I’d like to prelude this article with advise from my uncle when he heard I was visiting a Bangkok prison: “Try swapping places with him... 3 hot meals a day and regular sex...sounds pretty good!”
UPickAPath Puppetours voted for me to visit an Australian incarcerated in Bangkok’s toughest prison for smuggling drugs. Well, this didn’t exactly go according to plan. Instead, I found myself in a conversation with a Russian man on literature, prison and murder. Bangkok’s maximum security prison holds the ironic name of the Bangkok Hilton. Cameras were forbidden so words are all I have to bring you inside with me and relay to you this unique experience.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” - FyodorDostoevsky
Across from me are a group of 20-something year olds whose arm-pits have wet themselves. They’re clowning around like a pack of teenagers; chatting, shoving, ones swigging on a beer while another is posing for photos. They’re laughing excitedly as if they’re about to pat a Walrus at the zoo. But they’re not. They’re about to meet a British man who has been incarcerated in Bangkok’s prison for those sentenced to life or death, for smuggling drugs.
What’s wrong with this picture?
They make me feel just as on edge as the bright, orange plastic chairs that I, mothers, wives, children wait in the heavy heat of this city for a voice to bark from behind a tiny sliding window the names of fathers, husbands, and sons.
The lure of concentration camps, prisons, cemeteries, places of mass killing as tourist attractions for holiday-makers says interesting things about our species. We sell tickets to somebody else’s gross misfortune. A dark curiosity in all the things that had once made these people scared of the dark as kids, draws thousands to these tourist unattractions.
Thoughts of my visit to Dachau, one of the largest concentration camps of Nazi Germany mingles with others that make like cigarette smoke in my mind - exhaled, curling dreamlike then vanishing - during my boat trip to the prison. I remember watching tourists posing with smiles and the two finger peace symbol held aloft for happy snaps of themselves inside what were once human gas chambers. The absurdity left me with no other expression but to laugh. I now find myself laughing again.
The coiled barbed wire, the high cracked white walls, watch towers, thick barred vault-like doors impose a imperious presence on the typical Bangkok street. Opposite the prison, the familiar symbol of the Red Cross is emblazoned on a uniform white concrete block building. I wonder if the prisoners can see it from the yard.
I follow a sign across from the prison reading “Visitor registration”.
A veranda hangs over the rows of bright orange chairs where mostly Thai people sit with large plastic bags filled with food, fanning themselves with newspapers. The building looks like a petrol station. The roof is falling in while one single tired fan does its best to spin.
A sweat imprint of my hand is left on the registration form I give to the little window where a guard, with gold-rimmed dark aviator sun glasses looks me up and down with an expression that appears to have been drawn on. His brown uniform is skin tight and creaseless.
“Copy Passport and come back,” he nips at me. I almost curtsey like a well mannered girl and do so. I have been warned to be on my best behaviour - “inside prison walls, you have no rights.”
Preparing for the prison visit was not easy. Requiring the name and location of the prisoner I was to visit, I contacted the Australian embassy, however, despite the British and American embassy being forthright with prisoner’s names and details for willing visitors, I was delivered a “due to our strict privacy laws we are unable to provide you with the requested information,” email. Instead, I relied upon some, what seemed, out-of-date listings of a website called foreignprisoners.com. I decided I would take my chances and it seemed it had payed off once my visitor application was stamped forcefully by the guard with a clench of his brick jaw that seemed to make the cracked paint fall from the walls.
“You come back at 13:45.”
As I sat and waited, a giant sweaty man, shaped like a bowling pin and obviously a foreigner, filled the room with his bellows at the guards, who seemed not to mind, as the raucous man stormed around the place and into their office as if he owned it and was undertaking some important assignment. I could hear all of his sentences punctuated by the foreign English speaker’s mutation of the words fucking – “farkin’” – and bullshit – “boolsheet”. He also seemed to have an uncontrollable tendency to scratch his groin like a dog on heat. Being the only other foreigner in the room I knew it was only matter of time before he would come over and ask me...
“Where you from?”
He asked and offered me dried apricots from his giant dank hand.
“You have some,” he coaxed until I took them from him. Without a breath of hesitation, he asks me several questions one would normally not feel comfortable answering to such a man visiting somebody in prison; then scratched his groin.
I ask the same questions in return. I discover he is from Israel but lives “everywhere”, used to own a shop in Adelaide, South Australia selling poultry and is in the prison visiting three times a week. He tells me he has seven friends he has detained in the prison.
“It is very hard for me to come here so often in the heat and all, you know farkin.”
I ask the obvious question:
“What’s today’s friend in for?”
“He killed his wife.” Pause.
“He slit her throat,” he says mimicking with his index finger the motion his friend most likely carried it out.
“Then he cut her up into pieces and put her in the freezer next to the frozen vegetables...farking crazy man – hey whiskey man!” he yells out at one of the guards while I’m wondering if people like that still eat the frozen veggies. Scratch of the groin.
While at the beginning of the conversation it seemed we both had been watching our step, it now seemed he deemed me harmless enough to confide in me his life story, and the life of “the bloody bitch”- his ex-wife.
