Thailand's reality-based tourism

Tourists in Bangkok skip well-trodden beaches to visit imprisoned foreigners

Michael Braun was 27 when he was given a life sentence in Thailand's Bang Kwang Prison for trying to smuggle some heroin out of the country in his suitcase.

"When I first got here," the Seattle native says, "I could ... pass for a high school student." But after nearly 10 hard years, Mr. Braun says he no longer hears people commenting on his youthful looks.

Braun is one of 18 American citizens in Thailand's prisons, and one of roughly 2,500 US citizens arrested annually abroad. He passes his time meditating, reading what he can get his hands on, and teaching English to a Thai friend.

Occasionally, his routine is broken when Braun gets a message that a traveler has stopped to see him. He guesses that over the last nine years, as many as 100 people may have dropped in for an hour or so to chat and find out about his life at Bang Kwang.

In perhaps the latest twist to reality-based tourism, visiting imprisoned foreigners has become something of a trend among young travelers passing through Bangkok. Each year, some 8.5 million tourists pass through Thailand. As paths to beaches become more well trodden, young backpackers looking for a more visceral holiday experience have been going to Bang Kwang to see their compatriots.

Many hostels and guest houses now post notices with prisoners' names and building numbers. The activity has become so popular it's garnered mention in the Lonely Planet traveler's guide and on the Khao San Road website (www.khaosanroad.com), a gateway to the popular backpacker strip of Bangkok. The site provides some fair caveats for those interested, such as not wearing shorts to the prison.

Most foreign visitors who arrive at Bang Kwang, Thailand's maximum security prison, are like Phillipa Bonnett, a 27-year-old New Zealander and Gerry McCue, a 21-year-old Irishman, who took the river taxi out together from Khao San Road. The two came partly to see if prison life matches up to its depiction in movies such as "Bangkok Hilton" and "Brokedown Palace," and partly because they thought of it as a nice gesture.

"We saw a notice in the guest house" said Ms. Bonnett, "that said, 'If you've got an hour to spare, they really appreciate visitors.' But I have to admit, I'm a bit interested in how horrible the stories are."

Mr. McCue said he came mainly out of curiosity, though he would like to see an Irish prisoner, if possible. A Dutch couple also arrived at Bang Kwang looking for a Dutch prisoner.

Most foreign inmates in Bang Kwang were involved in drug trade. Thailand is part of the Golden Triangle – together with Laos and Burma – which became a major global source of heroin in the 1960s after US Army bases were established in the county. Since then, the country's trafficking network has been well entrenched. But over the years antismuggling laws have been getting tougher. Currently, at least 66 percent of inmates in Thai prisons are serving terms for drug violations, while the courts are flooded with new drug-related cases.

At Bang Kwang, Ms. Bonnett talked for an hour and a half to a British prisoner sentenced for smuggling. "It was horrendous," she said afterward. "He's really despondent. I don't think he has much hope. I feel like I made a commitment to write to him."

McCue, however, was a bit let down. He also visited a British man, but didn't get to ask any of the questions he'd planned. His inmate, instead, talked nonstop about "teleporting" himself from prison, about the insect-like noises humans make, and America's war in Afghanistan. McCue and Bonnett bought some supplies at the prison store for their inmates.

Of the more than 7,000 foreigners in the corrections system in Thailand, most come from neighboring countries like Burma or Laos. But there is also a large contingent from Nigeria (officially 300, though some estimates run much higher) and smaller numbers from Europe, Australia, and America.

The majority of Western prisoners will eventually be transferred back to prisons in their home countries, as specified in prisoner transfer treaties between their countries and Thailand. US prisoners must serve a third of their sentence in Thailand, or four years – whichever is less. Those with narcotics convictions like Braun have to serve eight years before being eligible to go home to serve out their sentences.

Susan Aldous, who runs a nongovernmental organization that works with both Thai and foreign prisoners, says prisoners' reaction to visitors varies. "There are a few who won't come out," she says. "They don't want to be a monkey in a zoo. They don't want to be reminded that they've lost they lost their freedom. But most of them really appreciate it. They need to remember that they can communicate."

It's a key point for Braun, who is overdue to be transferred to the US. "What I get most out of the visits," he says through metal bars and wire mesh and across a four foot barrier, "is that you can say something and be understood the first time, and you can have an intelligent conversation, which you don't get too much of in here."

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