Dusit’s Former House of Horrors has been Turned into a Quaint Urban Retreat
Guests were almost certainly in a state of awe when passing through Klong Prem’s huge gate a hundred years ago. Though its structure was striking, these “guests” were probably not in awe of its design. Located along Maha Chai Road, marking the border between Dusit and Yaowarat, the old Klong Prem Prison represented the solemn side of European influence.
Joachim Grassi, one of the first Italians invited to the Court of Siam to work for the monarchy, had designed the original prison. The architect took inspiration for the layout of Bangkok’s largest prison from another infamous correctional facility, the HMP Brixton, found near London. First described as one of the worst prisons in England after opening in 1821, Brixton Prison was progressively expanded and integrated facilities such as a nursery for children and open-air yards for exercising—although the treatment of prisoners remained gruesome throughout the years.
The layout of the prison, a square yard with a central unit surrounded by adjunct facilities, such as guardians’ quarters, a nursery, and dormitories, was copied from the Brixton model. As was its grand gates, which were flanked by two pavilions. It almost recalled the entrance to a palace.
In 1987, the Thai government decided to demolish the prison. The prisoners had long since moved to the newer Klong Prem in the Lard Yao district, a structure that today holds nearly 20,000 inmates. Grassi’s historical structure, however, was partially kept intact: two watch towers, part of the wall, and two pavilions, as well as the main gate and entrance, were renovated to house the Bangkok Corrections Museum, which was officially inaugurated in 1999 by HRH Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Visitors today can peruse the grounds and learn about prison living conditions of old, including a look back at the institution’s darker side, such as its heart-rending history of torture. Whipping, tying prisoners atop a rattan ball studded with nails, decapitation by sword—all such nefarious practices are on display. The museum is currently being renovated and has already been renamed the “Museum of Crime and Justice,” a softer name applied to this former house of horrors.
The prison compound itself has been turned into Romaneenart Park, one of the most pleasant gardens in Bangkok. In place of prisoners working or sleeping, there are now old men chatting on benches, joggers running around the wall, and kids shouting joyfully in playgrounds. The gate has recently been given new coats of paint, as well, evoking Italy more than ever through dark yellow walls and green windows. In the sunset, it even casts a romantic glow as the park turns into a polychromatic parade of oranges and pinks. Birds chirp, locals laugh, and the old days of terror gradually fade into memory.
CRIME AND JUSTICE MUSEUM
Open to the public Mon-Fri from 9.30am to 4pm. Park open from sunrise to dawn. Call 0 2226 1706 for more information.