Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | Bangkok – Day 4 – Bankok Jail, Thailand
Bangkok I’ve eaten several meals the last couple of days at Chabad House just off of Khao San Rd. In part I’ve eaten there for kosher food, in part because it’s familiar food and I’m not feeling all that gastronomically adventurous at the moment, and in part because it’s a magnet for Israeli travelers; I’ve had lots of opportunity to keep my newly acquired hebrew skills fresh.
Each time I’ve been there I’ve run into a particular traveler, Tzion from New York (and previously, from Israel). He’s a high school teacher of kids who have been in jail and he, himself, has an admittedly rough-round-the-edges past. Tzion has developed something of a connection with Rabbi Nechemiah here and, during discussion yesterday, the rabbi invited Tzion to join him on a visit of Israeli convicts imprisoned in Bangkok’s city jail. Tzion then turned to me and said, ‘Wanna come?’. I was in. I had to wait until the end of the day today to pick up my Cambodian entry-visa and I liked the idea of doing something good for someone other than myself. I have to admit I was wary of what it would be like ‘on the inside’, flashes of ‘Midnight Express’, or worse, flickering through my mind.
We were to meet the rabbi at Chabad House at noon, which gave me the morning to fill in another of those blanks from my previous visit: Wat Arun – The Dawn Temple. Wat Arun is on the other (i.e. west) side of the Chao Phraya river, a cold-coffee-‘n-double-cream expanse of water which slithers through Bangkok. The wat makes an impression even from a distance as it stretches its ‘prang’ (Khmer-style needle-like tower) about 80m into the air.
The water taxi is a 30m long machine, covered for most of its length with a low wooden roof beneath which most passengers sit or stand. There is a small open-air deck aft that serves as the passenger entrance/exit. The captain and the ‘whistle-man’ work in unison to dock the boat at each pier, the whistle-man using a series of shrill whistle tones to direct the captain as he shimmies the boat’s rear up to the dock through a series of back and forth thrusts of the motor. Imagine parallel parking a 100′ foot limo on a wavy street and you’ve got the picture.
Out on the river there is actually a breath of air, a rare luxury in Bangkok, but the river traffic does a pretty good imitation of its street-bound cousin, except there are no defined lanes, and boats, tugs, water taxis and barges careen all over the place.
On the far side, Wat Arun stood over us, its full height and detailed coloured tile designs visible above the trees near its base. As with many other wats I’ve been to, the atmosphere inside the walls of the wat manage to blot out the pace and drive all around it. Incense curls silently on caressing breaths of air while dazzling angular shrines to Buddha, guarded by Bodhisattva images, are splashed in shiny jewel tiles.
I wandered through one of the side temples, its courtyard full of stone-carved images of mythical creatures. There was only one other person visible, a Thai man, probably about my age, dressed in bedraggled clothes. I watched in fascination as, one by one, he sat on a series of sphinx-like carvings, straddling their backs like a jockey, and with obvious ardour and affection, stroked each one, especially their faces and where there genitals would be. He was smiling serenely to himself, a slightly crooked smile as he gently kissed their faces again and again. To be honest, I don’t think all his joss sticks were lit, um, you know. But it was strange to see this most intimate example of idolatry.
In the afternoon, I met up with Tzion and one other traveler, Rebecca from Philadelphia, who decided to join us. Turned out the rabbi got sidetracked and couldn’t make it, but he gave us directions, written in Thai. A 45 minute taxi cruise got us to Kukh Ban Kwong (it sounds like that anyway) Bangkok city jail. It wasn’t hard to spot. Thirty foot high white walls accompanied us for three or four blocks until we got to the administrative area. We had to check in with our passports and the names and cell blocks of the inmates. We were then directed through The Door, a high, wide, steel-reinforced affair. I tried to imagine what it must be like for a convict, especially from another country, to walk through a door like this knowing it will be many years until he walks through it again — if ever.
Inside we found ourselves in a huge room, something like a cement-walled gymnasium. A long table of uniformed officials on our left, each looking like they were born without the gene for smiling, checked and re-checked the kosher meals we had brought for the prisoners and our own water bottles. We were then directed through another door and found ourselves in, of all things, a bright airy rectangular courtyard – not what I had pictured. Immediately ahead of us, dozens upon dozens of people were sitting on benches facing through a formidable barrier of bars and wire, across a one metre trench, another set of bars and wire and there, on the Inside, were prisoners.
We were sent to another part of the courtyard where, apparently, foreign visitors meet foreign prisoners. We handed over the names of the Israelis we had come to see, and waited. Meanwhile, I examined the inmates just across the trench from me who were in the midst of visits. They all looked remarkably healthy, relaxed, comfortable as if (I hate to say it) they had been doing this for years. It didn’t jibe with my expectations, my imagined caricature of haunted, desperate men. These guys were hearty, laughing, gabbing up a storm with their visitors.
Finally the Israelis were brought into view. We had each chosen a name of one of them to speak with. Yoseph was my man. Of the three, he looked the worst. His face was gaunt, drawn thin, with dark circles under his eyes and he had the furtive, darting eyes of someone being hunted. It was difficult at first to get a flow of discussion going. Yoseph seemed to get more and more agitated as we talked. Part of the problem was that we were all required to yell back and forth as the acoustics were pathetic, and part of the problem was that I was operating in a second language (hebrew). We fell into an awkward silence after the first bit of small talk. I then asked him if he received letters from anyone. He said yes, from his family and we started to talk about his family and then about my family and my move to Israel and from there the ice melted a bit. After a while, we switched partners and I talked with Shimon. He was an older man, almost grandfather-ly with twinkling blue eyes and a decent pot belly all of which told me he wasn’t starving on the inside. I purposely did not ask them what they were in for – or whether they were guilty – as the answers were beyond moot at this point. But Shimon did tell me that his 100- year sentence had been commuted to eight years, thanks to a convict treaty between Israel and Thailand, and that he only had four or five months to go.
When it was time to leave, we asked if there was anything they wanted from the prison’s visitors’ store. All wanted cigarettes and whatever else we could afford so we each chipped in about $10US and got them cigarettes and coffee. Shimon talked about seeing me on the streets of Jerusalem soon. I wonder…