Bang Kwang Prison in Nonthaburi near Bangkok in Thailand
Bang Kwang Central Prison: Located 11 km north of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province. Nicknamed the ‘Big Tiger’ reputedly due to its ability to eat men alive, the prison contains over 4,000 inmates. The prison is the seat of Thailand’s execution chamber and death row. Bang Kwang has a reputation for its harsh conditions. All inmates are required to wear leg shackles for the first 3 months of their sentence. (Picture source:

The Thai government recently intensified a popular campaign that has been underway in the Kingdom since 2014 to root out undesirable foreigners and what is perceived as increasing criminality caused by this group. The result has seen a growing number of foreign criminals, including westerners, doing hard time in Thai prisons, notorious for harsh conditions.

Although fears have often been expressed for prisoners with prior medical conditions or who cannot adjust to Thai prison conditions, there are also conflicting reports. In many cases, foreigners serving long jail terms opt to remain in Thailand rather than being transferred back home to complete their sentence. This would seem to fly in the face of the hell holes described in the bestselling books or the dark legends of foreigners being ‘eaten up’ by an unforgiving Thai prison regime. But there is no doubt that the conditions are harsh. There is also no doubt about another aspect of life in Thailand and the penal code. Foreigners to Thailand would do well to avoid drugs or any infringements of the law.

Thailand is a country ruled by-laws

Despite what many westerners think, Thailand is a country ruled by laws but the thing to understand is that these are Thai laws. Like everything in Thailand, the prison system and legal process has its own culture, strengths and weaknesses which foreigners can find tricky to navigate.

British Man who terrified neighbours found chained in a Thai holding cell

In late 2010 a prison rights activist stumbled upon an emaciated foreigner chained to prison cell bars in Pattaya holding cell. The activist, Benny Moafi, took photographs of the man who was described in press reports at the time as close to death. The man had been chained naked in a dirty Thai holding cell. Even when rescued he was described as hallucinating.


It was reported that the British man, Richard Hewitt was in a skeletal state after being attacked by fellow inmates for food. In press interviews, he said: ‘I was dreaming I was on a train to hell.’ In a response to media coverage, it later emerged that despite the state in which he was found Thai Police had accorded Mr Hewitt with due process and had even tried to get him medical attention. They had arrested him after he became violent towards others.

UK man arrested by Thai police after becoming aggressive at his apartment building

The Thai police reported that they had arrested the Hewitt at his apartment building on the 13th of November 2010 after terrified neighbours had called them to the scene. Police had to restrain the man who appeared to be under the influence of drugs.  It also emerged that the man had appeared before a Thai court but was found to be in no fit state to plead and was referred to mental health facilities. Once rescued by a charity, the UK man later appeared in court and was fined and deported from Thailand.

British man had a nervous breakdown or mental health issues while held in Pattaya

It has been claimed that the man had suffered a nervous breakdown. Hewitt, a computer engineer, had decided to travel the globe after coming into an inheritance. The story illustrates the dangers to foreigners of being held in Thailand through lack of communication and a different culture. The UK man was suffering from mental health issues at the time and was not able to deal with the conditions in a local Thai police holding facility. The British ambassador to Thailand in the aftermath of this incident warned ‘feckless Brits’ to avoid Thailand. He was criticised for his comments but they may have had merit.

UK man returns to the UK after 18 years in the ‘Bangkok Hilton’

In 2012, a UK man returned home after spending 18 years in Bangkok’s infamous Bang Kwang Prison known colloquially and in terms of black humour as the ‘Bangkok Hilton,’ arguably Thailand’s most feared prison and the subject of some best selling books. Surprisingly one of the first things Jonathan Wheeler spoke of was the shock he received when he landed back home in the United Kingdom at the extent technology had developed since he was locked up in Thailand and the changes in society while he was imprisoned in Thailand.

The 51-year-old was convicted of attempting to smuggle Stg 1 million worth of heroin to Taiwan from Bangkok airport in 1994.

UK man’s vivid description of like in a Bangkok prison cell

Jonathan vividly described the cramped conditions sharing a small cell with dozens of other inmates and sleeping on the floor with cockroaches and bugs of all sorts. He described an atmosphere of fear where life was cheap but emphasised that life in a Thai prison all depended on the support a prisoner had on the outside. In a Thai prison, prisoners can die from lack of good food which is easily available to prisoners who have the financial resources to purchase it. Even sex is available from katoeys in the Thai prison system if the money is available. For any prisoner, without outside support, the prospects are grim.

Horror of solitary confinement in Thai ‘hell hole’

Wheeler described the horror of being punished with solitary confinement and spending hours in a 5ft by 7ft hell hole confronting cockroaches. He said the key to survival was not thinking and the ability to ‘go within yourself.’

Embassy sponsored ‘banana visits’

Wheeler recalled that at the beginning of his prison term he received visits from family and friends in the UK and also described the visits that prisoners receive from the public, a campaign encouraged by foreign embassies. He said that prison inmates in Bangkok described these visits as ‘banana visits’ as the prisoners felt like monkeys in a cage.

Dream of exotic life in Thailand made Briton take a step too far

Jonathan explained his story that conforms to a pattern for many foreigners who get into trouble in Thailand. His desire to find enough income to live the dream in the exotic country propelled him to take a step too far. An opportunity to earn a considerable financial sum lead him to attempt to smuggle drugs out of Thailand to Taiwan, a favourite route for drugs emanating from Thailand’s golden triangle in the far north of the country. ‘That money would have taken me up a couple of levels,’ he told a UK local newspaper five years after his release from prison in Thailand.

Arrest for smuggling Stg 1 million of heroin out of Bangkok

He was arrested on May 10th 1994 for transporting heroin with a street value of over Stg 1 million at the time. His sentence was 50 years in the infamous Bangkok Hilton or Bang Kwang Central Prison in Bangkok. Bang Kwang is one of the most feared prisons in Thailand housing inmates sentenced to long periods in prison from 30 years to a full life sentence. It is also the seat of Thailand’s execution chamber and death row. The prison’s nickname is ‘Big Tiger’ referencing its ability to eat a man alive if he is not strong enough or left within the prison walls without outside support.

Thai prison very different from western prison – the story of an ex Thai politician and massage parlour boss

Thai prisons are very different from prisons in western countries. For a start, contrary to perception, rich and powerful Thais are jailed along with minor offenders.

One such figure was Chuwit Kamolvisit, a colourful politician and ex massage parlour boss, who was jailed by a Thai court in 2016, after a protracted legal journey, for offences committed in 2003. The charges related to properties Mr Kamolvisit was leasing in central Bangkok being razed to the ground. On release from prison, after serving nearly one year of a two years sentence, the ex-politician who says he prefers to be known as a ‘pimp’, explained that he had survived the prison regime by helping remove dead bodies from prison cells as part of his prison duties.

The wealthy and lucky Chuwit was granted a pardon as well as many thousands of other prisoners when Thailand’s new monarch ascended the throne. In a video clip within 24 hours of his release from San Francisco, Chuwit pointed out how fate had led him to be in prison one day and in a foreign country celebrating with his family the next.

UK man’s Royal pardon was the key to his release from Thai prison

The granting of a Royal pardon was also how Jonathan Wheeler was finally released from Bang Kwang and allowed to return to the UK in 2012. He recalled to local media in the UK the relief and joy he felt when the announcement was made over the prison’s loudspeaker system.

More foreigners ending up in Thai prisons

Growing numbers of foreigners are ending up on the wrong side of the law in Thailand. This is despite Thailand’s reputation of being a grim place to face imprisonment. And it’s not just foreign men. Foreigners around the world are familiar with the scene from the popular movie Bridget Jones Diary and TV footage of prisoners within the Thai penal system shuffling in ankle chains from prison transport vehicles.

UK woman jailed in Thailand may have been an inspiration for Bridget Jones storyline

Sandra Gregory, a UK woman who was jailed for a drugs offence in similar circumstances to the fictional character in the move reckons that the file storylines were based on her experience as the writer Helen Fielding was acquainted with her parents’ neighbours when she was locked up.

UK women wished he had stayed in Thai prison instead of UK transfer

Gregory who was banged up in Thailand for three years before being repatriated to a prison in the UK. Amazingly, Gregory recalls that she regretted her decision to ask for a transfer to the UK as conditions in Thailand were better: ‘I wish I had stayed in Thailand,’ she said. Gregory recalled that in the Thai prison she could go outside quite often and see the blue sky and trees in the prison garden. Gregory, on her return to serve the remaining 20 years of her 23 years sentence was placed in a maximum-security UK prison despite the offence being on the lower end of the scale under UK law. Her final release from prison came in 2010 after a Royal pardon was issued by the Thai King.

