Inside Bangkok’s only Buddhist rehab temple

Inside Bangkok’s only Buddhist rehab temple

Based in Bangkok's most notorious slum, Wat Saphan aims to cure methamphetamine junkies of their addictions
Wat Saphan
In the early evening, a robed monk leads 10 inmates in prayer in a tiny, narrow, well-worn temple next to Wat Saphan's kitchen.
Buddhist men addicted to methamphetamine have an unusual opportunity to kick their habit by living in a temple among robed monks who teach them how to stop craving drugs. A handful of unobtrusive police officers, wearing casual clothes, mingle alongside female kitchen staff in the temple's minimum-security setting of spacious prayer halls, simple shrines, a glistening dormitory and an outdoor exercise yard. 

Wat SaphanSophon Pattananusit, the "phra kru" or abbot of Wat Saphan."We have been assisting these people for about six years at this temple," says Sophon Pattananusit, 55, the "phra kru" or abbot of Wat Saphan in Bangkok's notorious Klong Toey slum, which forms a dilapidated maze along the Chao Phraya River's dockyards.

"Each year, about 300 people who want to end their addiction to methamphetamines come here. Their ages range from 18 to 60 years old," Sophon adds, during an interview in the temple. 

"Men only. And only Thais addicted to methamphetamines. No heroin addicts, or people who use marijuana or alcohol. We decided to concentrate on amphetamine users because in this slum, methamphetamines are very popular and it is one of their biggest problems. Buddhism can change them, because it can change their ideas and their way of thinking."

Taking the mind off the distraction

Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not center around a god and instead advises people to take control of their thoughts and behavior through psychological techniques, including meditation and a focus on cause and effect. 

Wat SaphanA Buddhist illustration on the lecture hall's wall.

A person's mental and physical addiction to illegal speed pills -- and all other desires -- are deemed distractions, illusions and unnecessary suffering, to be abandoned in exchange for inner calm, concentration, insight and bliss.

"I teach them about Buddha and dhamma," Sophon says, using the Thai pronunciation of the Sanskrit word "dharma" which can describe Buddhism's basic decrees. 

An alternative to prison

The inmates are petty methamphetamine users from Klong Toey and elsewhere in Bangkok, sentenced by a court to free rehab at the temple, plus several months of probation, instead of prison.

"About 100 people at a time attend our Buddhism classes. The course takes two months. About 30 percent of the addicts go back to drugs, compared to about 30 percent who show some improvement and get stronger. The other 30 percent seem to be cured completely," he says. 

Wat SaphanA monk inspects the dormitory where inmates sleep on the floor, cushioned by simple straw mats. Windows and doors include thin bars, and an adjoining room allows a supervisor to keep watch."Some addicts become monks, but this is not the purpose of our program. We are not doing this to make them into monks, we are doing this to help them return to live with their families and not be addicted.

"But every year, more than 10 former addicts become monks, and some of them are still here at this temple. Others have gone away to other temples." 

One such monk is Phra Chatsiam, 32.

"I was a methamphetamine addict for about three or four years," Chatsiam, wrapped in a saffron robe, says in Thai during an interview. "I became a monk about three years ago. In the past, I did not know much about Buddhism, but when I joined this program, I learned about Buddha's teachings and I was very impressed. So I wanted to stay and study Buddhism more.

"I had become an addict because I was curious about the drug and just wanted to try it. I liked it, so I took it again and again. I was working in a factory making shoes. My father and mother are farmers, so I was on my own in Bangkok.

Wat SaphanDuring the day, the inmates' straw mats are rolled up in the dormitory."I do not know if I want to be a monk for the rest of my life. I will see how it goes. But I'm not sure what else I would do, if I left this temple.”

Chatsiam says he doesn't know why some former addicts become monks, and others do not, but suggests that “maybe it is because some believe deeply in Buddhism and want to continue that way, while others are not so interested in it.

"I speak to the addicts here at the temple, and describe my life, and how I have changed here.  I tell them methamphetamines are no good, and that you must pray to Buddha and practice meditation if you want to have a good life."

Thailand's battle against the 'crazy drug'

Methamphetamine-related drugs are seen by many Thais as a major threat to their society, and a dangerously addictive menace. Many years ago, the government officially dubbed speed pills as "yaa baa," or "crazy drug," because abusers often hallucinate and act irrationally. Possession can be punished by lengthy prison terms, and dealers have been executed.

Wat SaphanTwo inmates prepare to shower."In the past, people took methamphetamines because it gave them energy to work," the abbot says. "Now people take methamphetamines just for the feeling, and for entertainment, and usually because they have family problems. The father is gone, and the mother is often gone for much of the time also. 

