Saturday Snippet: Escaping from Thailand’s toughest prison


David McMillan is a self-confessed drug smuggler, convict and rogue, now retired (?) from a life of crime.  He’s written a book, “Unforgiving Destiny: The Relentless Pursuit of a Black-Marketeer“, about his life and experiences.

It’s a very interesting read for those interested in the underbelly of our society.  He’s quite unrepentant about his activities, apparently regarding them as fulfilling the needs of people in a very similar way to legitimate business – just dishonestly.  You’ll learn a lot about “how the other half lives”.  I recognized many of his characters from my time as a prison chaplain.  They’re everywhere, and I’ve dealt with them many times before.

Here’s how he escaped from Klong Prem prison in Bangkok, one of the toughest of its kind in the world.  For reasons of space, I’ve had to leave out the details of how he prepared for it, taking well over a year to put everything in place he needed to get away.  Here’s how it went down on the night.

Just before midnight, I stepped into the shower and split the wood frame cover holding the hacksaws.  Freeing them made some noise.  American Calvin was now awake and Jet, peering from under his blanket.  I bent to Sten.

“The others will be fine,” I told Sten.  “But that Miraj needs watching.”

Although I’d muffled the sound of splintering wood with a towel, almost everything seemed noisy.  I moved the low table I’d built beneath the window and unfolded its interlocking parts to form the stairs needed to reach the window.  Although I’d accounted for some sound, I’d underestimated how much keeping quiet would slow me down.  Although it was not yet 1:00am as I removed the insect screens from the window, I felt I was, already, working against the clock.

Calvin sat watching with fear and some resignation, certainly imagining the consequences come daylight of an escape attempt by a foreigner.

Jet looked on but did not speak.  As I unclipped the frame stays from my low bed and began unthreading my escape rope and winding it around my arm, my little head butler looked at the fittings around the cell.  He saw, before any other, that everything had a concealed purpose.  The shower fittings, heavy wall hooks, bookcase and cupboards all unfolded into specific tools.

I stepped up to the window and began cutting low on the first bar with a hacksaw blade.  Given free reign, it might have been cut in ten minutes.  Yet a full pressure draw yielded a shrill vibration that seemed, in the night, to carry throughout the building.  I wet a towel, wrapped it around the bar.  Then, wiping the blade with oil, I made slow strokes.  Sten and I took turns, as I glued my face to the cell door watching for any disturbance to the accommodation building night guard who was sleeping in an open room less than a hundred feet away.  Forty-five minutes later, the first cut succeeded.  On the last stroke of the blade, the bar – under massive tension from the decades-slow drift of the building’s brickwork – sprang away from its cut base with a loud ‘sprong!’  We all froze for long seconds, ears straining to listen for any outside reaction.  Miraj, the Indian prisoner with sixteen years still to serve, moaned softly.  Sten and I quietened and calmed the others.

As Sten went to work on the second cut of, still, just the first bar I knew I’d not have time to play around further in the cell if I was to have a hope of getting away before dawn.  By 2:45am only half of the second, top cut, of the first bar was made.

“Dave,” Sten said, “maybe leave it for tonight.  Get going again tomorrow night?”

From beneath Sten’s feet, propped on the artificial stairway, Miraj moaned loudly.  To ensure his silence, I crouched low to his ear.

“Miraj,” I whispered, “I know you can’t wait to call out to the guards.  I don’t want to upset the others in the room but have no doubt I’ll kill you if you make another sound.” That seemed to work.

I stepped up and looked closely at the cut bar. “No, Sten,” I said.  “I’ll go tonight.  You think you can bend that fucker inward?” I tapped the bar.

Sten, who was big when he came in and bigger now from working out, looked doubtful but determined.  He clamped both hands around the towel that held the bar and heaved.  It moved a few inches and then sprang back.

“Good enough,” I said to his surprise.  I got ready.

