty. All agree that sajja is the most effective part of the treatment but the most difficult: the patient has to keep it for the rest of his life. The physical element is the painful part of the treatment. It basically involves quitting the drug habit “cold-turkey,” i.e. stopping drugs abruptly with no substitute offered to aid in the withdrawal.

Upon arrival at the retreat each patient meets with CHAMROON and is asked if he came voluntarily and if he truly wants to give up drugs.  If he hesitates or answers no to either question, he is sent away and told to return when he is serious. CHAMROON knows that the will to quit is essential to successful treatment.

If he is accepted the patient is required to turn over to the monks for safekeeping all of his belongings except his toiletries, and a blanket if he brought one. If he did not, a blanket, mat and pillow are furnished him. He is then carefully searched for drugs and warned against their use during treatment because drugs combined with the herbal medicine used in the treatment can prove fatal.

No one pays. Funds to cover the costs which CHAMROON calculates at US$10 per person for a 10 day stay and all expenses—housing, food, cigarettes and treatment—come from donations. The amount is very little. As CHAMROON says, “it took so much money to raise a person from birth to 20 years of age, but if he becomes an addict, it takes only 10 dollars more to bring him back to life.”

Patients next take sajja, vowing never to touch drugs again or encourage others to do so. They repeat the vow first as a group then individually, and again as a group. If they are non-Buddhist they take their vows in terms of their own religious beliefs. After a lecture from a senior priest on the dangers of drugs and the value of leading a good life, addicts are sent to put on the patients’ uniforms of white T-shirts with religious slogans on the back, and loose red trousers. They then gather in the vomiting area to take their first of five herbal treatments.

In the courtyard spittoons with water bowls on top are arranged around a concrete lotus-shaped pool, one set for each patient. The vile smelling and tasting herbal medication devised by his aunt and refined by Phra CHAMROON is ladled out, 25 to 30 c.c. per person, to be drunk and followed instantly by cup after cup of water. Vomiting begins immediately; if a patient fails to drink water he suffers severe abdominal cramps. During the prolonged, debilitating and unpleasant experience the patients receive much moral support from those who have already completed the treatment. The young men cheer their comrades with songs and jokes and play musical instruments “in tempo with the intensity of the vomiting.” Despite the acute discomfort of the vomiters, “the atmosphere is not unlike a cheerful game at a temple festival.” This peer support is actively encouraged.

Phra CHAMROON claims the vomiting treatment has several important psychological and physical effects. Nausea is a prime symptom of drug withdrawal, the symptom, he says, that is consistently feared by incoming patients. Overcoming nausea by causing severe vomiting is part of the treatment and makes a deep impression on the patient. First, it gives him the feeling of having been effectively purged of all the narcotics. Second, Phra CHAMROON says, “severe vomiting masks over the abstinence syndrome, so most patients tolerate and forget about withdrawal symptoms.” Third, it causes physical weakness, allowing the patients to sleep well without the use of sedatives. Fourth, it is perceived as a kind of “punishment” and is expected to have a chastening effect that would prevent an ex-addict from relapsing into his old habit.

During the afternoon the patients are required to take herbal steam baths for 10-15 minutes. This relaxes them and prevents muscle spasms. Regular herbal baths are also an important part of the cure; the medication makes patients feel very hot and they must bathe to cool themselves gradually. Water for the baths is plentiful since grateful patients, or their equally grateful relatives, have dug two artesian wells for the monastery. The cost of heating the water, however, is a major expense as diesel fuel is used.

On the second morning the patient is issued a medicine card which is collected at the vomiting area. This is to ensure that all are present. If a patient is missing the monks send out temple helpers to look for him. The red garment is an immediate identification and an escapee is often returned by villagers. The critical time, Phra CHAMROON has found, is the 36th hour (the second night after admission) when many patients decide to leave the temple, but few get as far as the road which is some distance away; memory of their vow and knowledge that they are without money and branded by their uniforms most often bring them back voluntarily. The crisis passes and between the 40th and 48th hours patients “start to get cured,” the abbot reports.

On the third day the patients usually awaken early and, though hungry, cannot eat until after the vomiting session. Although the sense of hunger persists, they customarily find they cannot eat as much as they are served. After the fourth day of medication and baths, the patients have their hair cut by a priest. A symbol of being well kempt and in charge of their lives again, the haircut improves their self-images. The fifth day of medication is their last. By this time patients usually feel fit and hungry and eat twice as much as normal. As one young man said:

“By the fifth day you feel on top of the world. Your system is by that time completely cleaned out; there is no poison from the drug left in you at all. Then you eat and eat and eat for the next five days, and the food here is good. You can actually see yourself and others putting on weight.”

