Nonthaburi is a province in Central Thailand located along the Chao Phraya River north-northwest of Bangkok and south of Ayutthaya. Due to its location along the river, this province was hit extremely hard by last year’s flooding. Everything appears back to normal and I could not see any residual impact. Nonthaburi is home to about one million people, lots of Buddhist temples, and two interesting attractions that spurred my interest in traveling up there. So, a couple of weeks ago, I took a taxi from my apartment (point A on map below) to the river (B) and then rode on the Chao Phraya Express Boat for about 45 minutes to its northern terminus in Nonthaburi (C).
Although part of greater Bangkok, Nonthaburi differs from the city. Pedal-propelled samlors, unseen in Bangkok, still offer transportation around Nonthaburi. Not very many tourists make it up here, so few signs are in English and locals fluent in English seem rare. A large clock tower stands near the pier with a chicken, the province symbol I assume, prominently positioned on top and there is a colorful Chinese shrine near the river. While both were interesting to view, my main reasons to travel to Nonthaburi were Bang Kwang and Koh Kret.
Bang Kwang Central (D) is a maximum security prison and the home of Thailand’s death row. The prison is located about one-quarter of a mile from the Nonthaburi pier, and I wanted to see it (from the outside, thank you) on my way to Koh Kret (E).
Westerns have nicknamed the prison the Bangkok Hilton, but Thais referred to it as The Big Tiger since they say it prowls and eats men up. The 80 acre prison was built in the late 1920s to hold 4,000 inmates, but it currently houses over 8,000 in 11 dormitories. The prisoners here have all been sentenced to at least 25 years incarceration or to death. Many foreigners who get in trouble in Thailand, usually for drug-related offenses, end up here. Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and sentences of 30 years or longer are common.
Life in Bang Kwang sounds pretty rough, but I think that Arizona’s Sheriff Joe would love this place. The walls surrounding the prison start three feet under ground, rise about 15 feet above ground, and are topped by high voltage wires. The perimeter is then surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence topped with razor wire.
The cells are reportedly about 15 feet wide and 20 feet long. Each holds 20 or more inmates, each contains one squat toilet in the corner surrounded by a low wall, and each is lit throughout the night by a single bare light bulb. With only 10 to 15 square feet per person, the prisoners sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on thin mats on the concrete floor of their communal cell. Inmates are provided with just one bowl of rice in a thin, watery soup each day; if they want more food (and all do), they have to buy it from the prison canteen and cook it themselves. The more fortunate inmates get support from friends, family, or charities; the others have to work for either prison guards or other prisoners in order to earn their money. Water is pumped into the prison directly from the nearby Chao Phraya, although prisoners with money can buy water from the city supply.
The inmates are woken at 6:00 a.m. every day and the cell is unlocked at 6:30 a.m. Inmates leave the cell during the day to cook and eat, to work in the prison year, to meet with the infrequent visitor, to read, and to attend training classes. At 5:30 p.m. the cells are locked for the night and 9:00 p.m. is bedtime.
Up until 1935, executions were carried out by decapitation. From 1935 through 2003, the condemned were executed by machine gun with the inmate tied to a wooden frame with his back about 13 feet from executioner and a screen set between the two. Upon a signal from the prison’s governor, the executioner pulled the trigger to release a quick burst of 15 bullets that sped through a target on the screen and into the condemned man’s heart. Since 2003, lethal injections have been used with the death row prisoner notified just an hour or two before his scheduled execution, just enough time to write one last letter and perhaps make a call home. Throughout their incarceration, death row prisoners are shackled with leg irons permanently welded around their ankles. New prisoners are shackled for the first six months, not so much to keep them from escaping but rather to keep them from killing themselves as they adjust to life in Bang Kwang.
Koh Kret is an island in the Chao Phraya River that was created in 1722 when a canal was dug to bypass a bend in the river. The island is home to descendants of the Mon people, an ethnic tribe from the southern Thai-Burmese border that is responsible for the spread Buddhism throughout these two nations.
Getting to Koh Kret was a bit of a challenge. With my limited ability to communicate with taxi drivers and few signs in English, it took me awhile to get a taxi to the Pak Kret market. From the market, I had to find my way to a nearby temple from which a cross-river ferry would take me to Koh Kret for two baht (about 7 cents.) Once on the island, I simply followed the walkway that circles the island — about a 2 mile stroll. The island is pretty quiet since there are no roads and hence no cars, trucks, or tuk-tuks and only the occasional motorcycle.
The Mon people are noted for their pottery and desserts. There are probably a couple of dozen workshops and kilns where the pottery is made and even more path-side vendors selling it. The pottery is fired unglazed terracotta carved with intricate patterns. I picked up two incense burners, one in the native red clay and the other in a flat black.
There are several temples along the pathway around this small island. Wat Pai Lom, called Phia Toh by the Mon, dates back to 1767 and the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese. The displaced Mon settled in Nonthaburi and built this temple. Wat Poramaiyikawat is a monastery also built by the Mon, and a 30 foot long reclining Buddha dating back to Ayutthayan era is housed in Phra Wiharn.
… And on the Ninth Day
I did not see the Super Bowl since kick-off was on Monday morning here in Thailand. I did, however, seek out several of the most-commented upon commercials on the internet, including the “So God Made a Farmer” ad for the Dodge Ram pickup truck. During my search, I stumbled upon the follow-on, or as Paul Harvey would have said “and now for the rest of the story”. Click here to enjoy.
On a more serious note, if you have not seen Dr. Benjamin Carson’s speech from the National Prayer Breakfast held on February 7th, I highly recommend it. It is nearly 30 minutes long, but well worth the time.
Happy Chinese New Year — Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.