Life Journey Leads To Thai Monastery -- Harlem Street Kid Turns Mercenary, Then Minister To Addicts

SARABURI, Thailand - When Gordon Baltimore was 9, he watched a man overdose in a public toilet. It was an ugly scene, the man swaying in the doorway of a bathroom stall, vomiting and incontinent, until he collapsed and died.

For Baltimore, growing up in Harlem in the 1950s and '60s, it became a seminal experience, one that forever turned him away from drugs.

Now, 35 years and several continents later, Baltimore's life journey has brought him to a remote, serene village in Thailand's Saraburi province, nestled on a mountainside and surrounded by ancient images of Buddha carved from rock.

Dressed in a monk's brown robe and with his head shaved, he is second-in-command at Wat Thamkrabok, one of Thailand's better-known drug-treatment centers, which is controversial both for its methods and its newer role as a refuge for Hmong people from Laos.

He is known here as Phra Gordon, or Brother Gordon, a Buddhist holy man, Thailand's black monk. Sometimes, he said, he is just referred to as "the black guy," the street dude from Harlem who walks taller than most, and whose rapid-fire speech now mixes a few Thai phrases with American street slang.

Much happened to Baltimore between that scene at the toilet and his arrival in Thailand 18 years ago. At 16, he joined the merchant marine and hopped a ship.

At a stopover in Penang, on Malaysia's west coast, he met Bob Denard, the infamous French mercenary who was recruiting commandos. "Being an American black, they think you know everything about guns," Baltimore recalled, though he says he didn't.

He boasts of becoming a soldier of fortune and participating in some of the world's most notorious conflicts. But he said a close encounter with death in Namibia frightened him.

So he took a long trip, winding up in Thailand. After a two-hour bus ride out of Bangkok, he wandered onto the grounds of Wat Thamkrabok.

"I'm not crazy," he said, recalling that day. "But I heard someone say `You've come here at last.' After the war and all that, I got a feeling of peace."

He has studied Buddhism and relinquished most trappings of modernity, including riding in motorized vehicles - and, he said, "No wine, women or song."

"There's a difference between training a person to take a life, and training a person to give back a life," Baltimore said. After Harlem and the life of a mercenary, he said, "This is the last stop for me."

Baltimore's domain at Wat Thamkrabok, meaning monastery of the opium pipe, sprawls over 784 acres and treats an average 500 drug addicts each month - people trying to break the grip of heroin, opium, cocaine and crack, amphetamines, sleeping pills, even alcohol and cigarettes.

Most are from Thailand but about one-third come from abroad, as far away as Europe and the United States.

The treatment lasts from 30 days to six months - and Baltimore says its success comes from his stern edict for each new patient: "Once he starts his program, the only way he can quit is when he is dead."

An official of the Thai government's Office of Narcotics Control Board expressed doubt about Wat Thamkrabok's claim of success.

Supodjanee Chutidamrong said she thinks it is more of a short-term detoxification center than a long-term rehabilitation program, and that most patients who undergo detoxification typically relapse. "They use some kind of herbs to get the narcotics out of their bodies," she said. "But detoxification alone is not successful in the long term."

"The success rate is . . . not 70 percent" as Wat Thamkrabok claims, she said.

The board, which keeps records of all accredited nongovernmental drug-treatment programs in Thailand, initially provided some funding for Wat Thamkrabok but stopped after the monastery became self-sufficient.

Baltimore says Wat Thamkrabok's controversial method is 80 percent spiritual and 20 percent medicinal. He says the guiding principles of the center are that every disease can be cured through prayer, that "every human being has in his body chemicals he can call on" to fight disease, and that belief in a higher being is an integral part of treatment.

For the medicinal part, the patient drinks a foul concoction of herbs. One shot-glass full on the first days makes the patient vomit uncontrollably and lose all strength - including the strength to try to run away. The herb mix continues for five days.

During this time, the patient is hypnotized to instill obedience and adherence to the program, which Baltimore concedes amounts to brainwashing. With the patients weakened, they go to sleep listening to recordings of the monks chanting.

"For 30 days, minimum cure, the patient is nothing but a robot, and we push the button - when he eats, when he sleeps," Baltimore said.

Once they are "cured," the patients pen a vow to stay drug-free and then swallow the piece of paper. They are warned that the spirits will punish them if they break the vow.

Patients receive a telephone hotline number and a coded name and are ordered to check in by sending a photograph every 18 months and returning to Wat Thamkrabok every 30 months to prove they have remained drug-free. Baltimore says most patients are eager to keep in touch, sometimes even placing ads under their code names in Bangkok newspapers when they are too busy or otherwise unable to be in personal contact.

"We maintain our own security," Baltimore said. "Police force, judge, jury. The method of punishment is the bamboo stick."

There are 300 monks at Wat Thamkrabok, under the leadership of the 76-year-old abbot, Phra Chamroon Parnchand, and they are subject to the same rigid rules and discipline. Two monks are put in charge of 20 patients, and, Baltimore said, "if a patient isn't cured, the monk must explain why."