I pushed through a pigeon-hole cupboard mounted on one wall.  I’d fitted fake rear panels made from balsa wood.  Through the hole, I removed a few tools I’d need this night.  As Sten strained on bending the bar – supported by Calvin from below in case he fell from his perch – I noticed something different about Jet.

Jet was standing on his sleeping mat in the gloom.  He was wearing his best clothes.  In the top pocket, he’d jammed a plastic bag with what I knew were his family photos and a few letters. At four-foot-six he looked like a child ready for Sunday School.  He wanted to go with me.

I gently persuaded him not to go. Jet had only four years remaining of his sentence.  My arrangements were for one, I said. I gave him four thousand baht and my good watch.  He sat down with sadness.  Sten had earlier promised to take care of him, and I’d left money in preparation.

“Can you get through a six-inch gap?” Sten asked as I turned off the overhead fan.  It might have struck the escape plank if spinning.

“I’ll have to,” I said.

Stripping down to briefs, I put my clothes into a soft shoulder bag.  Sten helped me take down the cell’s eight-foot bookshelf.  It was a builder’s plank we’d carefully stolen months earlier.  By the cell door sat a wooden footstool.  It was made like a Chinese puzzle box: with a few twists, it turned into a strange, angled contraption like a giant key.  This had a purpose.  It would jam in the still-intact part of the cell window bars to hold firm the bookshelf plank.  We slowly pushed the plank out through the bars, keeping its flat side at a ninety-degree angle.  The footstool key held the short end tight within the bars.  The plank now poked out into the night air, turned sideways, with only a couple of inches remaining in the cell.

“You sure this’ll hold?” Sten asked.  “You’ll be dangling off the far end.”

“Sure,” I said.  “It worked on paper.”

Sten knew I’d have to clear the masonry awnings that were between each storey of the cell blocks’ outer walls.

It was 3:15am according to the cheap but rugged digital watch I’d strapped on.  With a few curt goodbyes, I oiled my torso, and took a last look for guards.  None.

Stepping up beside Sten, he gripped the cut end of the troublesome bar.  For him to get a better purchase, I shouldered him high to the ceiling of the cell, at which height Sten could brace both feet against the edge of the window’s base.  If the bar snapped, Sten would fall back.

Sten strained and grunted to lever and hold the bar a few inches, allowing me to angle my head through the small gap now between his fists and the outside world.

“Take your time,” Sten sarcastically rasped through held breath.

I’d draped a towel over the cut stud of the bar that remained fast in the concrete to spare my exposed back as I wriggled through.  I’d squirmed through backwards, face to the heavens, grabbing the outside top section of window bars to lift myself out.  Once my groin and knees were through, I told Sten to relax.  He was ready for that.  The bar eased back to its previous two-inch gap.  Considering the force Sten had used, I’d easily imagined Sten crashing back into the cell with the entire window bar assembly falling with him.  I would have thundered down fifty feet through two tile awnings followed by a plank.  That did not happen.

With my shoulder bag over one arm, I clung, half-naked, to the outside of the cellblock.  I was out, give or take seven inner walls and a moat or two.  Yet the sensation was odd.  Whatever happened next that night, my life in Klong Prem prison as I’d known it was over.  Looking through to bars to which I clung, back to the gloom and the moving shapes inside, I knew those people were gone to me now, come death or success.  My feeble comforts, water bearers, cooks and carpenters must fend for themselves now.  My elaborate office and its web of complex services essential to survival in this prison-city of decay, effectively destroyed.  I quickly shook off this dangerous reverie and got moving.

Dangling with one hand from the tip of the upturned plank, with the other I groped in my shoulder bag for the 100 meters of army-boot webbing that was my rope.  My hands were full of splinters after sliding hand over hand to the end of the plank.  I’d not wanted it to wobble through any swinging.

Still one-handed, I found the mid-point of the rope and looped it over the plank, looking down to see it clear the awnings.  Those angled roofs were cracked and crumbling.  Earlier tests had shown that even a thrown pebble would dislodge a broken tile that would noisily fall to earth.

