An American Policy Expert's Journey to the South of Thailand

Understanding the real joy is in the journey

I spent the first week of December in the South of Thailand, where I presented on a variety of micro and macro drug and criminal justice treatment interventions and policies to members of the military, health department, treatment professionals, nurses, preventionists, prison workers, and religious leaders. I was the lone speaker at the 11-hour conference, which was put on by the Thai Ministry of Health and Thanayarak Pattani Hospital. I got the gig because a former student of mine at Rutgers, Ben Chin, had interned in Bangkok last year at the Thai Ministry of Justice.

Flash back to 2003: I worked the first nine months of that year teaching English in Tokyo at a company that put profits ahead of learning (all of my former co-workers were pleased when the company went belly up in 2007). I adored my students, who ranged in age from 10 to 73. After I left Japan, I traveled around Southeast Asia that fall and spent the bulk of my time in Thailand. I fell for the land of 1,000 smiles and its varied terrain, spicy food and dynamic energy. A largely Buddhist nation, the unofficial national motto seemed to be "up to you." Two close friends and my mother visited me while I lived there, and to date, it remains the greatest traveling experience of my life. When Ben was awarded the Luce Scholarship and had his choice of Asian nations in which to reside, I pushed heavily for Thailand.

"But there was a coup in May, and they are under martial law now," he replied.

"So what?" I retorted. "It'll make it that much more interesting."

Ben learned Thai, impressed his superiors, traveled around the nation, and returned to America a more worldly young man (he currently works in Baltimore in healthcare policy). When I told him I was traveling to Asia, he put me in touch with a few people and the conference emerged after a dozen emails. It would be held in the South of Thailand in the city of Pattani. Ben said that it was a dangerous area, but I assured him that I would be fine and go no matter what. I prepared for the trip by reading up on recent Thai history and on the drug known as Kratom.

Ben sent me an article from The Atlantic about gangs and rebellion and drug use in Pattani, and I realized that there might actually be a bit of danger. When I told the people in Bangkok that I was heading to Pattani, they would say "Oh!" and tell me to be careful. The Thai's in the south are ethnically similar to Malaysian people, and the southernmost regions of Thailand are majority Muslim. I became nervous about traveling there when I read about a very recent bombing at a roadside checkpoint, but I knew it would be an interesting experience, and I had already committed to going.

I had an assigned team of three people: a handler, a driver and a translator. Waen, a Buddhist, was my handler—she was my first point of contact. Despite never having drunk alcohol, she had learned to speak English by attending open AA and NA meetings in Bangkok. Waen had put together the entire conference through sheer force of will: she had convinced the skeptical directors and funders above her that I would be able to paint a complete portrait of addiction and tie together why a number of disparate institutions should work together towards common policy goals.

My driver was a Muslim (and a veteran of the Thai Navy) who dressed in Western clothes, carried two phones and had a particular love of Thai pop and techno music. He also had the uncanny ability to know when I wanted water or coffee before I did.

Vinny was my translator. He was born in Thailand, raised in India, educated in British schools, and had worked for 24 years in America as a salesman. He was sober 21 years and had been living back in Thailand for the past seven. Vinny was more than a translator—he took time to explain Thai government and culture to me, as well as the current landscape of addiction treatment.

I flew out of Bangkok and arrived at the Hat Yai airport early on November 30, and was met by Waen and the driver. It took us about 90 minutes to get to Pattani. We passed through a number of checkpoints that were manned by uniformed police and soldiers, all of whom carried machine guns. At the second checkpoint, I rolled down my window and waved to them. They waved back.

Photo collage of Frank Greenagel's Thailand trip

We journeyed to a small village where we had lunch with a tour guide, his wife and his friend (a retired policeman). They marveled at how I was able to eat such spicy food, and they talked to me about the rampant drug problems and the violence in their region. They told me that young people were disappearing or dying in rates that they had never seen before.

I asked them if religion was the cause of the violence. The guide said he and his wife were Buddhists but that the retired policeman was a Muslim and that they got along great. He said that the Buddhists and Muslims of Southern Thailand had no problem with each other, and that the major problem of the region was drugs.

