Chiang Mai appears to represent what every traveller fears, a city that's lost all its charm, swallowed up in shopping malls and swanky cafes, built to satisfy the needs of an ever-growing tourist market. No doubt I'm being very unfair here, but I'll be honest, it hadn't grabbed my imagination within the first few days of being there. Until, that is, driving around the old quarter of the city, I set eyes on an intriguing gap in a wall...
Readers of this website will already know that I'm an avid Urban Explorer, always on the look out for such tell tale signs of a derelict building. Imagine the thrill that many travellers experience when they set eyes on a deserted beach... same same but different.
Lo and behold! What did I find but an abandoned prison, right there amidst posh hotels and massage parlours, in the centre of Chiang Mai's old-quarter! I wasn't sure it was a prison at first (surely that would be too good to be true), yet the corners were marked by structures suspiciously reminiscent of watchtowers.
Turns out we'd discovered what had previously been known as The Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution. According to this article, which includes an interview with one of the inmates, the vast majority of the women held in Thai prisons are there for drug offences. Many of them originally come from hill tribe communities in Northern Thailand.
Later we learnt that a number of buildings that surround the old penitentiary offered massages performed by inmates and/or ex-inmates. In fact, these massages were one the city's main tourist attractions. The training scheme is part of the "Inspire" project, founded by Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, which is aimed at helping female prisoners and their children.
Later still we learnt, from first-hand experience, that these ladies are particularly gifted at their new trade. Whatever their original sins had been, they were certainly making up for it now...
The History of Chiang Mai Women's Prison
It's not easy to find out much about the prison online, at least not in English. I read that it had been built on the land that had formally housed the palace "Wiang Kaew", owned by King Mengrai, which had been knocked down in 1902. However, there seemed to be a bit of argument on the internet as to how much of this was true.
From what I can tell, the prison was closed in 2013, at which point the female inmates were moved to the men's prison, a little further out from the centre of town. The men, in turn, were moved to another prison in Mae Rim. I guess the value of a piece of real estate in the centre of Chiang Mai has risen too much over recent years to justify housing prisoners there.
What's left of the prison is split into various cell blocks, the main entrance, where the offices had been, the dining room and a medical block. There had been a courtyard in the middle, most of which now has effectively turned into swampland.
The Prison Dining Room
The Prison Entrance
How prisoners decorate the inside of their cells...
The unfortunate women who had occupied the "correctional institution" covered the walls of their cells with heart-wrenching insights into the longings and desires of women who have lost their freedom. Images torn from magazines of luxury hotels, expensive gadgets and other symbols of the life they aspired to, still form a collage of broken dreams on these walls years after the inhabitants had been moved elsewhere.
I also walked into what I think was "the hole" (solitary confinement), no bigger than a broom cupboard. I dread to think how long the prisoners were kept in there.
The Future of Chiang Mai's Abandoned Prison?
When the prison was closed, there were plans for the space to be turned into a commercial square. That was back in 2013, I can only assume that work on that idea has stopped. What will happen next, I'm not sure. I feel very lucky to have caught it during this intermediate stage. That is one of the main draws to abandoned buildings for me. Whilst they're in use, they are maintained and remain as such, basically the same from year to year. Once they close, they decline quickly. Catching a moment of this rapid decline before the inevitable refurbishment/demolition is a special thing.