My idea had been to slide down the rope to a series of tied-loop footholds.  Abseiling was out because I couldn’t trust just one strand of the webbing for strength. Anyway, I’d need the rope for the walls ahead and had to avoid knots.  My foot-loop plan failed immediately.  As soon as I slid down to the first set, one foot held, the other flailed while I had to grip hard on the overhead loop to keep from sliding to the ground.  That would have been okay, I suppose, had I not found myself wildly swinging in a figure-of-eight pattern facing the trusties’ cell beneath.  Their overhead fluorescent light was on, of course, and they appeared to be sleeping, mostly.  My rope below my feet was caressing the broken tiles of the second awning.  I had to hold fast until my swinging ceased.

When still, I loosened my grip, knowing the slide would not be kind to my hands.  It wasn’t but at least the skin that was stripped from my fingers and palms removed the wood splinters.  I padded softly to ground and rolled back, rope still gripped, to clear those damned awnings.  I flipped the rope clear of the plank.  As the rope spaghettied into my arms, I saw Sten’s arms draw the plank back into the dark cell above.

I scrabbled flat against the cellblock wall to the prepared gap in the factory complex fence that allowed a hidden path to my office.  By the light of my digital watch I opened the cupboards as quietly as I could.  It was 3:45am and I’d just been through the easy part, although I’d not have wanted to know that then.

Peering through the open sides of the factory hut, I saw one of the guards.  He was sleeping in his hammock, about forty feet away, shoes off, still in brown trousers and his fat gut stretching a dirty vest.

In slow moves to keep quiet, I took from a cupboard seven heavy rectangular picture frames.  Each 18 x 24 inches.  Sten had made them while pretending an interest in oil painting.  They would form the struts of my ladders.  I packed them into a second bag, and put on a pair of black trousers I’d had hidden.  Long pants are forbidden in Thai prisons.  Prisoners must wear shorts to distinguish them from guards.

I carefully stepped my way out and over to another factory, worrying about walking on the noise-making shell fragments that littered the factory floor.  Arriving at the Chinese-funeral-box factory, I found the hole in the mesh blocked.  It had been repaired the day before with a large plywood panel secured by nails.  Fretting always about time – and being visible then in one of the Building #6 internal streets – I took a pair of pincer pliers from my kit and began extracting a nail.  It squealed against the plywood so I had to soak the nail in machine oil to quench the sound.  More time lost.

Inside the factory, it was completely dark.  My tiny penlight torch gave little light but my tasks were simple. I had to make two ladders from the fourteen-foot long bamboo poles that were set on racks in the factory to dry coloured paper used to fold little gold gift boxes used as cheap offerings at Chinese funerals.  I lifted four poles of the tapering two-inch thick bamboo to the floor, laying them in two double rows.  After positioning the picture frames lengthwise between, I took black duct tape from my bag and secured the frames to make solid rungs.

This gave me two good but heavy ladders and the problem of getting them out of the factory unheard and unseen.  I couldn’t go back the way I’d come to the internal street so lifted them to the rear of the factory which I knew abutted the auto-repair shop.  There was a mesh vent at the top, so I used one ladder to climb up, tore a flap of mesh with pliers away from the supports, and lifted the second ladder up and out to the auto shop.  All this, and I was still not free of even Building #6.  It was after 4:30am just over an hour before dawn.  I would have to speed things up. Later, I would wonder at movies that seemed to show the time taken for cutting and climbing in escapes taking place in minutes.  The real time is always much slower.

I saved a few minutes by pushing my ladders under the far gate of the auto shop and then climbing over.  Just as I moved beyond the coffee shop to the laundry-drying lines where I planned to scale the first inner wall, a fresh problem arose.  Guards walking around.  I spotted fat-guts padding towards the open, ground-level water tanks sixty feet away.

I should say that over the last two years at Klong Prem prison, two (highly doubtful) opportunities had arisen with offers of a working gun and ammunition.  I felt sure then that I would have been informed upon had I taken either offer.  As the guard neared the water trough, I hugged low against a factory pillar and carefully took out a device I had in my bag.  I attached the fat silencer to one end and switched on the red laser pointer.  Tranquil in his safety, the guard splashed his face, shook his head, and then staggered back around the corner, presumably to where he’d been sleeping.

