I feel like I have fallen down a rabbit hole. Having come to Chiang Mai for a month’s writing internship from Indiana, United States, it took me a while to take in the city of Chiang Mai, let alone find a story that hasn’t been written before to pitch the editor.
Wandering around the old city, hunting for ideas, I knew that I wanted to write about art, a scene that is still in its infancy in my home town, and something which has truly excited and inspired me during my short time here. After a few weeks of foot- and finger-work (on my laptop), I learnt that the now abandoned Women’s Correctional Institution behind the Three King’s Monument was the hub of the city’s graffiti, and having walked past the imposing structure a few times, I knew that it’s outer walls had become giant canvases for street art.
So one rainy day I found myself, with Patty a fellow intern, in front of the imposing steel door of the prison. We looked around for signs of life — any signs at all in fact — and since the door was ajar, we pushed the creaking slab of metal and walked inside. Little was I to know that that first step would lead me down an adventure any writer would envy; one involving lost palaces, a century old prison, spooky spirits, bureaucratic hurdles and graffiti artists.
As we tentatively stepped inside the compound, I saw in the distance some men wearing orange vests. They appeared to have been gathered around a digger and I had a slight panic attack, thinking they were prison guards, before sense prevailed and I realised they were construction workers demolishing a wall. No one shouted at us, so we ventured further inside where, amongst the detritus of demolition, I saw a sign declaring that this space was soon to be turned into a plaza, dedicated to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. As we walked round the muddy compound, we were surprised to see some buildings still intact with cells, clanging doors and all. It was eerie walking through abandoned canteens, peeking into small dark cells and seeing the spot where executions used to take place in days of old.
Back at the office I got the go ahead to write a story about what is to become of this piece of land; and as all millennials do, I headed straight to Facebook for research. I discovered on the Chiang Mai Graffitis page that some of the city’s most renowned graffiti artists — CAS, Nap AR, Temmasuk and Muay Cola — were featured on the prison’s walls, and wondered how they felt about plans for the plaza. “The walls have done their job and it is time to move on,” Temmasuk said ambivalently. He said that most of the artists agreed with him, though Muay Cola seemed a bit sadder about the development. “My main concern that I try to communicate through my art is the negative effects we are having on the environment,” he told me, explaining that his best works can be found on the prison walls. Asking, “There are so many plazas, why do we need another?” he went on to say, “Chiang Mai doesn’t have a recognised art museum dedicated to local artists. Maybe a combination of the two can be reached, but if the plaza is built, the story ends.”
Though my heart went out to Muay Cola, I realised that it was time to find out some facts about the future of this space, so I headed to city hall where we met a harried official who promised to send us plans for the proposed plaza.
Back at the office, plan downloaded, we were blown away. This isn’t to be some ugly urban cement plaza, but a beautifully designed space which would turn the 17 rai of land into a green oasis in the heart of the city; a public park, a museum, a community centre and a tourist attraction. The designs showed plenty of trees, lawns, playgrounds, salas, park benches, and as I clicked through the slides I saw computerised renderings of two elevated corners of the plaza that looked like wing tips, rising up from the earth, which offered access to an underground tunnel. The only thing that was puzzling was the old Thai style building that was shown to be buried deep underground. No one here at Citylife could figure what this was. Luckily, a few days later my partner in crime Patty and I were able to finally meet with the man who gave us the presentation, Policy and Plan Analyst of the Office of Strategy Management Charoon Ponghan.
My first question was to ask about the underground building. Charoon told us that according to a 1894 map which based its speculation on old ruins and manuscripts, this was supposedly the site of a royal palace of the Lanna kings before it was moved to where Yupparaj School is today. However, and even more excitedly, the Fine Arts Department and local historians believe the palace was built atop the site of the city’s first palace, that of King Mengrai himself, founder of Chiang Mai 720 years ago.
According to a booklet given by the municipality, King Intawaroros Suriyawong the 8th ruler of Chiang Mai, commissioned the prison to be built around 1901 (the exact date is still a contentious issues amongst scholars). Initially housing men, the prison soon accepted both sexes, though when the new men’s prison was finally completed opposite Provincial Hall in 2000, this became exclusively a women’s prison. Courtesy of an article in Citylife back in 2003, we know that around 2,300 women were housed here for a decade, and that it was considered one of the more progressive prisons in Thailand, with in house massage, sewing, computing, mechanics, gardening and all sorts of vocational courses provided for inmates. In spite of the progressive efforts of Director Nawarat Tanasrisutarat, conditions were dire as she told Citylife, “…one hundred year old buildings were not meant to house that many people.” In 2013 the women were moved to the prison opposite the Provincial Hall to replace the men who were moved even further out of the city to a new facility in Mae Taeng.
When word got out that the prison was going to be moved, many people in the surrounding community wanted the area put to good use. Meetings were held and proposals were made to develop the land into a museum, a cultural centre, a park, a shopping centre, or a Lanna heritage site. Many old buildings had recently been repurposed in the area including the old Provincial Hall which is now the City Arts and Culture Centre and the old court house which is the Lanna Folklife Museum and it appeared as though the prison would follow a similar path. By late 2013 a competition was held to decide its future — with strict terms of reference to follow, especially should the 13th century Lanna palace be excavated. In the meantime Muay Cola, Temmasuk and their crew moved in, spraying the grim walls with vibrant colours and cryptic messages.
