When police raided a makeshift wooden hut located deep in a jungle, they were confronted with the grotesque living conditions of a secretive cult. There were maggots crawling around food preparation sites, 11 dead bodies in coffins, and some 30 disciples who regularly consumed the bodily fluids of a leader they endearingly called “Father.”
The cult commune was believed to have been thriving in northeastern Thailand’s Chaiyaphum province for at least four years before it was discovered. At its heart was the spiritual leader Tawee Nanla, a white-haired man in his mid-70s whose followers were convinced he possessed magical healing abilities, which led them to consume his feces, urine, skin flakes, saliva, and cigarette butts.
Tawee was arrested at the scene and later charged with—among other offenses—public land encroachment, holding illegal gatherings against COVID regulations, and illegally transporting corpses. Since the raid on May 9, disturbing details have continued to trickle out about the activities that went on in the secret commune.
Most recently, on Tuesday, Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health revealed in a press release that food samples collected from the commune contained a dangerous amount of mold and signs of fecal contamination. Cult members had been running a business selling packaged food to shops—information that left some Thais aghast to find that they had been eating these snacks.
Fish crisps, fried green peas, and dried squid were found to contain a dangerous amount of mold, while 28 other samples—including chili paste, fermented fish, and herbal teas—are still being tested. Water samples obtained from the premises were also found to contain bacteria such as E. coli and coliform, an indication of fecal contamination according to health officials. The bacteria, usually found in animal or human feces, are known to cause gastrointestinal diseases, food poisoning, and diarrhea.
According to local media, Tawee told reporters that he never forced his followers to consume his excrement, but they did so anyway believing that it could cure diseases. During the police raid, some cult members, who were said to have pushed and jostled with officers, even drank Tawee’s urine and ate skin flakes straight from his arms in front of authorities.
The 11 corpses found in Tawee’s commune, members told the authorities, had belonged to sick people who had sought treatment from him. But even the deaths of fellow devotees did not deter Tawee’s followers, with the bodies kept in the belief that he would send the souls of the deceased to heaven. In yet another disturbing act of blind faith, followers would wash their faces with the bodily fluid lymph, which oozed from the corpses through holes drilled into the bottom of coffins, convinced it had healing properties.
The governor of Chaiyaphum province, Kraisorn Kongchalad, called the cult “quite disturbing.”
"This is not only about a personal belief anymore,” he said. “We have dead bodies, and we will have to work with all agencies to establish facts surrounding these individuals.”
According to local reports, Tawee is currently out on bail and has since moved his commune base to Leoi province, near the Laos border.
Despite their unsanitary practices, Tawee’s community of forest dwellers have largely operated in the shadows for years, until a YouTuber known as Mor Pla sounded the alarm to authorities in May after being alerted by a daughter of one of the followers. Known for investigating cults, paranormal activity, and dishonest monks, Mor Pla assisted police in the raid and captured the dramatic events in a livestream posted on his Facebook page.
Tawee has since been condemned by Thai authorities, with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha describing the whole incident as “disgusting.” However, this is not the first—and probably not the last—incident of unsettling cults in Thailand.
In the Buddhist-majority country, some spiritual cults have emerged as twisted spin-offs based on conventional Buddhist beliefs. Last year, with the help of his disciples, a monk decapitated himself with a DIY guillotine, convinced that it would help him achieve enlightenment. In response to the incident, the National Buddhism Office suggested that some temples were neglecting to impart proper Buddhist teaching to monks.
In 2018, a yoga school in Koh Phangan was forced to shut down after it was accused of being a sex cult, while its leader faced allegations of sexual assault. According to former staff and pupils, hundreds of women were led to believe that having sex with the guru was spiritually and physically healing.
People who are struggling with mental issues or terminal illness may be more prone to joining strange cults, Thailand’s Department of Mental Health said in a statement following the discovery of Tawee’s cult. It added that mental health centers across the country will be looking out for these vulnerable groups and providing them with solutions to health problems.