In March 2007 I was on holiday in Thailand and decided to travel to Lard Yao prison in Bangkok to visit a female inmate I had been writing to for the past year. After a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown Bangkok I was soon in the prison grounds which are quite attractive to look at and well landscaped around a large pond. Inside, as you could imagine, wasn't quite as nice. Thai prisons are notorious due to films like "Bangkok Hilton" and "Brokedown Palace".
I was the only westerner in the visiting area. The 200 or so other visitors there were obviously Thai but there were also quite a few Africans. I would guess mainly Nigerians due to their track record of drug smuggling. The guards spoke very little English so it was difficult to communicate. Had I not spoken a little Thai I think I would have given up and went back to my hotel.
Anyway, I eventually got checked in and after a 45 minute wait, during which time I thought they had forgotten about me, I heard my friend's name being called out over the PA system along with the words "sib sam" which is Thai for 13. Then they repeated it. So I had to go to visiting window 13 which was about 100 yards away. Before I was allowed to pass through the security gate to the visiting windows I had to hand over my mobile phone as photos are not allowed without permission.
There are no visitor phones in Lard Yao and we had to talk through holes in the screens. I didn't recognise my friend at first as she looked much thinner in the face than the pic she sent me and her hair was dyed jet black. The fact the plastic screens were quite dark didn't help matters. She almost looked Thai and I had to check with the official that I had the right prisoner.
Anyway we quickly got that established and began to chat. She was delighted to have a visitor as she only gets a couple of visits a year. Also it got her out of the prison bakery for a bit as she works there from 4am to 7pm. She told me her work helps to keep her mind off her sentence and her 8 year old daughter who doesn't know her mother's in prison. Also, she told me, it lets her see the stars and the moon when she walks back to her dormitory after work is finished. A dormitory she shares with 74 other women.
She also fills the remainder of her time learning languages. She is fluent in Uzbek, Russian, Greek and English and is learning Korean and Japanese from fellow inmates. I couldn't help think what a waste of what would otherwise have been a promising young life.
It was quite an experience for us both - quite moving - especially when she said: "I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you coming to visit me" and again at the end when a buzzer sounded to signal the end of the visit and we stood up and looked at one another for the final time. I wondered if I would ever see her again. To date I haven't been back to Thailand and the fact I've just lost my job makes that prospect unlikely in the immediate term. We are, however, still in touch and I send her money when I can afford to so that's some consolation.