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During my research for an article about literature set in Bangkok, I came across a surprisingly high number of books about Bangkok’s prisons.
It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise — there have been plenty of farang (white foreigners) imprisoned over here after all. And one of the best ways to raise money and educate others on your experience after you get out? Write a book about it, of course!
Thailand has lured many a foreigner to her shores in the past few decades, entrancing them with the prospect of a cheap party lifestyle, living like a king in a tropical paradise.
But a handful of Siam’s visitors get in over their heads. The money runs out but they aren’t prepared to give up their lifestyle. Some of them turn to drugs — whether dealing or smuggling across borders.
Thailand’s attitude to drugs is famously severe: even possession of a small amount of cannabis can find you slapped with a long prison sentence. The death penalty is not unusual in cases of smuggling.
Not every foreigner imprisoned in Thailand is there for drug-related crimes, but a sizeable number certainly are. Most of the ex-prisoners who have written books about their ‘time’ in Bangkok were there thanks to drugs.
By Warren Fellows (2000)
The Damage Done is one of the most famous memoirs of life in a Bangkok prison — the notorious Bang Kwang — documenting the human rights abuses and atrocities Fellows endured for 12 years after receiving a life sentence for trafficking heroin in 1978.
The events written about in the book are so horrific that some have doubted their veracity and accused Fellows of hyperbole. Beatings, drug abuse, having to eat cockroaches for protein and suicide attempts are all discussed.
Fellows goes into extreme detail but many readers describe it as ‘unputdownable’.
Jon Cole (2012)
Cole, the son of a US Green Beret colonel who was serving in Vietnam, found himself studying at the International School of Bangkok in the late 1960s. Inevitably lead astray by the allure of the City of Angels, Cole finds himself burdened with a heroin habit and a career as a drug smuggler, before being imprisoned in the notorious Klong Prem.
It’s a well written book that examines Cole’s time in prison and his eventual acceptance of both his fate and his decisions.
Rather than follow Fellows’ path of documenting the various abuses he saw, Cole focuses on the story of his addiction and his relationships inside the prison.
David McMillan (2007)
McMillan was arrested in Bangkok’s Chinatown and imprisoned in Klong Prem after found to be masterminding a global heroin-smuggling syndicate. His memoir documents how he became the only Westerner to date to escape from the ‘Bangkok Hilton’.
Readers have praised Escape for pulling no punches: there’s no smugness at escaping, no pitiful excuses for his drug offences — rather a tale of grit and friendship. It also documents McMillan’s prison life before he manages to get away.
tm hoy (2012)
This book is more a compendium of short stories from Hoy’s time in Klong Prem, describing the horrors of daily life there, such as wearing chains, no food, murders, drug abuse, torture and tuberculosis.
Hoy doesn’t reveal the nature of his crime, but rather accepts his punishment and sets about detailing the stories of the various characters he meets while imprisoned.
joanne joseph (2013)
This is the story of South African model Vanessa Goosen, who was sentenced to death in 1994 after unknowingly trafficking heroin out of Thailand, planted by her partner.
Goosen was 3 months pregnant at the time and delivered her baby while imprisoned in Lard Yao prison. Felicia lived with Goosen until she was 3, when the baby was sent home to South Africa to live with a friend.
This story tells of Goosen’s trial and time in prison, including the harrowing story of having her baby taken away, and also how she adjusted to ‘normal’ life after she was pardoned by the King in 2010.
sandra gregory (2013)
Another account of female imprisonment in Bangkok, this book documents Gregory’s struggles as she attempts to smuggle an addict’s personal supply of heroin out of Thailand, after running out of money.
She was imprisoned again in Lard Yao and endured her trial in Thai before being sentenced to death. Four and a half years into her sentence, she was transferred to the UK prison system, before finally being pardoned by the King of Thailand in 2010.
andy botts (2007)
This tells the story of professional criminal Botts, who started life as a thief in Hawaii before finally being arrested for drug trafficking in Bangkok. Sentenced to death, Botts continued to abuse drugs during his time in prison and here tells of the horrors of daily life.
It also seeks to document the spiritual journey that Bangkok imprisonment gifted Botts and his realisation that everything happens for a reason.
Debbie singh (2015 — 2nd edition)
One of the few Bangkok prison books about someone not convicted of a drug crime, this book is actually written by the sister of an inmate in Klong Prem. Debbie Singh’s brother was sentenced to 10 years in Klong Prem after being found guilty of cashing false traveller’s cheques.
She campaigned to have her brother transferred away from the daily degradation to an Australian prison, and also set out to locate his Thai-born son. This story also looks at Singh’s renewed love for Thailand and her tireless charity work.
colin martin (2005)
Welcome to Hell is a memoir of Martin, imprisoned in Klong Prem after attempting to apprehend the man who defrauded him of a huge sum of money in a business deal after the corrupt Thai police refused to intervene. Martin was convicted of murder.
The book was actually written in Martin’s cell and smuggled out page by page — rather than being penned many years later like most prison memoirs. He’s very upfront about the putrid conditions of Klong Prem and pulls no punches in their descriptions.