I had just arrived in Bangkok. I took an all night train from the southern boarder with Malaysia and really never got a full nights sleep, mostly due to the hot sticky weather that never seemed to go away even at night. Instead I laid awake listing to the clatter of the train going over the track and people talking on languages that I couldn't even begin to identify.
The train arrived early in the morning and the city seemed to be just waking up. From the train platform i could see some of the buildings that surrounded me, there was a thin haze that seemed to encapsulate the buildings masking the top floors. I collected my bags and walked toward the exit. I stepped outside and searched for a taxi, I saw the taxi stand but to the right of the stand was a group of younger men with motorcycles with a colorful covered cart attached to the back of it. I took the cart or "Tuk Tuk" without hesitation, and told the driver to take me to Koh San Road. Koh San Road is where the majority of backpackers either start or end their tours of South East Asia, many however end up just staying on this road where parties last all night and anything from alcohol, drugs, sex and even snake blood can be easily found for a price.
I walked up to my hotel and approached the counter. The older woman behind the counter spoke little english, she stared at me and said one word, "room" I shook my head and she led up a few flights stairs and showed me a one room windowless cell. There were blinds on one side of the room, but behind them was a stained bare wall. The bed was held up by four skinny wooden legs on a cracked cement floor. A wooden nightstand stood next to my bed with a shad-less lamp to give me light. I was exhausted from climbing the stairs so I put my bags down and paid the woman.I thought to myself that I should of spent the extra five dollars to get a better hotel, but five dollars seemed like too much when cigarettes cost just 25 cents and a beer for about double that.
I walked down into the lounge/lobby area where a small restaurant catered to the tourists on the street and the hotel's guests. I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a bowl of noodles and a beer. I opened my book to read but quickly lost interest and my eyes started to wander. There was a movie being projected on the wall, it was a bootleg copy of a movie that still was in theaters when i left home a few weeks earlier. I dazed into the streets and got lost in the traffic of people, i looked back over at a bulletin board next to the check in desk and saw a posting that caught my attention.
I walked over to the wall and read the advertisement describing the hardships and troubles of the various foreigners in the jails throughout Thailand, and encouraged tourists to visit these prisoners. I had recently read a book about an Australian who had visited and lived with an English prisoner in a prison in La Paz, Bolivia. I sat back down ate my noodles and drank my beer. I lit a cigarette and thought about how i would try and visit someone in the prison. The posting said to call the embassy and ask if anyone was accepting visitors in the area jails. I looked up the number to the US embassy and gave them a call.
A rather official distinctively militaristic but at the same time friendly voice answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked if there was any chance of getting a name of someone in the prison. The man seemed surprised and asked why i would want to do something like that. I didn't have an answer to that question, I said I wanted to help someone out in need. He came back rather quickly for such a strange request, the inmate's name was Sandra O'Conner from South Carolina.
Getting the name of the prisoner would be the easy part, the women's prison was about an hour away from downtown Bangkok. Getting by in the touristy areas without speaking any Thai was relatively easy, I wasn't so sure it would be the same where i was going. I looked in my guidebook to see if i could find the directions there but found nothing. I searched on the internet and found a site offering the address. I asked the woman at the front desk if she could write down directions to the prison in Thai, after twenty minuets of hand singles, jumbled words and pictures she finally handed over directions.
To get to the prison i had to take a river boat one hour up into a dirty suburb of Bangkok. The ride wasn't as enjoyable as I had thought the water looked almost like it had a slick of oil coating the top and the smog of the city cut off any chance of sightseeing. I had given the directions to the boat driver, along with fifty Baht and he seemed to indicate that I had arrived at my stop. I walked up the dock and onto the street expecting to see the prison, but no luck. I seemed to be the center of attention, all eyes were on me which I can't really say made me any more comfortable. I quickly looked around for a cab.
