Thursday, June 23, 2011

Palace, Prison, Puppets

This 84 year old King Rama IX is sick in the hospital.  We had special access to the inside of the Grand Palace but couldn't take pictures so I snagged this one off the internet. 

       We were privileged to have special access to the Grand Palace which is normally closed to visitors.  Its architecture was inspired by Buckingham palace, but evidently as it was being constructed there was concern that it looked too European so they added a traditional Thai roof to the structure, leading to the joke that it’s a “European palace with a Thai crown”.  This is no longer an official residence of the king, but Rama IX entertains visiting dignitaries there such as Queen Elizabeth II and Bill Clinton.  We felt very special being guided past the “No Entry” signs to enter the palace and then looking out the windows at the peon tourists below who could only see the Palace from the outside.  The royal reception rooms are adorned with busts of royalty who sent images of themselves to the kings of Thailand over the years– for example, there is a bust of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and Edward VII of England, gifts to Rama V in the late 1800s.  There are also huge portraits of the Rama Kings and their consorts.
"Buckingham Palace with an oriental hat"

      Our guest lecturer for the palace was Dr. Suriyavudh Sukhasvasti, an eminent professor of Southeast Asian civilization and a member of the royal family, and he also took us to the coronation room (which is open to the public) and to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  At age 84 King Rama IX has been on the throne of Thailand for over 60 years which makes him the longest serving monarch in the world.  The coronation hall has a photo of him being crowned in that very room at age 19.  The Temple of the Emerald Buddha contains the most revered Buddha image in Thailand which is actually made out of jade (not emerald).  The king changes the Buddha’s clothing according to the season, so we were able to see him in his summer clothing.  The statue is quite small, but is housed in another spectacular and ornate Thai temple which defies description so I’ll post photos (we were not allowed to photograph the interior of the palace or the temple).  This is the first place the Fulbright people have taken us to in Bangkok which I’d already visited, as the Grand Palace complex was the first place Jeff and I went to when we were here in 1984.  

Guarding the entrance to the palace


      Picture this experience….  We leave the splendor of the Grand Palace, a place of grandeur and exquisite craftsmanship, with a member of the royal family as our escort.  A short bus trip later we’re at the Bangkok Women’s Prison to eat lunch cooked and served by the inmates.  But the change of scene wasn’t as extreme as you might imagine because the prison restaurant was actually quite elegant and we were served in a banquet room adorned with large pictures of the royal family.
Believe it or not this is the restaurant dining room at the Central Women's Prison in Bangkok

       The Kamlangjai Project at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution is a program to provide rehabilitation to female prisoners, providing them with vocational training to reintegrate them into society after their release.  It is under the patronage of Princess Bajrakitiyabha, who has a law degree from Cornell University and has presented this project to the United Nations as a prototype for prisoner rehabilitation.  I wasn’t able to take any pictures inside the facility because we had to go through security and leave all our belongings outside, passing through metal detectors and a physical pat-down before going through the thick steel door into the facility.  Inside was probably one of the most bizarre experiences of my life as the prison looked like the campus of a nice secondary school in the U.S.  I’ve had 24 hours to digest this experience and I’m still not sure how much of what we saw was authentic and how much was a display put on for our benefit - but no one could deny that the physical appearance of the prison was certainly incongruent with popular images of foreign prisons that you find in movies such as Midnight Express, Brokedown Palace or even Bridget Jones.  Like I said, it had a campus atmosphere and we were taken to the library where about 20 women were intently reading (maybe a little too intently as they didn’t even look up at us – weren’t they curious to have sixteen Americans traipsing through their prison or had they been told to look engrossed in their reading?)
No photos were allowed inside the prison but I got these off the internet.  It's the princess visiting her prison project.

      The warden of the prison had given us a PowerPoint presentation prior to our tour which explained that the women were provided with an education behind bars, ranging from teaching some of the illiterate ones how to read all the way through awarding bachelor’s degrees and college certificates.  The reading material the inmates appeared to be reading so intently was in English and the warden explained that English language instruction was important for the women to gain legitimate employment after they were released.  The prisoners are also given vocational training in areas such as food preparation (thus the prison restaurant), cosmetology, traditional Thai massage, garment production, and handicrafts.  One of the oddest things about it is that, according to the statistics we were given, 523 of the women had a life sentence and 82 of them were on death row – but they were still undergoing the rehabilitation program, maybe in hopes or one day receiving a royal pardon from the King. 

