Doing Time – Inside an Abandoned Prison, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Window with floor map writtten on at Chiang Mai's derelict women's prison
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…
That heartwarming combination of graffiti and a 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.
All Along The Watchtower. (There’s no song called “View From The Watchtower”).
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.
New fish.
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.
Needless to say, I was a fan.
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 dining room was one of the first stops.
Not sure this chap had been there while the prison was operating.
Not much activity around here these days…

The Prison Entrance

Between gates 2 and 3.
No Touching!!!
Gate 2, it would seem.
An office space (the warden’s quarters?) upstairs in the entrance building.

The Courtyard

Quite pretty really.
A Guard’s Hut?
Does that count as a lake view?
A view of the watchtower from next to the dining room.

Cell Block

Not the most private toilet in the world.
Cell Doors.
Floor level windows.
No caption needed.
Graffiti, naturally.

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.
Hopes and dreams pinned to the walls.
Decorations on the walls of the cells at the women's prison. Chiang Mai
“Great escapes”…
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.
Surprisingly enough, Chiang Mai’s vision of the future involves a shopping “plaza”.
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An abandoned Prison in Chiang Mai, Thailand [molongui_author_box]
Dave Noakes Bio Pic, with Nikki Scott
Dave Noakes

Dave joined the backpacker scene later than most. After living the first 13 years of his adult life in Barcelona, he set off for Asia for the first time at age 34. At this ripe old age, you’re more likely to find him in a half-moon pose than at a full-moon party. Dave is a musician (Chopper Dave) and has a keen interest in urban exploration.

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6 thoughts on “Doing Time – Inside an Abandoned Prison, Chiang Mai, Thailand”

  1. I went here today, as my co-working space is just down the street. Unfortunately, the gap in the wall has been closed down with rusty iron plates. Someone small could slide through a hole at the bottom, but not me. You could climb over it if you find something to step on, and bring some thick cloth to avoid injury.
    Also, the area at the gap in the wall is now being used as a parking spot for songthaew (truck taxi) drivers who seem to come here mostly at lunch time, they seem to be keeping an eye on the place. So for anyone who wants to try, don’t come here at lunch time.
    I walked around the wall, and you can still access a watchtower from which you can see the courtyard. Large boards with photos taken inside the prison have been nailed to the wall surrounding the prison, so you can still get an idea of what’s inside if you decide not to go in.

    1. Thanks for the update Matt. What a shame about the iron plates. I guess they must be about to start working on the conversion. I definitely wouldn’t suggest climbing over/under. Once a place is shut off, there’s some danger of getting in trouble for visiting it. There was a water park outside Chiang Mai that we made it to at dusk and didn’t have a proper explore of. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the name or location, but if you ask around, somebody’s bound to know where it is. Looked pretty good (we could see a 50m tall slide from the outside). If you have the chance, try and look it up. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to seize every opportunity you get to explore an abandoned site, cause sooner or later it’ll get closed up and you’ll have missed your chance. We spent a few months in Koh Lanta, where there was an abandoned Muay Thai stadium. I put off visiting it for a month or two and by the time I got there, they were busy renovating it! Very disappointing…

    1. Hi Chris,
      Go to the corner where Wiang Kaew Rd meets Khang Ruan Jum Rd, from what I can tell on the map, that’s the place. Good luck!
      P.S. I’ve been waiting to publish an article on one of Chiang Mai’s other great abandoned spots, which I’ve not gotten round to yet. Have a look for Space Roller near the bus station. Go up the stairs. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover…

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