Thai Prison Museum

March 28, 2007
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We often talk about the top 10 attractions in Bangkok for tourists. Most of these are familiar to all of us. However, if you have already been to Thailand before, or you feel that you cannot face yet another temple, then the Corrections Museum on Mahachai Road (map) offers a suitable distraction. Fortunately it is not yet in the Lonely Planet, so if you do decide to go there, you will find that you will get your own personal tour of the prison and museum. My tour guide was a charming Thai lady who very enthusiastically picked up a sword to demonstrate how they used to behead prisoners in the old days. I asked her if the place ever gets crowded. She said, oh yes, yesterday we had a party of four people come. Anyone else that day? No, just them.

The Bangkok Remand Prison (or Special Prison as the name says in Thai), was the first prison built in Thailand based on international standards. It was built by command of King Rama V in 1892 after a visit to a prison in Singapore. By 1990 the prison had become too cramped and overcrowded and so everything was moved to Lad Yao Prison. Most of the buildings were then knocked down to make room for a new park called Rommaninart. Fortunately, they decided to keep one of the cell blocks, three of the administration blocks, a section of the wall, two watch towers and the main gate. This was then turned into a kind of prison museum where visitors could learn about prison life and forms of punishment, torture and execution in Thailand since the Ayutthaya period.

In the first building there were many pictures showing daily life in the prison. There were also two scale models which showed the park today and how crowded it was when the prison was operating. There were many buildings and very little, if any, place for the prisoners to exercise. Probably the highlight of this first building were the demonstrations of the three methods of execution which were used in Thailand. In the first room, models were used to show execution by sword. Three men were used during the execution. One would dance and prance in front of the prisoner, and when they thought he was calm, the second guard would creep up from behind and chop off his head. On display are some of the original swords used to behead prisoners. There is even a picture of the last executioner who was kept busy chopping off heads as late as 1934. On display was also an axe which was used to chop off the feet. Their shackles were welded on tight so the easiest way to remove the chains was to cut of the feet.

The next method of execution was by gun. The prisoner was tied to a wooden cross with lotus flowers tied between his palms. A screen with a target marked on it was then placed between the prisoner and the gunman. This way the gunman never saw the man he was about to shoot. Between 1934 and 1977, a total of 213 prisoners were executed in this manner. Finally, after a visit to America, the prison authorities decided to change the method of execution to lethal injection. The first execution by this method took place in 2003. In the third room there is a table showing how the prisoner was strapped down before being injected. Many of the displays have English translations, however, there are some sections where the information is only in Thai. My tour guide said she spoke some English, though she seemed to prefer to speak Thai to me.

We left this building and then made our way into the park where I was escorted to the only remaining cell block on the northern wall. This was Area 9 which was for female prisoners. Along the way we passed the only remaining section of the wall. I asked my guide about the little gate in the wall and she said it was for taking out the dead prisoners. However, she assured me that no executions took place here and that the prisoners only died of natural causes and diseases. The exhibits in the cell block made me think otherwise. On display in each of the cells were different forms of punishment and torture. Many of these were being used right up until 1934 when they were banned by the Penal Code. I think my favourite was this human takraw ball. If you have been to Thailand then you might have seen a group of men kicking between them a small ball made of rattan. The idea is to keep the ball off the ground without using your hands. This version of the ball was much larger. A man was put inside the ball. If you look closely you can see that the inside has many nails sticking through. This large ball was then kicked around by elephants!

Other torture methods on show include a chin hook, a pillory, a head squeezer and a coffin. For the latter the prisoner was squeezed into a tight fitting box and the lid was nailed shut. Two small holes helped him breath. The box was then left out in the direct sunlight. Other display items include prisoner restraints, weapons made by the prisoners, confiscated drugs, prisoner uniforms and homemade cards used for gambling. I had quite an interesting one hour tour of the the museum. There is no admission charge which is a refreshing change. However, you are urged to make a donation in the box as you leave the first building. Also write a nice comment in their visitors book. The Corrections Museum is open Monday to Friday between 8.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. It is on Mahachai Road which is on the Western extreme of Chinatown. It is within easy walking distance of Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing. I parked my car near Wat Suthat but then later found out that I could have parked inside the museum. Taxis know this place as “kook gao” which means “old prison”.