The UK woman later went on to become a student at Oxford after her release from prison. She was denied access to Thailand after returning recently to meet old friends from her prison days.

Muay Thai and the Thai fighters of Bangkok’s Klong Prem

Time magazine recently featured a news report from Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison, another feared prison in Bangkok, where many of the Kingdom’s hardened criminals server long sentences. The story featured the growing trend for international Muay Thai boxers to visit the prison to take on specially selected inmates who are champions of the prison and part of a programme to offer hardcore criminals serving long sentences a  way to redeem themselves and perhaps get some time off.

‘Muay Thai boxers command a lot of respect in Thailand,’ said Surawat Rungrueng, a prison guard involved in the programme. ‘Most of them will be here until their hair turns grey,’ the prison officer told the visiting international reporters. ‘The respect Muay Thai affords them is one of the things they can hold onto.’

Life of wealthy Dutchman living in Pattaya changes instantly from dream to nightmare

On a balmy sunny day in Thailand, a multi-millionaire retired ex coffee shop owner from Holland was relaxing in his luxurious villa near Pattaya when his life took a dramatic turn for the worse. In fact, his life in paradise changed to life in a hell hole with the blink of an eye.

Ditch man sentenced to 75 years in a Thai prison
Dutchman John Van Laarhoven and his wife. The Dutchman currently serving a 75-year sentence in a Thai prison near Bangkok while his Thai wife is serving 7 years. The former businessman and coffee shop owner was arrested and convicted of money laundering in Thailand after a tax dispute with Dutch authorities went awry. (Picture source: RTL Nieuws – Netherlands)

That moment arrived with Thai police from a special investigations unit raided his home and arrested Jonathan van Laarhoven and his Thai wife. The raid was featured on Thai TV. After his arrest, the Dutchman was led to believe that the matter would be cleared up in a matter of days.

Dutch official prompted an investigation by Thai authorities

The raid followed a request from authorities in the Netherlands asking the Thai authorities to launch an investigation into Van Laarhoven’s financial affairs. The Dutch businessman had operated coffee bars which also sold cannabis in Tilburg and Den Bosch. These outlets were licensed by the Dutch authorities. The investigation request, it later emerged, was sent by an official at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok. Although Van Laarhoven had sold his business in the Netherlands, it does appear that there was some dispute with authorities in the Netherlands regarding his tax affairs.

Dutchman sentenced to 103 years lowered to 75 years on appeal

In Thailand, Van Laarhoven was prosecuted for money laundering offences related to the income or proceeds of his coffee shops. He was sentenced to a staggering 103 years in prison at the end of 2015 while his wife received a 13-year sentence. His wife’s sentence was later reduced to 7 years and four months. In June 2017, Van Laarhoven sentence was reduced from 103 years to 75 years on appeal.

Media coverage of frail Dutch man’s plight and harsh conditions in Thai jail

Van Laarhoven has given some interviews to the media on weekly visits to a hospital in Bangkok which he needs because of his increasingly frail health. The 57-year-old shares a prison cell with over 40 other prisoners, some who are also foreigners in Bangkok. Forced to sleep on the ground, he can be locked up for 15 hours at a time without food or water.

The Dutchman is somewhat lucky to receive support from his son and his brother Franz, who has been quite active in media circles. There is a growing outcry in the Netherlands that Van Laarhoven is not guilty of any serious offence under Dutch law aside from a minor provision which the Dutch legal system has ignored for years. This relates to the amount of cannabis a coffee bar is allowed to hold in stock. It is also claimed that the Dutchman certainly was not involved in direct criminal activity either in Holland or in the Netherlands.

Dutchman successfully prosecuted under Thailand’s legal code for money laundering

Van Laarhoven was prosecuted under money laundering legislation that came into force between Thailand and the Netherlands in 2013. His associates claim that the Dutchman retired from his business in 2011 having moved to Pattaya with his family in 2008. However, under Thai law, the Thai court found him guilty and this was upheld in June 2017 by the Thai appeals court. His story is a salutary lesson for foreigners to be ‘whiter than white’ when it comes to their activities in Thailand under Thai law and in particular where this relates to their source of income. Thai authorities have been cracking down on money laundering and ensuring that all income in the Kingdom is properly accounted for.