After lunch, we piled into an American WWII Jeep and headed to Nam Tok Sai Khao National Park. We started hiking towards the major waterfall, but after a few hundred meters it was evident that the rainy season had made the path, which was sometimes in a river, quite treacherous. The guide and I continued without the others. We hiked the mile plus along stone stairways, through the river and across slippery fallen trees. (Later, the guide would tell the group that he had wanted to tell me to turn around, but that between my racing ahead and the language barrier, he just accepted the fact that we would hike to the end).

The waterfall was gorgeous, and I swam for a little bit in a pool beneath it. But the real joy was in the journey to get there—I reminded myself that I would need to communicate that theme during the conference.

During the morning of the first day of the conference, I spoke on the History of Marijuana Policy and 21st Century Drugs. I discussed how the former President Reagan's "Just Say No" prevention program was a costly failure in the 80s and that current initiatives like DARE and Scared Straight are actually counter-productive. A senior official from the Ministry of Health gave a speech before lunch. He touched on the fact that Thailand had attempted to replicate the "Just Say No" program about five years ago, and that they had found that it had not worked. He expressed a desire to use data-driven best practices to address Thailand's drug problem and involve as many different experts and institutions as possible.

After the afternoon lecture and Question & Answer session were completed, Waen told me I could rest for 30 minutes before our evening activity. I was pretty tired and looked at Vinny, and he said, "I'm tired too. It'll probably only be an hour or so."

That evening, about 10 of us journeyed to a fishing village outside of town. Across from where we parked, there was a food stand. Several Muslim girls on small motorbikes had stopped there. They were drinking fruit sodas, looking at their iPhones and happily chatting with each other. I thought how I wished other Americans could witness this.

We took a Thai fishing boat on a tour of the bay and then went up a narrow river that had a canopy of trees and mangroves above it, forming a tunnel. As darkness fell, the fireflies and stars came out. I watched the water ripple away from the boat and was overcome by the serenity of the moment. Dr. Adisak Ngamkajornviwat, the director of the hospital and the key benefactor of the conference, turned to me and asked what I was thinking. I replied: "It's beautiful. And peaceful. Thank you so much for inviting me."

After the boat ride, we sat down for dinner in a small, open-air hut by the bay. Three elders from the community joined us. We ate a variety of spicy dishes and talked about the beauty of the region. Eventually, one of the elders asked another guest who I was, and he told him that I was a drug counselor and policy expert from America. The elder's face grew solemn, and he spoke to me at great length in a tone of sadness and frustration. Vinny translated, "They are leaders of the Muslim community here. A number of the young people are using drugs and have either run off or died. The families are distraught and look to them for answers. They haven't been able to solve it, and it gets worse each year. They want your advice about what to do."

I was taken aback by his candor and pain. I told him: "We are dealing with the same problem in America. I came to Pattani to help the community, and it's my sincere hope that we will begin to develop a plan to address this." I rattled off a few ideas, and Dr. Ngamkajornviwat invited them to attend the conference the next day.

After dinner, instead of heading back to the hotel, we drove into the center of Pattani to a restaurant that served a variety of Roti dishes. Vinny turned to me and said, "The Thai's will kill you with kindness. After this, we have to go back. I'm exhausted."

The next morning, I talked about Life After Incarceration (a talk on the criminal justice system) and basic diagnosing and treatment of substance abuse problems. There were a number of participants who had not been there the first day, including several individuals from the Thai military and a number of local religious leaders. Vinny and I spent about an hour answering questions about prevention and treatment.

A major problem in Thailand is that there is very little aftercare when someone leaves rehab—as a result, the relapse and recidivism rates are exceptionally high. The participants expressed the problem of stigma that surrounds addiction, and how difficult it is for former addicts to return to their community. I discussed the importance of stigma reduction, halfway houses and outpatient treatment. At lunch, three Muslim clerics announced that they would donate land so that some halfway houses could be built on it. I was incredibly moved.

When the conference concluded, Dr. Ngamkajornviwat took me on a tour of his hospital. I met with a number of current patients and asked them about their treatment. I spoke with the staff about their work and described the Stages of Change to them. The doctor asked me if I would be willing to return to Pattani to continue working him.

"I'm in it for the long haul," I answered.

Frank Greenagel is an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work. He is also an instructor at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and a member of the Hazelden in New York Board of Directors. He writes a blog at greenagel.com. He conducts trainings, consults for programs, and delivers keynote speeches around the country. He completed a Masters in Public Affairs and Politics in 2015. He rejoined the Army in 2014 as a Behavioral Science Officer.

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