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Bangkok without the Pussy III

"…as soon as the blade sliced the skin, the wound opened up like a new flower. And out of the gash in the Frenchman's neck spilled hundreds of tiny, worm-like creatures, wriggling and oozing out like spaghetti. A cockroach had crawled into his ear, burrowed through to his neck and laid its eggs…” 4.000 Days – My life and survival in a Bangkok Prison / Warren Fellows

Crime really doesn’t pay. Ask a Westerner rotting away in Bangkok’s notorious Bang Kwang prison. Get-rich-quick schemes, most involving heroin, hash, opium or the justly famed Thai ganja, put them here. 50 year sentences, life sentences, death sentences. Draconian sentences, courtesy of the USA’s insane War on Drugs. But Politics of International Drug Trafficking is for another time.

This is about visiting a prisoner. Not making moral judgments. Not voyeurism, a lark, or a freak show. Briefly touching another human being. Shining a tiny light on a shattered life. And yes, truth be told, to thank all that is Holy you are outside, not in.

A prison visit is a BEST BET.

You can only spend an hour inside, but it’ll take the better part of a day – one you will always cherish.

It’s best – but not necessary – to have the name of a specific inmate. You can get these from your Embassy. Names are often posted on message boards in the Khao San Road area as well. But without a name, just show up and say you want to talk to an American, Australian, Brit or whoever.

Appropriate dress is required – long pants especially. Visiting hours and regulations vary, check with your Embassy. I hate to say this, but you might have a lot better luck calling the Australian or New Zealand Embassies. They seem to be a lot more user friendly for this type of stuff. Links for reasonably current info are at column’s end.

One other point. Many Western countries have reciprocal treaties with the Thais as to incarceration periods. What this usually means is that the Prisoner must do a certain “minimum” time in a Thai prison, and then is released back to his home country to “finish” his sentence. Again, check with your Embassy.

Now, the experience…

You can get there by metered taxi – way, way too easy with none of the adventure – but you’ll pull right up to the Visitors Office for about 400baht or so.

You can take the city bus – cheap like crazy and an interesting experience. You’ll need a very current bus map, as the routes tend to change in haphazard fashion. Also, try very hard to get on one of the buses with air con. Unless, of course, you are happy in the “puddle of sweat” mode. It’s about 8 to 5 against that anyone involved with the bus will speak English, so you better have your destination written in clear Thai. Bus travel through Bangkok is plainly not for the faint of heart.

Best way to get to the Prison is via the Chao Phraya River Ferry. Best way to get to the Ferry is take the Sky Train to Saphan Taksin Station – the last stop, which ends at the River. It’s a bit tricky walking in the right direction to the Ferry pier, so use your handy-dandy compass. As usual, have your Hotel write your destination(s) in Thai. Really, this is way way important. You’ll try to pronounce the words, but will certainly screw it up and they won’t have a clue what you are talking about. So have all the stuff written down, ok?

The “ferry bus boat” runs the River, and is used day to day by locals. This is not one of the so-called “long tailed” boats you often see - the skinny ones with a car engine mounted on a stick. You pay a 10baht fare at the entrance and wander sort of helplessly along with everyone else on to a less–than-sturdy looking pier. You will be ignored. And confused. Fear not. Go to one of the guys who look like they work there – not hard to spot – and show him where you want to go. These folks are always very helpful. There will be all sorts of boats coming and going – they maneuver by way of signal whistle and despite their ungainly size, glide somewhat efficiently up to the concrete pier, though it often both looks and sounds like they are gonna mash right into the thing. Keep a sharp eye on the guy who said he’d help. He’ll show which boat to get on.

Don’t hesitate. Step lively. No points for politeness. People shove on and off at the same time. The boat doesn’t actually, well, stop all that well – it sort of hovers close enough to jump on, real real fast. Sit inside, or stand outside. If you sit inside up front and it’s choppy or windy you may get a bit wet. Sights along the River are fascinating. Remember, Thais still live along this waterway, so you will see people bathing and washing and swimming and conducting their lives – as well as terrific views of Wats and Hotels and the Skyline and river traffic of all sorts.

You’ll want to go north, up the river the same side you got on the boat, to the very last stop, Northanburi. This should take about 45 minutes. It can get a little disorienting, as in, “where the hell are we now,” so keep a map handy to follow along as each stop passes – signs are usually in English, but read fast.

Along the way you pass the Pra Athit stop, where you get off to have a look at the previously mentioned Khao San Road. Depending on your time frame and prison visiting schedule, you might get off, do a bit of wandering, and then continue on your way. Or stop on your way back from the prison…

When you arrive at the last stop, you’ll see a big clock tower as a landmark. Get off with everyone else. This is a working class Thai neighborhood, and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. They will all certainly know why you are there and will be very helpful with directions. But don’t worry, you can’t hardly miss the place.

It’s about a 15 minute walk from the pier to the Prison. Or you can take a wheeled pedicab. Walking is better. Especially as you get your first view of the place - the big forbidding walls, the dirtiness, the finality of it all. Just walk up the street, make the first left, and keep going.

You’ll want to go first to the Visitors Center, on the right hand side of the road, and do the paperwork. This is not very difficult. Better if you have the name of a prisoner, but a nationality will do. You will be searched – cameras are of course forbidden. You must also surrender your Passport, but no worries. Again, if you are not dressed appropriately, you will not be allowed inside.

You will be taken across the street and into the Prison itself. The big doors will clang shut behind you. You will suddenly become aware that no one really knows where you are and that you don’t have your Passport and you are in a Thai Prison.

There will be a lot of confusion and a lot of milling around and the non-English speaking Thai guards will not be helpful. Follow along with the others to the “visiting area.” You will pass the store where you can buy things - best on the way out, once you know what the Inmate wants. Strangely, once the paranoia passes, the place seems not all that unpleasant.

You will not see the “inside” of the Prison at any time. Don’t expect a stroll through a cell block or something out of a movie.

You’ll soon find yourself outside, in an open courtyard. You’ll be hot. And confused. You’ll be looking into a big, bare, empty room, separated from you by 2 thick chain fences. Eventually, with no signal, a group of Prisoners will be herded into this room. They will be at least 6 feet from you.

Communication will be by shouting.

Start shouting out the name of the person you came to visit. Keep shouting until you find them. If you can’t, go to a guard and tell him the name. Wait. Be patient. The person will show up.

Since everyone will be shouting at once, it will be amazingly noisy and hard to hear. But concentrate – making believe you are in a bar in AC helps a lot – and you will get a conversation going.

Don’t worry about asking or saying anything at all. Whoever you are visiting will be amazingly grateful to see you. Don’t be shy. Nothing you ask will be considered inappropriate. And while it may seem awkward, you will quickly develop a rapport and the allowed hour of visitation will fly by. Like I said, ask what things you can buy for them as a present, as anything will be received most gratefully. They can also receive mail so you may wish to ask about that as well.

You’ll know it’s time to go because the Prisoners will suddenly all be herded unceremoniously out of the room .You’ll stand there dazed, and then be escorted out – you can stop at the store if you want - back across the road, sullenly handed your Passport, and pointed the way out.

The experience will be very very intense. You’ll need the time it takes to wander back to the Ferry stop to decompress a bit. You may need to sit down along the way for a glass of tea. Something life affirming. Something simple. Something real. Something you can choose yourself.

Few things in this life will affect you as much as when you leave the Prison behind and step out into Freedom.

Links of interest :

Bangkwang

4000 Days: My Life & Survival in a Bangkok Prison - on Amazon

List of foreign prisoners in Thai prisons (not complete)

Faxless Payday Loan



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