The second five days are days of recuperation. The patients are euphoric, knowing that they are off drugs and feeling no longing. The food is nutritious, well prepared and plentiful; and the continued herbal bathing relaxes them and helps them sleep. In the evening after dinner a priest may give a discourse on Buddhist doctrine or sometimes patients submit their problems as a subject for discussion. This religious session is conducted informally and attendance is left to the individual, although all are encouraged to attend.

Patients have no responsibilities until the day they leave when they are required to clean the dormitory. After the fifth and last day of medication, however, the abbot encourages those who feel physically strong enough, to help in the daily chores, assist in the treatment session for the newcomers or take part in the farm work; many offer to participate in these ways voluntarily. Observers have noted that among this lot of young social misfits and troublemakers, many of whom have criminal records, there is little quarrelling despite the very crowded conditions sometimes existing in the dormitories. It is almost unheard of for anyone to fight. Perhaps it is as a monk said, when asked about the possibility that snakes on the mountain might bite them when they are herb gathering, “they wouldn’t dare.”

The morning of the 10th day, after a final sermon given by a monk, the patients are free to leave. About 20 percent seek to stay on, at least for awhile, helping with patients or working on the monastery’s farm. From this group come the 40 percent of monks who are themselves ex-addicts. Of those who leave, many fear going back to their old surroundings, their old gang; a number move to other parts of the country. However the problem is that over one-third of Tham Krabok’s patients have no work training or are day labourers. The situations they go to may be little better than those which they left, although drugs may be less readily available. For these ex-patients Phra CHAMROON hopes soon to have, at another location, a rehabilitation centre where they can be trained to grow crops, make simple clothing and do other useful work and can be counselled. Meanwhile, private organizations, such as the National Council of Social Welfare of Thailand which is under the patronage of the king, have contributed toward the cost of a building being constructed at Tham Krabok for the rudimentary rehabilitation program Phra CHAMROON has begun there.

About half the patients who come to Wat Tham Krabok have already gone through the government hospital detoxification centre, some several times. There they are given methadone to help them during the withdrawal period, so their physical discomfort is far less severe. Many however refuse to stay the required 45 days, complaining of the food and rude treatment by the staff; they usually fail to return after their home visit at the end of the first week. If they do not complete their treatment they cannot re-enter the hospital for four months. With this exception, however, they can re-enter as often as they desire.

At Tham Krabok, once patients have completed their treatment they cannot return if they go back to drugs. They have broken their vow and the vow is the most essential part of the treatment. If they break it once they are almost certain to break it again. As Phra CHAMROON says, Wat Tham Krabok seeks only to cure the curable. The patients know this and the same addicts who boast how they have used the government hospital to rest up, believe that they will be permanently cured at Tham Krabok. “You know in your own heart as you make this vow that if you don’t guard this truth, you’re dead or as good as,” one ex-patient said. And he claims to have seen it happen, noting that those who don’t keep their vow “either get run over, or go insane or commit suicide.” Patients also exclaim about the good treatment they get at the wat, about the gentle caring patience of the monks and, almost unfailingly, about the quality of the food.

Of the patients who have come to Tham Krabok, about 60 per cent initially were from Bangkok and the rest mainly from provincial cities throughout the country, but in recent years this ratio has been reversed with only 40 percent coming from the capital today. A small number have come from 18 foreign countries, from Europe, the United States,Australia and Asia. In 1976 some 80 percent of the cases treated are for heroin addiction; the remainder are for marijuana, morphine, barbiturate, methadone and opium. Women, whose numbers fluctuate between one and five percent of the patients, are chiefly seeking to rid themselves of reliance on sleeping pills (barbiturates) which have made them shaky and nervous. Of the males 70 percent are between 14 and 25 years of age and about one-third are students. Recently an entire family sought admission, the first such instance. The baby had become addicted from its mother’s milk.

According to a report from Tham Krabok one-third of the young adult heroin users from the urban areas exhibit a pattern of unstable socioeconomic traits, such as a high unemployment rate, and have admitted to engaging in illegal activities to support their habit for which the average expenditure is about US$2.70 per day. This group is in sharp contrast to opium users who were the original patients at Tham Krabok and now are very few. The latter come primarily from the northern hill tribes and approximately 80 percent of them are above 30 years of age. Virtually all of them, the report continues, are fully employed in various occupations pertinent to rural areas, self-reported illegal activity is negligible. The money spent on opium smoking averages US$.75 per day.

The two questions most frequently raised about Phra CHAMROON’S cure, from the professional viewpoint, are whether Wat Tham Krabok is actually curing addicts, or like so many institutions both in Thailand and elsewhere, government and private, running them through a treatment centre from which they return shortly to the old ways; and whether the treatment is scientific.

Worldwide, drug addiction has a very low rate of cure. Under other treatment methods perhaps 98 percent of those who quit “cold turkey” return to drugs because the situations they go back to have not changed. However a motivational cure, as offered at Tham Krabok, has a higher success rate, at least temporarily, especially if the ex-addicts believe in a social or religious cause. As an American doctor in Thailand working with addicts explained: “So long as they believe in that cause, and so long as they have a community of fellow cured addicts to support them, the success rate is very high.. . . Once they leave these communities though, whether the communities be in Thailand or America, the cause evaporates, and the cured patient almost inevitably returns to his addiction.”

In the early years records at Tham Krabok were destroyed when the patient left the monastery in order to protect him from possible police action since many had criminal records; most follow-up knowledge of such patients has come by word of mouth from new applicants who came because they say they saw their comrades cured. Later, in response to requests from government authorities and others for statistics on the Tham Krabok treatment, Phra CHAMROON introduced a more complete questionnaire for registering patients so that follow-up is easier. Not only the names and addresses of family or relatives are requested, but also those of close friends through whom the patient might later be reached or who can report on the patient’s condition. A six month, and then a yearly, follow-up is now standard procedure. There has been a 50 percent response to the letters and postcards sent out by the monastery. These responses indicate that only about 30 percent of the patients have returned to drugs; most of them are in Bangkok where drugs are readily available. “Patients most likely to remain cured are those with families and jobs,” Phra CHAMROON comments.

On the basis of his experience with some 57,000 addicts treated at Tham Krabok between 1964, when the program really got under way, and 1975, Phra CHAMROON classifies 60 percent as relatively easy cases and 40 percent as difficult ones. He has found that 10 percent of the patients are, in effect, cured simply by the fact of their arrival at the wat; psychologically they have already rejected the use of drugs and are determined physically to do so. This group is from the 35 percent who are students and the 30 percent who are in the professions. The remaining 35 percent, those without steady means of livelihood and often lawbreakers, are the ones most apt to revert.

In 1971 American medical personnel conducted a study of 1,250 Laotian addicts sent to Wat Tham Krabok during the late 1960s under the financial auspices of the U.S. government and the supervision of the Laotian Ministry of Social Affairs. Their opinion was that ‘‘this program is effective and should continue to be supported.” The follow-up evaluation at six months indicated “reasonably good success.”

The program was discontinued only when the communist Pathet Lao government came into power in August 1975 and declared drug control to be “the criminal evidence of U.S. imperialistic invasion in Laos.” Even medical practitioners, such as Dr. Aroon Shaowanassi, chief of psychiatric services at the army hospital in Bangkok, who were not convinced that the permanent cure rate was as high as Phra CHAMROON believed, readily agreed that “neither the Army General Hospital nor any other drug rehabilitation centre is more successful than Wat Tham Krabok in curing addicts.” Supporting Phra CHAMROON’s own findings are the testimonies he has received from a number of Thai physicians reporting a cure rate of 60 to 80 percent among their own patients after treatment at Tham Krabok.

Another indication that the Tham Krabok treatment is effective is that certain “businessmen”, presumably engaged in, or benefiting from, the drug trade, have offered Phra CHAMROON money to cease his treatment of addicts and indirectly threatened him.

The consensus among professionals concerned with narcotics addiction, both doctors and control officers, is that a cure cannot be considered complete until the former addict has remained off drugs for 11 to 12 years. Records are not yet available at Tham Krabok to satisfy this criterion.

As to whether the treatment is “scientific,” Thai government medical officials have reported that “all phases of the treatment program are in detail similar to modern medicine schedules” and reflect a “good understanding in applied methodology.” Both aspects of the physical treatment, induced vomiting and steam baths, are considered to have valid psychological and physical effects. On the other hand, the “non-scientific” motivational impact of the sacred vow cannot be underestimated.

Phra CHAMROON and others familiar with the work at Tham Krabok point out that the situation there is different from that found elsewhere; the treatment is administered by Buddhist monks in a monastery in a predominantly Buddhist country. The monks are dealing with a people whose beliefs are based on animism, spirits and the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation which condemns one to a lesser condition in the next life for wrongdoing in this, without the possibility of acquiring forgiveness or grace at the last minute. On the other hand, if one’s good is greater than one’s evil, by even one day, the next life will be better. The Tham Krabok monks seek to convince the addict that he can not only improve this life but his future lives as well. And as Phra CHAMROON says, “the patient calls upon the spirits within himself to witness his own vow. Whether he interprets these spirits as something outside himself or his own ‘soul’ depends on his education or sophistication. But because he knows that something terrible would happen to him if he ever returned to drugs and went back on his vow, he [has strong motivation] never to take drugs again.”