I’d spent months thinking about the value of a weapon before realizing a real gun would be no asset.  If, on the night, I saw a guard at a distance, I need only hide.  If I rounded a corner to meet, unexpected, a guard within a few feet, a weapon would be slow to take in hand and pointless.  Face-to-face, I could – however unpleasantly – silence him by hand.  The only useful purpose for a gun would be in the range of fifteen to fifty feet when what he sees is immediately capable of keeping him quiet. Yet to fire a real weapon at night would risk a scream from a wound, a miss or misfire, and the sounds would surely bring others.  My fake gun was made from carved wood pieces, tubing and a shampoo bottle.  Painted black it appeared big, fearsome and more impressive than anything I could have smuggled in.  The red laser sight was merely a laser pen pointer glued to the top.  I was sure the sight of a red dot over the heart along with a command to halt and kneel would be enough to close the gap and tie up any guard.  I’d packed cable ties and extra tape for such an event.  Luckily, I saw most guards in advance.  This would not be the last time over the next years when guns would prove useless.

A four-meter concrete wall topped by rolls of barbed wire marked the perimeter of Building #6.  A quick inspection of the bolts that secured the barbed wire told me there’d be no time for fussing around with them.

I’d brought an extra bamboo pole.  This allowed me to grab the wire with an s-hook taped to the pole and simply pull the wire clear of the top so I could set the first ladder in place and haul up the second.  Once sitting atop the wall, I brought up the ascent ladder and carried it down.  I was then out of Building #6.  I knew there were five or more inner walls to go before reaching the massive outer wall.  I crouched in the mud below behind some weedy plants and looked at my watch.  I’d never make it before sun-up.

Ten minutes later, any pre-dawn observer would have caught an unusual sight.  A man in black with his head poking through an absurdly long and floppy ladder as he ran while trying to keep both ends of the thirty-six-foot-long ladder off the ground.  I’d taped my two ladders together as one.  It was heavy and awkward, smashing both shoulders with every step.  Each time I approached a new inner wall, I’d tilt the front end high, catching the wall’s top.  Then, I’d run back to where the ladder touched the ground, heave it high until its midpoint (where I’d taped the two together) reached the wall’s top of curve and barbed wire.  I’d scramble up the long ladder and scramble down the other side, my weight lifting the far side.  Once over, I’d drag the ladder down to ground level before hoisting it again over my shoulders and making for the next wall.

This was exhausting.  Several times I had to re-tape the joins along the poles as barbed wire tore at the duct tape.  Michael Sullivan had been a pole-vaulter and had explained the trick of carrying an oversized flexible rod.  “Lope,” he’d said.  So, I loped.

I used this see-saw action to move through buildings #7, #8, #9 and #10.  I got lost twice until I recognized the smell of the old hospital – now used as a hospice for hundreds dying from AIDS.  Passing the open windows their waxy faces looked at me but they were beyond speaking.

After running blindly into another inner wall of twenty rows of stretched barbed wire, I dug underneath taking the ladder with me.  After a difficult crossing of the seven-foot inner moat, I was finally at the outer wall.  It was over twelve-meters high and topped with an electric fence – the limit of my double ladder.

I climbed to the top to see dawn’s first lights.

I cleaned myself up with a bottle of water from my bag.  Then hastily dried and put on a fresh shirt and trousers the colour of the guard’s uniform.  I left my phoney gun floating in shit creek, the inner moat.  Its effect would be comic in daylight, however menacing it seemed at night.  The acrobatics over the electric wire were tingling – I hadn’t dried myself well.  I used my last length of rope to slide to outside ground.  Outside, yet not safe.  A twenty-five-meter moat ran on all sides of the prison.  On those sides beyond, except for the front gate, were guards’ houses and their kind.  It was just before 6:00am, suddenly morning.  The dayshift would be arriving at the front gate.  Along the outer wall, spaced two-hundred feet apart, rose watchtowers.  The armed guards within, now alert after a night’s half-sleep, were rising and curious.  With no more darkness as cover, a moat-crossing would fail.  The sky held a tropical grey of clouds giving a few specks of rain.

