This former female-only penitentiary is located right in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old town. It’s easily missed and I suspect that, on a daily basis, dozens, if not hundreds of tourists (including us, in the past) have unwittingly walked past it en route to some of the area’s more well-known attractions.
The main entrance to the prison is fairly nondescript. There are plenty of buildings in Thailand that look like it and even the high perimeter wall that extends in either direction doesn’t especially arouse suspicion. Much of the wall is covered in foliage and/or street art and there’s nothing really out of the ordinary that would make you think twice about why it’s there.
But, take a second glance or walk around the boundary wall and it soon becomes apparent that there is more to this complex than meets the eye. For starters, the wall is higher than normal and closer inspection reveals razor-wire on top of most of it. There are four watchtowers, one positioned at each corner, and, if that wasn’t enough of a giveaway, there are signs on the main entrance that unquestionably confirm this disused building was once a prison.
The official entrance to the prison was padlocked when we turned up and one of the signs on the main door stated NO PHOTOGRAPHY. We weren’t sure if this was a hangover from the prison days or a newly erected sign but, what was certain, was that we weren’t going to get into the jail’s interior via this route.
Main prison entrance
Apart from hoping to get inside, we had come to the prison because we had heard its outer wall was covered in street art. And it was, the exterior of both the eastern and northern sections of the wall had some fantastic art painted on them and, after working out we weren’t simply going to stroll into the jail via its main entrance, we began to follow the art along the eastern wall, admiring it and taking photos. It wasn’t long before we reached the watchtower on the northeast corner. The small doorway at its base was open and a rickety staircase led up to the actual turret. This was our first glimpse into the prison grounds and we could clearly see the layout of the place. We returned to ground level and continued along the northern wall, where more street art was on display.
We turned a corner once more and realised our luck was in. In front of us was a gaping, unprotected entrance that went directly into the prison grounds. The area was so big, in fact, it was used as a parking lot for a few songthaews (fixed-route pickup trucks) while their drivers headed off to nearby food stalls for something to eat. There was nobody around and we took the opportunity to head in, undetected.
Once inside, we explored at a leisurely pace. There was nobody else inside the place and, apart from one of the three cell blocks which was locked, we had access to anywhere we wanted. We started in the open-air mess hall, where we found yet more street art, before wandering into the cell block adjacent to it. We then sought out the visitors’ area and, what was presumably, the governor’s office which was also in the same building. At this point, we were directly above the main entrance and watched unsuspecting tourists walking past from the open-air prison-bar windows.
We had to be careful where we put our feet. Vegetation grows fast in the tropics and we had read online that there might be lizards and snakes in the undergrowth. As usual, we came prepared and had on shorts and sandals but most of the paths were reasonably well defined and I (Kirsty always holds back until she knows the coast is clear!) only had to push through foliage that made me feel a bit nervous on a couple of occasions.
Inmate’s personal lockers
About an hour and a half later we exited via the same way we came in. The songthaew drivers had finished their meal and were milling around their vehicles but they paid us little attention as we strolled out past them. We had heard that this isn’t always the case and they may stop you going in if they spot you in the first instance. We also found out, after our visit, that sometimes the gap in the boundary wall is barricaded and entry is not possible. We took two groups of friends inside the prison over the course of the two months we were last in Chiang Mai (early November to early January 2017/8) and the situation was the same as I’ve described above both times but, as is often the case with any abandoned building awaiting development (see below) things change and an element of luck is required.
Looking down on the prison grounds from one of the watchtowers
So, what of the history of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution and what is to become of it?
The prison dates back to the early 1900s and was originally used to incarcerate men. I’m not sure at what point it became a jail for female offenders but the women inside were mostly there for drug-related offences. It was closed as a penal institution in 2013. All the female inmates were moved to Chiang Mai’s male prison, which is away from the centre of the old town and, in turn, the male prisoners were moved to another penitentiary on the outskirts of the city in Mae Rim.
According to Chiang Mai City Life magazine the prison was due to be torn down soon after the date of its closure. The location is prime real estate and there were plans to develop a commercial complex on the site that would include shops, restaurants, office space, etc. There is a banner on the wall to the right of the main prison entrance which displays an artist’s impressions of what the complex will look like when complete. Clearly work on the project has been put on hold and no doubt this is due to financial reasons rather than anything such as planning permission. We did see a little bit of evidence that workman had been inside the prison recently, but nothing on a scale required for a venture of this magnitude. For the time being the prison remains abandoned and one of Chiang Mai’s more unusual tourist attractions.
An artist’s impression of the prison’s destiny
And one final point of interest that caught my attention. Again, according to Chiang Mai City Life, the correctional institution “was supposed to be one of the best places to do time in Thailand.” (*). The magazine was permitted to enter the prison just after it was closed and photograph it. You can see the photos by clicking on the link above. Personally, I don’t think the prison looks much different five years on.
(*) A vocational training centre, offering massage and spa treatment, run by the inmates still exists in the city and is very popular with visitors.
If you want to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison, the GPS coordinates are 18.791206, 98.985042.