"The children just hang out with their friends in the slum, and many of their friends are already using drugs. So they copy their friends and take drugs with them."

Somchai, a 51-year-old inmate, says he consumed "yaa baa" for 10 years.

"I thought it was helping me work as a salesman, and made it easier to deal with my family, but I realized that wasn't true," Somchai says while eating dinner. "I was just doing it for the feeling, like an alcoholic keeps drinking. But I have not had methamphetamines now for one month. It was easy for me to stop taking it. And now that I am here, I find it is easy to live without drugs, but I have only been here for four days.

"I am not sure if I want to become a monk or not.  The police sent me here, because maybe I can be rehabilitated."

Wat Saphan"I do not know if I want to be a monk for the rest of my life. I will see how it goes. But I'm not sure what else I would do, if I left this temple," says "Phra" Chatsiam.Life inside the temple

The men do not undergo "cold turkey" withdrawal at the temple. Instead, they arrive after being physically able to live without the pills.

"We do not chain them up, or hit them, or anything like that, but we do have police officers around here, staying at the temple, to watch them."

A police motorcycle is parked near the temple's entrance, which opens onto a busy road. Typical of most Buddhist temples in Thailand, the public can wander through its gates, no questions asked, and freely visit the shrines and other facilities -- perhaps not realizing the place shelters addicts.

All rehab inmates wear loose white cotton pants and collarless shirts. Inmates awaken at 5 a.m. and attend morning prayers with the monks. 

During the day, up to 100 inmates sit on the floor in a large, clean, modern lecture hall. Monks sit atop a raised platform and use a microphone to address the group.

Wat Saphan"I am not sure if I want to become a monk or not. The police sent me here, because maybe I can be rehabilitated," says Somchai, a 51-year-old inmate.Others teach non-religious subjects, and warn of diseases that addicts can suffer from. Police, probation and Mental Health Department officials also lecture the group. Activities include lots of outdoor exercise in the temple's main yard. Relatives are encouraged to visit for lunch on Sundays.

Bangkok's only drug rehab Buddhist temple

On a recent Saturday afternoon, 10 white-clad inmates sat around circular tables in the temple's informal eating area, devouring Thai food cooked by female kitchen staff. In the early evening, a robed monk led the 10 men in prayer in a tiny, narrow, well-worn temple next to the kitchen.

That humble building was dwarfed by huge, partially constructed buildings topped by ornate roofs, displaying the prosperity of Wat Saphan.

Nights are spent above the dining room, upstairs in a big, meticulously clean, tiled room where inmates sleep on the floor, cushioned by simple straw mats. The dormitory's windows and doors include thin bars, and an adjoining room allows a supervisor to keep watch. 

Wat SaphanInmates gather in prayer in a tiny, narrow, well-worn temple inside the Wat Saphan complex.When a two-month course ends, the temple hosts an elaborate ceremony with senior police and other officials, wearing uniforms, handing out certificates and religious items to each inmate. 

While sitting on the floor, the inmates reverently "wai" the police and other officials who sit in chairs or stand while congratulating the men. 

The temple is supported by Bangkok's police, the government's Probation Department, and Office of the Narcotics Control Board.

"The government of Thailand helps this temple by providing some money, and the police station lends its officers to us," the abbot says.

Wat Saphan is the only drug rehab Buddhist temple in Bangkok, although a handful of other Buddhist temples elsewhere in Thailand also offer programs.


Beyond the rooftops of Wat Saphan sprawls Bangkok's notorious Klong Toey slum and the Chao Phraya River's dockyards.


Ten white-clad inmates sit around circular tables in the temple's informal eating area, devouring Thai food cooked by female kitchen staff while a police officer in civilian clothes stops by.


Huge, partially constructed buildings topped by ornate roofs, display the prosperity of Wat Saphan.


A monk inspects the dormitory where inmates sleep on the floor, cushioned by simple straw mats. Windows and doors include thin bars, and an adjoining room allows a supervisor to keep watch.


Two monks pray in a temple on Wat Saphan's grounds.


Wat Saphan is on Rim Thang Rod Fai Sai Kao Road, directly across the street from this wooden building in Klong Toey.


Three monks relax amid the temple's minimum-security setting of spacious prayer halls, simple shrines, a glistening dormitory and an outdoor exercise yard.


Prayers are often conducted in this tiny, narrow, well-worn temple next to the kitchen.


When a two-month course ends, the temple hosts an elaborate ceremony with senior police and other officials, wearing uniforms, handing out certificates and religious items to each white-clad inmate. 

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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