A macabre look at Thai prisons past
Occupying a former prison that now sits inside a public park, the Corrections Museum offers an unnerving yet fascinating journey through the history of Thai prisons and the many forms of torture once carried out in them. Beware—this is not for the faint of heart.
This former maximum security prison was built in 1890 by decree of King Rama V, who apparently modelled it after the British-run prisons then found in Singapore. After a relatively brief but brutal period of operation, the inmates were gradually shifted to the now-notorious Bang Khwang Prison in Nonthaburi, affectionately known as the “Bangkok Hilton”.
Most of the former prison site was reborn in the 1990s as Romaneenat Park, a tranquil slice of inner-city green where joggers and mothers pushing strollers have replaced horrendous forms of torture. On the park’s eastern fringe, one of the original cell blocks, the prison wall with watchtowers and two buildings that once housed prison offices have all been preserved. In them you’ll find a disturbingly comprehensive collection of penal-related relics and exhibits.
When we arrived, a park security guard dressed like a cop motioned us to follow as he unlocked the chunky padlocks on the steel barred gate. Inside, each of the dark cells contains an exhibit in which dumbfounded-looking wax prisoners—or just their wax heads—display how different forms of torture were carried out before Rama V abolished them in 1908. In this gruesome era that stretches back to the Ayutthaya period and beyond, the Siamese penal system—along with those of countless other nations—was based mainly on punishment through extreme pain and suffering.
One exhibit displays a rattan ball that’s barely big enough to fit a prisoner inside, outfitted with sharp steel nails protruding inwards. With the unlucky subject bound by the wrists and ankles inside, this bloody “man-ball” was kicked around by a team of elephants in a ghoulish round of soccer. Other nightmare-inducing tools include a long and narrow coffin-like box that was fitted with a prisoner and then left to bake in the sun, and a “temple pressing tool”, which requires no further explanation.
Less dreadful exhibits include old prison guard uniforms, crude knives and other weapons used by prisoners during escape attempts, and examples of actual narcotics that have been confiscated in more recent times. The museum contains prison memorabilia from throughout the kingdom, past and present.
Once we finished gawking at the last cell and our not-so-friendly guard/guide slammed and locked the bars behind us, he led us down a long corridor and into one of the cream-coloured heritage buildings where the prison’s original guards—who once saw to the efficiency of these punishments—would have enjoyed their lunch breaks. Here visitors are treated to a macabre art gallery with two dozen paintings displaying unthinkably terrible forms of torture in full, graphic colour. If you’re visiting with kids, skip this part.
On the other hand, those who soothe themselves to sleep by watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will be delighted by detailed renderings of gory scenes accompanied by cold, straightforward English explanations. Included among these are, “Cut the flesh as strips from neck to waist, and waist to ankles then let the skin fall down as sarong” and “Cut off the flesh by pieces then fried and eaten by his own”. You get the picture.
Passing a real human skeleton encased in glass, visitors then climb a stairwell to the museum’s final three showrooms dedicated to the Thai “art” of execution. Here you’ll see how a lone machine gunner executed prisoners from 1934 to 2003, when Thailand finally switched to lethal injection, and how execution once involved an elaborate ceremony of flower garlands, swords and spirits.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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