I reached for the last trick in my bag: a black, pop-up umbrella I’d taken from one of the factories.  Under its shade, I walked along the wall path towards the front gate.  There, a wide bridge crossed the moat.  Beyond, shop stalls were opening opening for the morning trade of coffee and breakfast rolls.  Peeping from under my umbrella, I saw guards look down from the tower.  I hoped they’d see me as a late-arriving fellow officer creeping to work.

As I crossed the bridge, I recognised the shoes and stride of some of the guards from Building #6.  There, soon, trusties would be unlocking the cell doors.  My cellmate Miraj would quickly tell of my escape.  As I walked the long two-hundred meters of parkland in front of the prison to the six-lane highway beyond, I thought of my crazy home-made ladder propped against the wall.  Surely, some guard was looking at it now – or do we only see things when accompanied by a moving human?

At the highway, I collapsed the umbrella, and ducked through traffic and climbed the divider to cross the road.  As soon as I reached the far side, I knew I was safe.  Safe from the prison, perhaps, but not safe from Thailand.  Images of the shattered limbs of the two Israeli escapers who were caught prompted me to move.  Yet I couldn’t resist climbing the stairs of the nearby pedestrian overhead crossing to take a last look at Klong Prem prison, still packed with its eight thousand suffering inmates.  Why did they remain? Within the mind of the creature that I’d become, this hated prison-city was no more threatening than a postcard, and already a memory.

Two taxis took me to a nearby suburb.  A large complex of flats whose address I’d memorized.  Just after seven, I stood before the door of flat 187.  From my bag hung a decorative wood and lacquer tag.  I twisted it to shatter its shell, revealing the front-door key to the flat.  It had been so hidden in case I was caught and tortured – otherwise my questioners would want to know what the key was for.  Inside the flat, I’d been told, was a small bathroom. Behind a wall-mounted mirror, I’d been assured, an envelope held a British passport.  The passport had been sold to Malaysians in Jakarta a month earlier; my photograph had been substituted and a visa stamped in.  I let myself in, went to the bathroom, and found the envelope behind the mirror.  Within, to my profound relief, the passport was all as promised.  And all that from someone I’d met in the Thai prison.  He was a Chinese crook, and certainly, the Chinese are the most reliable among crooks, but I wondered then if I’d ever achieve the wisdom to know on sight and at first meeting those who will do as they say and those who would find reasons to fail.

At the airport by ten, only forty-five minutes ahead of a posse of guards from the jail who were guessing a foreigner would head for the Bangkok airport.

A friend had left an overnight bag for me at the airport’s long-term luggage storage depot.  I pulled the receipt from my shirt collar, then moved to a bank of ATM machines. I had two bank cards.  One failed while the other paid $500 – enough for the one-hour flight to Singapore.  Even if I had money for the long-haul, I didn’t want to be trapped on board a plane eight hours after police and embassy officials had been scanning flight records.

On board the airliner, I assessed damage.  I looked at my hands.  The skin from the palms would grow back quickly.  Fingerprints never forget.  I was thirsty, and that was about all.  I could continue my journey interrupted two years earlier.

I landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport, took a cab to the town centre, then another to a mid-level hotel on the fringes.  After checking-in, I went straight to the rooftop swimming pool and dived in, swimming below water end to end.  I lifted myself out to stand in the warm breeze as the water drained from my body, and with it the handprints of death that had held me for two years.  I took a deep breath and jumped back in.

A free man again, Mr. McMillan continued his life of crime in various countries before ‘retiring’ and settling in the First World once again.  His book will be a revelation to those who’ve never dealt with the reality of international crime and smuggling.


1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *