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With a little help from Thai friends

Posted on 28 July 2010 by Joel Quenby

Cynics may deem it a desperate measure to combat dwindling tourism, but Thailand should be commended for promoting its emerging drug rehabilitation sector

By Joel Quenby

Landscaped gardens at Channah Thailand, Kanchanaburi province

Landscaped gardens at Channah Thailand, Kanchanaburi province

“Go Cold Turkey in Thailand!”—as the official slogan presumably won’t go. Admittedly, such a catchphrase would be a far cry from the usual tourist-board platitudes (excluding Australia’s inspired “So Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign, naturally). “Rehab tourism,” though, is a logical extension of therapies already offered by Thailand’s acclaimed surgery and spa industries, which already draw growing numbers of medical tourists.


"They tried to make me go to rehab, I said: Yes, please!" Channah's poolside guest villas

Spearheading the Thai rehab revolution are two upscale detoxification resortsChanna, located by the River Kwai, and Breathing Space, in the Chiang Mai mountains. Both are picturesque, secluded and decked out with designer on-site spa and fitness facilities.

Channa’s pampered “guests” stay in plush bungalows with private verandas, home cinemas and a maid service. Treatment-wise, they are offered a newfangled 28-day regime of psychotherapy, fitness coaching, counseling and group work—at less than half the price of a week at Britain’s celebrity recovery center, The Priory.

Channa boasts a 92 percent program completion rate, which is, “Among the very best results for any clinic in the world,” says the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Breathing Space, meanwhile, bases its treatments on the standard 12-step program practiced worldwide in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Somehow one imagines that celebrity posterboys/girls will be in short supply for this campaign. One person who definitely won’t be promoting it is disheveled Brit-rocker, the Libertines’ Pete Doherty.

At the height of his junkie shambling, Kate Moss’s ex was sent to Wat Thamkrabok temple in central Thailand in 2004 (by none other than Eastenders’ Dot Cotton or her doppelganger, actress June Brown, whose godson has been hooked on crack).

The Spartan Buddhist way station is reputedly the world’s toughest clinic. The grueling treatments dished out include medieval beatings with a bamboo cane and being force-fed a black concoction of herbs that induces all-day vomiting marathons to purge impurities. (Spectacular displays of projectile spewing draws clapping from spectators invited in to witness the wretched addicts grappling their demons in public “vomit shows.” Not so much kicking you while you’re down, as applauding.)

It may sound comparable to Guantànamo—guests are even accommodated in a communal septic tank (okay, I made that one up)—but, incredibly, almost 70 percent of the tens of thousands of troubled people treated at the temple since 1958 have managed to stay drug-free, according to one Australian study.

Flunked relinquishing junk: Pete Doherty

Flunked relinquishing junk: Pete Doherty

But it’s clearly a hardcore regime; a far, anguished cry from mollycoddling, celeb-friendly detox haunts. Predictably, lily-livered Doherty lasted just three days (before legging it back to heroin-induced oblivion).

“The singer seemed unwilling or unable to let go of his dark side,” Phra Hans, a Swiss spiritual counselor at Thamkrabok, told The Independent.

However, bearing testament to the medical establishment’s faith in Thai-style detox—and, if accurate, the temple’s astonishing success rate should speak for itself—the U.K.’s National Health Service sends selected patients to Thamkrabok.

It makes sense to me. Who would not prefer to “go tropical”—preferably in five-star style—for their discreet cleanup? It beats trembling it out in some dingy motel, stark detox clinic or damp rehab hideaway any day.

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Amy Ma

Food & Drink + Hong Kong

Amy is a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal amongst other publications. [...]

Pua Mench

Hong Kong

Pua is a writing and traveling enthusiast based in Hong Kong, with a weakness for all things related to the culinary arts and healing modalities, and a passion for sustainable living. [...]

Kim Inglis

Wellness Spa

Kim has been an editor and journalist for over 20 years, more than half of which has been spent in Asia. [...]

Nellie Huang

Travel Adventures + Singapore

Nellie has been published in Food & Travel magazine and Lifestyle, and is a contributing author of V!VA's Guatemala Guidebook. She writes to travel, and travels to write. [...]

Sarah Jane Evans

Travel Adventures + Borneo

She has published travel articles in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in publications including: Vacations and Travel magazine... [...]

Carrie Kellenberger

Photo Blog + Taiwan

She has traveled throughout Asia, finding work as a writer, editor, educator, voice over artist, photographer, and nightclub singer. [...]

Mark Lean

Kuala Lumpur

From writing about music, Mark expanded his focus to design, fashion, food and travel. In recent years, he has explored the highs and lows of Asia. [...]

Joel Quenby

Entertainment + Asia News

Joel is a British writer and journalist who's lived, worked and traveled in Southeast Asia since 2002. He's filed yarns for numerous publications...[...]

Alex Gunn

Chiang Mai

After several diverse careers as a circus performer, school teacher, psychotherapist, stunt pilot and university lecturer he can now be found poking about far flung markets, museums, restaurants and odd places in and around Chiang Mai.. [...]