      The warden was actually a very intelligent and compassionate woman with the kind of wry sense of humor one would need to have her position.  After the library we were taken to the nursery to see the 35 babies born to inmates and being raised in prison.  No matter how much propaganda we might have been fed in the presentation and our tour, nobody could deny that these babies were being well cared for.  There were eight “babysitters” in the nursery caring for infants that ranged from 2 weeks to 14 months old.  We were able to hold the babies and the warden told us that they made a point to bring the mothers in labor to an outside hospital for their babies to be born (even though there is a hospital in the prison compound) so that the babies wouldn’t have to go through life with “Central Women’s Prison Hospital” on their birth certificate. Fifty-six of the inmates are currently pregnant. The warden told us a funny story about an inmate who was taken to the hospital to give birth and her guard became so enchanted with the baby and was so engrossed with cuddling it that the mom took advantage of the moment and escaped!  The warden thought this story was as funny as we did.  (I keep referring to her as “the warden” but she was actually the Director of the Social Welfare Division of Prisons.)  She told us that the babies were raised in the prison until about age one when they were given to family members or taken to an orphanage but they still visited their mothers once a week and every effort was made to reunite mother and child upon the mom’s release.

      Anyway, we tore ourselves away from the adorable babies and were shown one of the cells.  This was pretty stark but was impeccably clean.  The women sleep on mats on the ground, about 30 to a cell (though the cell was empty when we were there as it’s only used for sleeping and the inmates were all busy in their rehab programs at the time). There was a TV, but all it plays is royal news and prison approved videos.  There was one toilet for the cell and it had a privacy wall and appeared to be clean.  They have such large cells because the prisoner-to-guard ratio is 1:20 whereas in the United States it’s about 1:5. 

      Throughout our tour we could hear the prisoners chanting Buddhist prayers and we were told that religious instruction was a big part of the rehabilitation program and that religious rights were observed for those who practiced religions other than Buddhism.  There were all religions represented there as, of the 4,407 women incarcerated in the prison, 648 were foreigners.  As we walked around we could see the open-air pavilion were a few hundred women were sewing, crocheting, painting, etc., and to conclude our tour we were taken to a staging area where they had demonstrations of some of the handicrafts made in the prison such as embroidery, jewelry making, batik, etc.  It was so bizarre.  They had all these prisoners playing traditional Thai music and smiling as others were working on their macram√© or some other project (and smiling).  According to prison statistics these women were incarcerated for drug trafficking, human trafficking, theft, and murder – yet here they were serving us iced coffee and dessert, smiling, entertaining us, and offering us their crafts for sale.  There is a prison gift shop outside the compound but as special guests we were allowed to choose items as we were being entertained and then pick them up and pay for them outside the prison as we left.  I bought two beaded necklaces and some of my fellow Fulbrighters went crazy buying needlepoint, embroidered linens, etc.  The inmates are allowed to keep 40% of the profits from the sales. 

       As we left the prison I kept trying to sort out how much of what we saw was propaganda  and a show put on for our benefit and how much was real.  It certainly looked to be a legitimate effort at enlightened correctional science and was the last thing I would have expected to see in Bangkok!  We were told that less than 5% of the women paroled out of the program became repeat offenders since they all left incarceration with marketable skills.  Of course they did acknowledge that this prison was the exception rather than the rule but  there is an effort to clone this concept in all women’s prisons in Thailand.  Too bad my girlfriend Bridget Jones wasn’t taken to this facility!

For obvious reasons we were not allowed to take photos inside the prison so here's the one shot I took outside


       Another 180 degree cultural turn took us to a huge, posh, modern building which houses an upscale food court, duty free shops, and the Askara Hoon Lakorn Lek Puppet Theater.  Puppetry is evidently a traditional Thai art that is fading away so this theater was built to preserve the tradition.  Students at the college of Fine Arts are the puppeteers, dancers, and musicians and it was a very entertaining, slick, and professional program depicting scenes from Thai folklore.  The performance was similar to the Lion King with the puppeteers appearing on stage, three for each puppet to manipulate the spindles which control the puppets’ head, arm, and head movements.  It was funny and enjoyable so a good time was had by all.

Thai puppet show