The police colonel in charge of the National Narcotics Suppression Centre confirmed this attitude saying that Tham Krabok patients “invite condemnation by all the spirits of their religion if they break their promise, and most of them really believe it will happen.” Thus the question of whether the treatment is scientific or not is basically irrelevant; the significant factor is that the patients believe in it. And as even well qualified doctors admit, medicine is more art than science. Non-Buddhist patients who have been sent by U.S. medical authorities, and whose relationship to the U.S. government was unknown to Phra CHAMROON, have reported the same confidence and assurance as Thai Buddhists concerning their cure possibilities.

Over the years Phra CHAMROON has faced criticism and suspicion on religious and political, as well as medical grounds. The religious criticism arose because many Thais feel a monk should neither work nor involve himself with the problems of others. Phra CHAMROON answers that criticism by posing this situation: “As a monk you are strictly forbidden to touch a woman, yet a fire rages in a building and a woman is screaming from the window; do you ignore her?” People who come to the wat, he says, “need my help for there is no place else that can help them, so I try my best. . . I have no other choice but to act as I do.”

On the political side, in addition to the arrests in 1954 and 1961, a similar misunderstanding of their walking pilgrimage arose in 1964 when Phra CHAMROON and other priests were on tudong near the Cambodian border. Local villagers suspected the healthy-looking monks of being bandits in disguise and poisoned their tea. The priests’ knowledge of herbs enabled them to detect the poison and save themselves.

Government ministries have hesitated to support Phra CHAMROON openly because, as the Police Narcotics Suppression Control Centre commander explains, “what he is doing is good but actually illegal. He is not a doctor and there is no doctor in charge of the operations at the wat. If we acknowledge him we might have to arrest him and we don’t want to do that. He is helping a lot of people.” On the other hand, if the government were to make an exception and allow Phra CHAMROON to practice without a medical degree or without strong proof of cures, it would open itself to pressure to allow all “healing monks” to practice freely, and many of them are frauds.

Phra CHAMROON himself is wary about qualifying for regular government aid for different reasons. He would be able to care for more people, but at the cost of government regulations and paper work which could be restrictive and time-consuming. A greater problem would be having records available to persons outside Tham Krabok; this could discourage addicts from seeking aid for fear the police would find them or their treatment would become known and used to their disadvantage. The latter would apply particularly to upper-class students and businessmen.

Nevertheless in the period 1961 to 1974 some 18 percent of Wat Tham Krabok’s financial support (which totalled US$400,000) came both officially and unofficially from the Thai government. The first official donation came on instructions from Prime Minister Sarit in 1961. Recently the government lottery board made an “anonymous” donation of US$5,000 to the Magsaysay Pavilion. The other 82 percent has come from private donations, including contributions from former patients or their families and now Phra CHAMROON’S own donation of the US$10,000 Ramon Magsaysay Award money. Among private supporters one of the most active has been Mrs. Josephine Stanton, widow of an American ambassador to Thailand who has “begged, badgered, nagged and finally enlisted Thai and foreign VIPs to contribute to the Wat Tham Krabok Foundation.” Some of the Thai contributors have been the President of the World Council of Buddhists; the Minister of Defence who has been a long-time supporter, the Deputy Minister of the Interior and the wife of the Deputy Director of Public Welfare.

The monastery also helps alcoholics in its drug addiction program, and treats others who come seeking cures for everything from colds to strokes. Treated, but not encouraged to come, the latter are permitted to camp out in monastery shelters, given blankets and mats, and allowed to take the herbal steam baths.

Phra CHAMROON, who is tall, physically powerful, with great presence and, as some observers have noted, seemingly able to fathom one’s psyche, expresses his satisfaction with the life work he has under taken. “When I was a policeman my only power was within the law and I only saw the people who did wrong. Now with the power of a monk I have a wider and greater power; I can teach people to learn the right way themselves, through their own minds.” This is essentially the doctrine of the Buddha.

April 1976



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_________ “Undercover Agent Turned Reformer.” N.d. (Typewritten.)

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Letters from and interviews with those knowledgeable about the work being done by Phra Chamroon Parnchand; visit to Wat Tham Krabok and interview with Phra Chamroon.