Big Tiger, A Visit To A Thai Prison

Admit it. You slow down when you see a car accident. Crane your neck.   Your morbid curiosity.

I just spent the day at a prison. Bang Kwang. AKA Big Tiger. The prison eats men alive. The notorious and brutal prison in Bangkok. I have taken the tour at Alcatraz. I was enthralled with the HBO prison series Oz. I have read my fair share of prison books, including a handful of books written by incarcerated farangs who have left Thai prisons. Check out 4,000 Days: My life and Survival in a Bangkok Prison or Send Them to Hell: The Brutal Horrors of Bangkok’s Nightmare Jails.

Bang Kwang a Thai prison in Bangkok

I contacted the US Embassy in Bangkok and was emailed a list of American prisoners in Thai prison who were interested in receiving visitors. I chose a prisoner at random named Hugh. No information was provided and somehow he was not searchable on Google. I grabbed an early morning taxi and headed to the outskirts of Bangkok to Bang Kwan which rests on the Chao Phraya River, a major travel artery in Bangkok. This maximum security, 80 acre  Thai prison dates back to the 1930s and holds 8,000 prisoners, though built for 4,000.The visiting area was to the left of the main gates. It was an open area adjacent to the high prison walls laced with barb wire. I was handed a brief form and asked for a copy of my passport. I had brought my passport, but did not have a copy. After a 30 minute tuk-tuk mission I had successfully made copies of my passport.

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I waited patiently in the heat. Most of the others milling about were Thai. Though there was a smattering of foreign visitors, I noticed a Russian, a German, and some Nigerians. After a 30 minute wait, a prison guard began announcing names. A large group lined up and we filed into the prison. Prior to entering the prison grounds, a guard took my wallet, phone, and camera. I had noticed that several of the mini-skirted Thai ladies had been provided with wraps. Modestly was required in Bang Kwan. After a vigorous pat down I was allowed to enter into the prison.

Two long buildings guarded an equally long open courtyard. I noticed giant colorful potted plants. Incongruous. A group of 30 women kneeled, praying and chanting. They were visiting an imprisoned monk. I walked to the far end of the courtyard and turned left into the building, and sat down at booth 17.

I rested on a stool. A single phone waited in front of me. A Russian man sat to the left of me, and a Burmese woman clad in white sat to the right. I stared directly into a weathered, plastic transparent window. Next was a long corridor, and then after an opposing booth protected by another plastic window with bars. The booth was empty.

Then my nerves began to jangle. What was I going to say? I started to feel pangs of guilt. I was treating this man like an animal at the zoo. I came to look through the bars out of dismal curiosity. Should I leave now before the prisoners came out?

I heard some bars clang and a long line of prisoners trotted out. A grizzled man sat down across from me in a thin, baby blue jumpsuit. The wizened man picked up the phone.

“Are you from the US Embassy?” he questioned. I explained I was simply a random tourist who came to visit. We fell into a somewhat natural yet awkward conversation. He appeared to be in his 50s but maybe he was in his 60s.

As I had read previously on some blogs, I should not expect to hear grisly Thai prison stories. That is the last thing he would want to share. As predicted, Hugh launched into a story about his life. He was from Oregon and had made his living in the mining industry. He had a successful business mining both opals and gold. He was a shareholder in the opal mine and some of their finds had been placed in museums, including the Smithsonian.

I asked about the support the US Embassy provided. Hugh shared his frustrations, explaining that the embassy liaison was switched every six months. This question pivoted the conversation. He stated the conditions in the prison were inhumane and the food inedible. The solution to survive is outside monetary funds.

Hugh informed me he had a Thai girlfriend who visited every Tuesday. She was able to deposit money into his prison account. They had dated for several years before his incarceration. Hugh had been a frequent visitor to the country. Hugh had been arrested on the night of his birthday. He was sharing a taxi with new friends on his way to dinner. His Iranian friends that he had just met were drug dealers. Hugh was swept up during their arrest, charged with conspiracy and sentenced to Bang Kwang. He expressed his hopes of his conviction being overturned on appeal or the possibility of serving out his sentence in the U.S. He also planned on marrying his Thai girlfriend upon his release from prison.

The phone clicked off mid-conversation. The visit abruptly ended.

Hugh’s unblinking eyes stared at me. We both stood up and waved to each other. He shuffled back to the innards of the prison. I accompanied the other visitors and we exited the prison. I made a small contribution to his account. The other option is to buy items at the prison store on behalf of the prisoner.

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I returned to Bangkok on the long-tail boat on the Chao Phraya River. The sun shined and the wind slid through my hair. I munched on some home-made Thai donuts. I treasured my freedom.

Call To Action:

Contact the appropriate embassy to find a list of prisoners. Have a specific name of a prisoner you wish to visit when you arrive at the  Thai prison.  Show up 30 minutes before visiting hours. Dress appropriately. Bring your passport and some copies. Realize the guards will temporarily confiscate all your valuables. Be patient and respectful.

From Sukhumvit take a taxi. With toll and meter it will be under 300 Baht. It will take around an hour.  Make sure you have the name of the prison and address written in Thai.  From Khao Sarn Road area take the long-tail boat.  This will take about 45 minutes with a ten minute walk to the prison.  The cost is under 20 Baht. Get off at Nonthaburi pier. Stop at the TeaPot and get a Thai ice-tea (chamanow) from the owner Namwan on the walk to the prison.

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