By July 2014 a committee of judges including those from the municipality, university and the Lanna Association of Architects, had chosen a winning design, proposed by Assistant Professor Kawin Wongwigkarn submitted on behalf of the intriguingly named Destroy Dirty Things Co., Ltd. The design is stunning. The proposed plaza will become a large green space destined to be a cultural landmark for years to come.
With the new plans in hand, I decided to venture back to the prison to see for myself how it will one day look. I was a bit shocked to see “No Trespassing” and “No Entry” signs plastered everywhere and was glad that we’d managed to get our photos done before it was illegal to enter. But being nosy, I grabbed Patty and pushed the door open and entered anyway. Breaking into the prison was certainly thrilling. As we stood in a cell on the second floor overlooking the courtyard, Patty became spooked, claiming to have heard sounds of chains and clanging metal. I scoffed at her paranoia, though scurried out after her when she decided it was time to leave. We headed to the steel door and were shocked to have found it locked. From the inside. With no one else around. We were imprisoned! At this point panic was settling in, along with the night, and we rushed around the deserted compound looking for a way out. Thankfully on the other end of the compound we saw, and managed to squeeze through, a flap of corrugated iron currently patching a hole in the prison’s wall. As we popped out on the other side, catching our breath, a voice shouted “Taxi?”
“You really shouldn’t be in there,” our songtaew driver chastised us as we headed back to the office. “Bad things happened in there. People died from executions, their spirits are there.”
Definitely unsettled, Patty more so than me, we made our way back to the office and recounted our story to the staff who were heading home for the day. It turns out that they all seemed to have stories of friends who had volunteered at the prison, or graffiti artists who broke in at night, who had recounted tales of spooky spirits and odd sounds.
Leaving the netherworld behind, I next made an appointment with the winning architect, Asst. Prof. Kawin, who took me through his presentation slide by slide, explaining to me that the focus of his design was to honour the spirit of the kings past. The anchor of the design is the old Bhodi tree which currently stands just outside the northeast prison wall and which will have a tunnel leading to it, and what he calls the King’s Courtyard. The tunnel can be entered by the two raised corners of the plaza, peeled back from the earth to symbolise setting free the history and the power of the kings that had been trapped under the prison. The tunnel represents history and time, and from the top of the ramps there will be views of both Doi Sutep and Wat Chedi Luang, historical city landmarks.
“The key word here is earth,” said Asst. Prof. Kawin. “My design concept is the peeling of the layers of the earth to reveal time and history.” He went on to say that his design was all about community and creating a green space for the city. There will be an area for music festivals, a playground for children, another area where the community can come together and plant trees, an information centre to display any potential archeological finds, and a spirit house. He mentioned that the Fine Arts Department had already begun excavation and that shards as old as 14th century kalong ware had been found.
For those concerned that all trances of the century-old prison will be wiped clean, Asst. Prof. Kawin says that two buildings will be kept to retain the integrity of the site, so that the history of the prison will be incorporated into that of the plaza. Sadly the wall, along with its four towers, will also be torn down, though Asst. Prof. Kawin says that the outline of his peeled design will follow that of the prison walls. Saiklang Jintasu, a historian at the Chiang Mai Fine Arts Department confirmed that six excavations digs had been completed this year though they were only for spot archeological checks as well as for geophysics research, not full site excavations.
“Legend and lore, as well as evidence from the 1894 map, suggests this was the location of Vieng Kaew palace of the Lanna royalty,” said Saiklang. “At this point there is nothing to corroborate this hypothesis as we have yet to conduct a full excavation. The demolition team has taken down all but six remaining buildings, all of which are believed to have historical significance as they are colonial in style and built during the reign of King Rama VI, though I am unsure how many will finally remain. So now they have to decide what to demolish and get it done before we can excavate, and then only after we have finished, can they even begin to think about building the plaza.”
“What I really would like to find,” Saiklang told me excitedly, “is the wall of the Lanna palace. Also some ancient construction features because so little is known about the style and method of those days and a few ancient objects from the days of the king would be great!”
So where does this rabbit hole leave us? At the moment, limbo. We have a lot of waiting to do. Destroy Dirty Things has set a tentative budget of around 120 million for the realisation of its designs but says that it could be years before it can get the project started. And Asst. Prof. Kawin hasn’t forgotten our artist friends either, actually allocating two separate spaces within the design for expressions of street art. So while the current works featured by graffiti artists will be demolished, they will be able to return one day to continue to contribute to our art scape.
What do we do until then?
Appreciate the works of art Muay Cola and his fellow street artists, understanding that, in the true Buddhist sense, nothing is permanent, and therein lies its beauty. Look forward to not only the finds the Fine Arts Department hopes to dig up from under the rubbles of the old prison, but how we as a community can enjoy this space for many generations to come. As for me, by the time you read this, I will be back home in Indiana, regularly checking into Facebook to read about all the exciting things happening in Chiang Mai, and wishing I were back here.