Aussie warns young people visiting Thailand: ‘no drugs’

A well known Aussie expat, former loan shark and nightclub owner from Australia’s Gold Coast earlier this year took to Facebook to warn foreigners, particularly young foreigners of the dangers associated with holidaying and partying in the country. His warning can be summed up in one word: drugs.

‘Thailand is a fun place with not a lot of rules but one very important rule….NO DRUGS.’ Sharky, the hard-hitting, no prisoners, online celebrity, who is famous in Thailand for his pronouncements and for his eccentric lifestyle including spending hours every day feeding street dogs, said in a Facebook post.

Well know foreign DJs served 50 years prison sentences

Sharky was speaking after two well-known DJs on the Thai dance circuit had their legal appeal against 50-year prison sentences for possession and distribution of ecstasy pills imposed by a Thai court rejected. The prosecution and sentence followed a raid on the apartment of one of their girlfriends in which the drugs were found by Thai police.

Jake Mastroianni, from Melbourne, was caught with 61 pills at the Pattaya resort while his partner, Lance Whitmore from the UK, pleaded guilty to possession of 50 tablets.

Fears raised foreign DJs not ‘tough enough’ for harsh prison conditions

The DJs are currently serving their prison sentences at Bangkok’s high-security Klong Prem prison in Bangkok. This is another Thai prison which is well known for overcrowding and harsh conditions. Sharkey told his Facebook audience that, given his knowledge of the DJs that he felt that they were not prepared or ‘tough enough’ to handle the punishment imposed by the Thai courts.

Before the duo was arrested by Thai police in 2014, they led a turbocharged lifestyle performing with near-naked dancers at extravaganza events in Pattaya and the famous full moon party.

Australian man tried to kill himself after being caught by police in Thailand for drug smuggling

Martin Garnett, another Aussie who lived in Thailand, tried to take his life on many occasions after he was arrested for drug trafficking and sentenced to death in Thailand over 23 years ago. The Australian ended up serving 22 years, the majority of them in a Bangkok prison cell. The ex luxury car salesman from Australia recalls that he had an ‘out of body experience’ when he was nabbed by Thai police at Bangkok airport in 1994.

As the pure heroin Garnett had attempted to smuggle out, was weighed by police on scales, he knew he was facing the real prospect of the death sentence or the equivalent of a death sentence, a life term in a Thai prison. ‘As soon as the heroin was placed on the scales in front of me I began eating a block of pure heroin,’ he recalls. The Australian wanted to kill himself and fainted as a Thai policeman was leading him away, eventually vomiting all over him.

Aussie described the horror of a Thai prison cell

Garnett went on to experience the hell of a Thai prison cell which he shared with over 40 other prisoners in appalling squalid conditions. He recalls how lucky he was not to be attacked and killed as he initially stumbled over the legs of other prisoners asleep in his cell as he made her way to the bucket which served as a latrine during his first days at the prison.

Gangs of drug-crazed killers who killed for coffee

In letters from the relative safety of an Australian prison in 2014, he recalled gangs of crazed men, tattooed from head to toe, who would kill instantly for a small portion of coffee or drugs. He recalled the sound made when a prisoner’s head was crushed by a bell bar. This, he revealed, was the preferred murder method used by gangs in the prison. ‘For years I could not go near free weights. The sound of a skull-crushing stays with you,’ he wrote in one of his letters.

Aussie used sales skills and will to survive to stay alive

Garnett’s will to survive led him in 1997 to resort to his business and sales skills to deal in contraband and products that other prisoners required. Beginning with a mobile phone he acquired in 1997, this eventually led him to gain respect with other inmates in the prison system. Like others, he stressed that the ability of a prisoner to find money is the key to survival and confirmed the fear of many that human life itself has little value in a Thai prison.

Aussie convicted of exporting drugs from Thai prison to US prison

This foray into business dealing from behind bars led to the incredible situation where authorities in the US  federal prison system in Indiana unearthed Garnett as a drug dealer supplying drugs to American inmates there. Garnett believes that this made him a target within the Bangkok prison. He claims he was warned on a number of occasions by other inmates, including some in the dangerous sumadhura gangs within the prison system, that this was the case.

