A Year in Bangkok – The Last Public Execution

23 04 2011

There is a ‘corrections’ museum in Bangkok which I would like to visit but have not been able to yet as my days off are public holidays and the museum is closed on public holidays – the days most people might want to visit it. So, I know nothing about the early prisons here. I do know that in the nineteenth century some prisoners were put in bamboo cages suspended above the canal near the Temple of the Golden Mount. The only food they got was from passers-by who took pity on them and gave them something to eat. Executions in those days were beheadings and, interestingly, the last beheading took place just across the road from where I lived for nearly six years.

Entering Wat Phasee

That was in my local temple, Wat Phasee, on my birthday, 19th August, but a good few years before my time, in 1919. The victim was called Boonpeng Heep Lek and nineteen was clearly not a lucky number for him. There was a strict procedure for execution. First, the prisoner would be whipped for three rounds with thirty strokes for each round. On the way to the place of execution, he would be punished with ‘the five instruments of restraint’ which were a leg chain, waist chain, neck chain, handcuffs and hard wooden stocks. At the place of execution, he would have to sit with both legs stretched out in front of him and his body was fastened to a wooden cross. His ears and mouth would then be filled with clay and the base of his neck was also marked with clay, the target area for the swordsman I suppose. Or it could have been to keep his spirit in.

The shrine to Boonpeng

An executioner would then perform an elaborate ritualistic dance with his sword in front of the condemned man until it was believed that the prisoner’s mind was calm. Calm? How could anybody possibly have a calm mind in such circumstances? At that point, a second executioner would use a sword to behead him from behind. I have seen some old, grainy photographs of that last beheading and they are not a pretty sight. After execution, the feet were cut off to remove the leg chain. Then his body was chopped into pieces and given to the vultures and crows. Finally, his head was impaled on a sharpened wooden pole and displayed for all to see.

The temple school which is sited on the old burial ground.

And now, Boonpeng Heep Lek has his own shrine with a steady stream of worshipers. People come here when they are wanting some good luck which strikes me as rather odd because poor old Boonpeng certainly didn’t have much luck in his life. And no, I don’t know what his crime was.  Wat Phasee itself, which dates back to the 1840s, is a lovely and busy local temple with a very unusual stupa, the only one like it I have seen. In those days, it was right on the outskirts of Bangkok but now I would call it city centre. There was also a cemetery here for any remaining bits of executed prisoners after the vultures had finished but part of that land is now a school and the other part is earmarked for monks’ housing. I wonder if the students have any idea of the history of that piece of land. The temple itself is, in my view, well worth visiting but I don’t think it is mentioned in any of the guidebooks. As a point of information, it is on Ekkemai Soi twenty three. Later, execution was by machine gun and now it is by lethal injection but I have to say that I disagree strongly with the death penalty, however it is carried out.

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