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No Thai holiday would be complete without white sandy beaches, glittering temples and … jail cells? Occupying a former prison in an old city location, Bangkok’s 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 maximum security 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, however, one of the original cell blocks, the prison wall with watchtowers at either end, and two buildings that once housed prison offices have all been preserved. In them you’ll find a disturbingly well-put-together and elaborate collection of penal-related relics and exhibits.
When we arrived, an actual Thai police officer emerged from his post and motioned us to follow him. His hard, unsmiling face, direct voice and dark green military-style uniform with big black boots and a red arm band made us feel like we’d wandered into a working prison. This sentiment was magnified when he pulled out a heavy ring of keys and unlocked the enormous padlocks that keep the museum’s wax prisoners from escaping.
Each of the dark, cramped 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, two years before his death. In this gruesome era that stretches back to the Ayutthaya period and beyond, the Thai penal system — along with those of countless other nations — was based solely on punishment through extreme pain and suffering.
One exhibit displays a rattan ball that’s barely big enough to fit a prisoner inside and is outfitted with long, sharp steel nails protruding inwards. With the unlucky subject bound firmly 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 torture 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, we breathed a sigh of relief and thought that our terrifying foray had come to an end. But just before we could escape, 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.
Upon setting foot on the building’s original teak wood floors, visitors are treated to one of the more macabre art galleries we’ve come across. About two dozen paintings display 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 artistic 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. While one of them displays exquisite furniture made by prisoners, the other two are dedicated to the Thai “art” of execution. You’ll see how a lone machine gunner executed prisoners from 1934 to 2003, when Thailand finally switched to lethal injection. Prior to ’34, execution was an elaborate ceremony of flowers, swords and spirits, and this is the eerily compelling subject of the final room.
A still life display shows two wax executioners, curved swords in hand, performing the theatrical dance that was apparently meant to calm the prisoners’ minds before their moment of truth. A phuong malai flower garland is perched atop the blindfolded prisoner’s feet, and between his palms are three lotus flowers. A spirit shrine stands nearby with offerings, including a pig’s head, given by the prisoner’s family in the hopes of bartering for a fortunate rebirth. The display depicts the tense moment just before one of the executioners unleashes their lethal blow.
How to get there
The Corrections Museum is located on Mahachai Road, in the western part of Romaneenart Park, and a half-kilometre southeast of Wat Suthat. A taxi or tuk tuk from the Grand Palace should cost around 60 baht.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 12th May, 2014.