Drug dealer Aussie claims he witnessed brutal prison murders

Martin Garnett was subsequently transferred to the bigger prison hell hole of all, Klong Pai prison. This prison was reputedly reserved for the most deadly and ill-behaved convicts in Thailand. While there, Garnett, later writing from an Australian prison, claimed he witnessed 5 murders in his jail block during a one year period. He claimed these killings were orchestrated by gangs on individuals earmarked for death.

Drug dealer has epiphany moment on hunger strike in Bangkok jail

After finding out that he was to be extradited to America, Garnett went on hunger strike in his Bangkok jail cell. He recalled the personal epiphany he experienced after the hunger pains wore off and he lucidly was able to understand that his predicament was caused by his own actions. Confronted by a devout Muslim who warned him that he had no right to take his life nor to be unhappy with his lot in life, Garnett began to read the Quran. The convicted drug dealer became a Muslim taking the name of Amin Mubarak. He halted his drug-dealing activities and his personal transformation was rewarded by a Royal Pardon in 2011.

Deported from Thai prison to the US for drug dealing

Subsequently deported to the US to serve a 57-month sentence, he was fortunate that his mother Lyn and family organised a through crowdfunding the money to have him transported to an Australian prison where he completed his sentence. He described the US prison as being surprisingly harsher than he had expected.

Released from prison after serving 22 years in Thailand, the US and Australia

In 2016 Garnett was released from prison after serving 22 years in all. One of his first actions was to visit a beach and appreciate the joy of life. He attributes much of his turnaround to a renewed outlook on life after converting to Islam and the support of his family. Tragically his sister Holy committed suicide in 1998 when his future looked bleak. Holy had achieved some success as a pop star but was deeply troubled by her brother fate.

Bestselling books on Thai prisons very popular but is it that bad?

There are many bestselling books written about the harsh and inhumane conditions of Thai jails and the perils that await any foreigner unlucky enough to be lodged in their precincts.

However, there is some debate as to whether such accounts are exaggerated. For one, there are different types of Thai jails. A recent account from a low-security Thai prison in Samui showed a band of foreigners getting by quite well by sticking together and crucially with financial support from relatives on the outside. One UK man incarcerated for fraud was filmed making jokes and revealed that he had used the sojourn to learn the art of palmistry which he discovered he had a talent for and was looking forward to pursuing this as a profession once released.

Some truth in horror stories of life in Thailand’s notorious prisons

The bestselling books written by inmates of the infamous Banh Kwang prison or the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ have both entertained and terrified fascinated foreigners visiting Thailand who often purchase such books at the airport. We have seen that there is truth to these stories. Prisoners die in Thai prisons and foreigners without family support or who have health vulnerabilities, are handed virtual death sentences when sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in Thailand if they cannot summon the will to survive.

Chilling stories of death with the Thai prison system – reality or legend?

There are chilling stories. A UK man who stole a motor scooter was lodged in a prison in Chonburi and ended up dead shortly after. Reports suggest that the man was difficult to control and prone to violence. It has been suggested that he may have been beaten to death. The leader of a boiler room scam operating in Bangkok is said to have rotted to death in a Bangkok prison after receiving no outside help or support. On the other hand, there are many cases of UK prisoners who have opted to serve their long sentences in a Thai prison refusing the option of being transported back to the UK.

UK man opted to remain in Thai prison

British man Jonathan Wheeler was one of them. The UK man opted to serve his time in the infamous Bang Kwang prison because he felt it was a regime which offered more ‘freedom’ than western or UK prisons. After his release, Wheeler defended his decision saying it was completely unfair that he would have had to serve at least half his term again in the UK before he could be released if he had taken the option. Given the lengthy nature of his sentence, this would have meant at least twenty-three more years behind bars in a UK prison cell. ‘I would have come back with more years than some serial killers,’ he told UK local media in 2012. ‘The system is completely flawed.’

UK drug dealer put trust in the Thai legal process

Wheeler calculated that his chances were better hoping for a  Thai Royal Pardon or to benefit from one of the regular amnesties that occur in the Thai prison system. Even though he was aware of some Thai men, convicted for murder, serving lesser sentences, he felt it was a better bet. Wheeler revealed that, in spite of the overcrowded cells, he was able to walk in the open sunshine nearly most days in the prison. He also revealed that he had fallen in love with an English teacher who visited him regularly in prison for four years and that he had studied meditation while imprisoned. Wheeler said that, in later years of his incarceration, food in the Thai prison improved and there was satellite TV available in common areas.