“I donated $350 thousand to casinos because of that crazy bitch - I came to Australia with this much money to buy a house but instead she put it all into the pokies...can you believe it!” he says shaking his head.
“Then I found out that she was with other men and that was it – and the whole time she wouldn’t come near my dick.” The mention of his genitals sits even more unsettling than meeting a convicted criminal.
I ask him how he came to know seven people in the prison. He only replies with a smirk, a wink and a scratch of his groin – “poultry,” he says nodding his head like somebody implying that there is more to the word he is using, something sinister.
He offers a passing guard a piece of cake from a Tupperware container who accepts gratefully.
Just outside of Chaing Mai, Thailand.
UPickAPath Puppetours opted for me to spend a week meditating and living like a monk in a Buddhist temple. Enlgihtenment may have eluded me however what an amazing experience. Included is a video interview with a monk on sex, religion, why they shave their heads and how they look so damn good in their robes.
“It’s so simple, it’s the most difficult thing in the world,” the self proclaimed reformed drug trafficker tells me.
It’s the end of the first day, my tongue feels like an invalid, my stomach feels ransacked and my mind yelps like a dog mad with rabies.
“You’re meant to feel like you want to leave, it’s your ego squirming, telling you that it wants out, he says.”
“Your ego is screaming for that bloody spotlight that’s shining on it to be turned off.”
“You’re meant to feel this way before you break on through,” he assures me rolling his cigarette. Not smoking is one of the many precepts a mediator must adhere to in here.
“Trust me, getting to the other side is worth sticking around for.”
The day’s schedule consists of ten hours of sitting and meditating. It’s a boot camp for the mind.
I spend the afternoon trying to feign a peaceful and spiritual posture: cross-legged, hands resting on knees. But to be more accurate, I look more like a boy hunched who has lost his penis, nodding off every five minutes to random thoughts and bad ideas that I think are genius at the time. Thoughts roam freely and I watch them like I’m on some thought safari - the lizard crawling over my foot, what’s the capital of Namibia, I’ll open up a business selling Australian meat pies in Europe, heaving breasts (oops, how did that get in there), the nose hair that just kept growing from my grade ten history teacher’s nostrils; who was the idiot who thought up putting pineapple on pizza; how do first kisses work out when neither of the ten years olds involved have any idea of what they are doing; My imagination has decided to fill in the space where my thoughts once were. But the arch nemesis of my pursuit of enlightenment appears in the harmless form of a rooster. I swear it waits until I look settled in thought before crowing. Images of it running around missing its head gives me inner peace but not the kind they are talking about in here geuss.
At one point I sense somebody standing in front of me. I peek with one eye and see a young monk looking down on me with an expression of confusion.
“Has anybody taught you how to meditate yet?” He obviously already knows the answer.
“No, is it that obvious?”
“You look more like you’re having a really hard time on the toilet - come with me.”
His name is Tawachai and he has been part of the monkhood since he was twelve years old. It’s common in Thailand for boys to join the monkhood at a young age.
“How do you meditate with all of these bloody roosters around?” I ask him.
“Well, if they’re annoying you than you are not in here meditating,” he says, pointing to his head.
“Sit down and be mindful of your posture.” They say ‘mindful’ a lot in here.
He instructs me to concentrate on my breathing and be aware of the sensations all over my body.
He teaches me a technique called “scanning the body,” during which your mind frisks your body from head to toe, travelling along its veins like highways. He says to do it slowly and that I’ll know I’m getting the hang of it when I can feel my pulse, my heartbeat with my mind and feel the subtle throbs of parts of my body that I never believed moved.
“If you see a thought, watch it and just let it go.”
Next lesson is in walking meditation: walk in slow motion, be mindful the whole time of the movements of my body and how my feet feel as they touch the ground, slowly, thoughtfully. By doing so all senses are heightened.
“Now go practice, and by the way meditator – take off all your decorations.”
He’s referring to my necklace, earring and ring. I shed myself of all adornments and am left in just the basic white cotton shirt and pants that are the uniform in here.
The last meal is at noon and the rest of the day is for fasting. Staring down at the starched rice and the limp leaves of spinach floating in the brown broth portioned out in the tin tray I want to let out a whimper. But I can’t. We are to eat in silence. Mindfully.
“They’re creating the ideal conditions for you to make progress here. By fasting your mind is weaker and less capable of fighting back.”
“And trust me, it will put up a fight.” His out-of-order British accent irritates me like a bad nineties boy band pop tune. They fascinate me these born-again-whatever’s; the evangelic salesmen preaching some ultimate truth that they swear by like a certain brand of toothpaste that was going out half price at some revelatory pivotal point in their lives. This guy has gone from clinging to drugs to clinging to a bald man in saffron robes.
“Have you ever read any self-help books?” I ask him in a tone with an irritated rash of sarcasm.
I apologise before he has a chance to answer and blame my disgruntled manner on the roosters.
His words recur as I lay there on my bed at 9pm - a floor mat half an inch thick - in my room resembling a prison cell in which my head and feet touch corresponding walls.
I’ve learnt today that emptying your head of thoughts and distractions is like clearing out a rowdy pub at closing time.