After walking around for a few minuets i found a Tuk-Tuk. I handed the driver the address and he smiled and shook his head. Approaching the prison was something i went over in my mind as being almost like entering a something out of a vietnam prisoner of war camp. High cement walls with machine gun nests perched at the top complete with search lights maneuvering their way around the grounds. To my surprise the entrance was surrounded by manicured grass and hedges beautiful roses surrounding the sign welcoming people to the prison. I thought that this couldn't be the right place and i asked the driver, he understood nothing i said and shook his head and pointed.
I walked up to the door and up to the front desk, surprisingly the attendant was quite pleasant and spoke some english, I told her who i had come to see and she took my passport and asked my relation to the prisoner. I quickly responded that she was my aunt, she smiled and pointed me to the waiting room down the hall. I was the only foreigner in the room, it was filled with Thais and their families. There was a small cafe a shop and even a massage station. I had arrived about thirty minuets early so i had some time to kill. I toyed with the thought of getting a massage and ended up caving and went in and got a foot massage.
Time must of escaped me because a guard eventually came in saying my name over and over and pointing to the door. I was late, and i felt awful what was i going to say to the person I was about to visit? "Sorry I'm late I was getting a massage. How's life in prison?" I was escorted in through a series of gates and barred doors into a narrow cramped room with bars and glass dividing the room in two. There was small privacy shutters for each visitor space and a bench on either side of the glass. I was led down the room and politely pointed toward my seat.
I immediately came into eye contact with Sandra. She smiled and I could tell she had done her best to look her best despite being in a Thai prison. She had shoulder length curly brown hair that looked as if it hadn't seen a comb in years. Her skin was pale and aged, it looked as though she hid from the sun but still suffered the effects of it. She couldn't of been out of her thirties but to look at her you'd say she was twenty years older. Her eyes were blue had a distressed emptiness to them, she may once have been beautiful but that simply wasn't their anymore. It was if i was starring an empty shell that smiled and made every attempt to be nice.
I said hello as I sat down, and she immediately asked where I had been and that we only had twenty minutes to talk. I stumbled and said how difficult it was to get around Thailand. She laughed and I asked her how she was doing. She said she was fine and doing the best she could but living within the prison was extremely difficult. She went on to talk about her living conditions, "At night we are all locked in a cage and sleep together on the floor. There are so many women in here we have to sleep on our sides, rats and roaches sometimes run over and between us as we slept. Its terrible."
Sandra was no innocent victim of a cruel corrupt government. She had been caught at Bangkok international airport with 999 grams of heroin. She said she had gotten it in the northern provinces near Chang Mai and gave me no more information about where she was going or how she was caught. Subsequently she said when the custom officials presented her to the courts they only said she had 250 grams of heroin, the remaining amount somehow disappeared. At first she was at first given the death penalty, but later appealed the decision and received thirty years.
Sandra went on talking about her living conditions, "sometimes the guards will take me up to their quarters to watch soccer games and snort heroin." The manner in which she told me this was so casual it gave me a chill. I got the impression that there was more to that story but I felt uncomfortable going any further. Apart from these few details Sandra was more interested learning more about me; why was I in Thailand? Where I was going? Where have I been? I quickly told her about heading north into Laos and into Vietnam then through Cambodia. She commented how much she loved Laos and how she used to smoke opium there. Most importantly though, she wanted to know of news from back home.
It had been six months since she last received a visitor or talked to anyone outside the jail. News wasn't allowed in the jail and the only information she got from the outside world was from visitors or other inmates, which for the most part Thai news. At the time Hurricane Katrina had just flooded New Orleans. I told her this and how many people had died and that I didn't know much else. She seemed saddened and said she used to love going to Louisiana and New Orleans.
A bell went off which signaled for the prisoners to start to head back to the main prison. The guards came in and started to grab the prisoners and push them toward the door. She smiled, I asked if there was anything I could do to help her. She asked me for coffee, peanut butter and toilet paper from the prison store. She stood up and asked for me to write her at some point telling where I was in the world. She smiled and it was over. No great advice, quote or lesson, it was just her and her situation. I was escorted out of room and back into the lobby. I bought the things she had asked me for and signed my name out at the front desk. There was a taxi stand outside, I got in and gave the driver my hotel address. I watched as the prison slowly disappeared in the smog of the city.