Bangkok, April 7, 1893
A blanket of rain fell to the earth, pouring from the roof of the teakwood house, forming waterfalls that cascaded to the floor below and created a percussive spatter on the soft soil. The sky was veiled in a cloak of yellowish clouds. Ai Yon stood motionless: soaked to the skin, hair flat across his head, rain running down the contours of his face. His bloodshot eyes bulged forth as the cogs of hatred turned furiously within, fuelling his vengeful thoughts.
He stood amidst the banana trees, hidden by the broad green leaves, watching the house. His eyes narrowed as he saw his wife and her lover in the throes of passion. He tightened his grip on the knife in his right hand, stroking the handle with his thumb. His face contorted like some hideous dragon. He crouched down and slipped through the foliage, wet banana leaves clinging to his skin as he approached the house.
At the entrance, he paused, breathing heavily, feeling a rush of anxious excitement at what he was about to do. He crept silently through the doorway on bare feet, sprang forward, lifting the knife in the air, screaming a blood-curdling cry. The man – quick and agile – somehow responded, and jumped out of a nearby window. Only the unfortunate wife remained, her face frozen in a terrified expression. With unrestrained rage, he thrust the knife into her navel, pulled out the blade, and stabbed her in the chest; her head fell back against the floor. Blood trickled down her porcelain-white skin, branching off into little streams, like newly-formed rivers, searching for a channel.
Bangkok, June 1895
The jangle of the jailer’s keys cut through the darkness, breaking the silence of the prison cell. Ai Yon instinctively turned his head in the direction of the sound. The jailer thrust the key into the lock and turned it with a decisive twist, springing open the barred door. Two guards entered the cell, placed their hands under Ai Yon’s arms and lifted him off the floor.
He was taken through the door into the long dark corridor which led to his cell. Occasional slits in the walls allowed a dim sunlight to filter in. The two guards stood on either side of Ai Yon, holding him by his arms. He walked wearily; his legs barely strong enough to hold his weight. They came to a large wooden door. The jailer stepped forward and opened it with a key. The door swung open with a rusty creak.
The sun was climbing over the horizon as Ai Yon made his first steps into the outside world in almost two years. Lax court procedures and bureaucratic inefficiency had led to Ai Yon being imprisoned for an excessively long period before serving his sentence.
Outside the jail, a crowd had gathered to witness the removal of the prisoner. A number of people in the crowd taunted and jeered at him, but most of them just looked on in silence. He seemed oblivious to their presence and stared at the floor. He was taken along a dirt path, past the crowd of onlookers, heavy shackles clinking as he walked.
After a short walk they arrived at a small pier, where a longboat sat waiting. Government officials stood around looking tired and bothered at being awake so early for the execution of an insignificant middle-ranking nobleman. The guards exchanged brief words with the officials then the procession boarded the boat. They pulled away from the pier and headed for Wat Samrong, the place where Ai Yon was to be executed.
Ai Yon must have fallen to sleep, because when he became aware of his surroundings, he realized he was on a boat sailing down the Chao Phraya River. He looked around and saw the guards and government officials talking, smoking, and sharing jokes. He looked across to the banks of the Chao Phraya, where he saw small wooden houses with people outside them, going about their business, just another day for them; death was a distant appointment.
Ai Yon envied them: their carefree lives; smoking, chewing betel nut, preparing the morning meal, and chatting about nothing in particular. In that moment he wished to trade places with them. How foolish people were: chasing after money when the real joy of life was the beauty of the morning, hot food, a welcome friend. These things were what he longed for now.
A group of children jumped naked into the river and bathed in the brown water, splashing around, playing games of youth. They had no fear of death; they were immortal, in the morning of their lives.
Outside a small house, an old woman sat chewing betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice into the ancient waters of the Chao Phraya. She stared at the procession as it passed-by, smiling vacantly with red gums. Any day now, death would come knocking on her door too.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of Ai Yon’s mind, the words of a poem he had once known returned to him, jumbled slightly, confused with his own situation: Life is a river, always pushing on mercilessly, never to return, where it once was.
In the distance, the golden spires of Wat Samrong came into view, reaching up to the blue sky, where a light covering of clouds was beginning to form.
Wat Samrong, 6:00 a.m.
The boat docked at the pier and most of the guards and state officials disembarked. Ai Yon was left onboard, watched by two guards. A short distance away from the boat, Ai Yon could see an area being cordoned off with thin blue cloth. Plantain leaves were being laid on the ground, and a bamboo post was firmly planted in the soil. He saw a group of Buddhist monks chatting with the state officials, three men were erecting an altar; they were the executioners.
The Buddhist monks began to walk towards the boat, chanting a plaintive sermon as they walked in single file. The chanting became louder as the procession of monks grew closer. They walked up the gang plank of the boat and headed for Ai Yon. There were three monks, all garbed in amber robes. They performed some perfunctory rituals then one of the monks began the last ministrations:
“… you acted out of rage, lost control of yourself, and as a result of your actions you are going to be executed. This is the ripening of bad karma: you took a life, and now they are going to take yours. You couldn’t avoid this; it is the result of past misdeeds. But now, the best thing you can do is come to peace with yourself before you go, and hope for a better rebirth. If you try hard, you can still dispel some of the bad karma from this life.”
Ai Yon wasn’t really listening, but he didn’t object, either.
On land, the executioners began making offerings of boar’s head, fowls, rice, and betels, at the temporary altar. They placed the swords to be used for the execution on the altar and began making prayers over them.
After almost an hour, two guards came to take Ai Yon from the boat. He seemed remarkably composed for someone who was about to be executed. He was escorted to a place in front of the altar where the executioners approached him, kneeling before him and asking his pardon for what they had to do.
He was then taken into the area cordoned-off by thin blue cloth. His shackles were removed and his elbows were firmly tied to the bamboo post. His ears were filled with wet clay and a line was drawn across his neck to guide the descending sword. Lighted tapers were placed in his hands and he murmured prayers.
The executioners were now arrayed in red, with red sashes tied around their heads. One of them was selected as the executioner, and he approached the government officials, made a quick wai then picked up a sword and approached the execution ground. He stood a little distance away from Ai Yon, just off to the right. He then began a set of elaborate and graceful steps – not unlike the steps seen in ram muay. Ai Yon watched him through the corner of his eye, following the hypnotic movements of the dance.
Meanwhile, a second executioner had taken a position just outside of Ai Yon’s field of vision. He danced with the same graceful steps as his brother executioner. When he perceived that Ai Yon was completely focused on the first executioner, he moved in for the death blow. He took two long strides towards Ai Yon, rising up onto his tiptoes, he lifted his sword above his head, facial features contorted in a grotesque grimace; for a spilt-second, time seemed to stand still. Then, with a flash like silver lightning, he swung the blade, almost completely severing the head. The first executioner quickly leapt in and finished the job. Ai Yon’s head rolled across the ground, stopping a few feet away. The corpse was hurried to a nearby grave. The head was then exposed on a pole.
The rain came out of nowhere, falling in sheets, cleansing the blood-stained ground, and scattering the crowd that had gathered to watch the execution.
karma: The Buddhist belief in cause and effect. The result of your actions.
ram muay: The dance performed at the start of a muay thai (kickboxing) bout.
wai: the act of placing the palms together in a prayer-like fashion to show respect to monks, nobility, seniors, and friends.
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Ray Malcolm was born in England, studied classical guitar in Leeds, and headed-out to Asia in 2009. He has lived in Bangkok for three years in which time he has worked as an English teacher, freelance writer, and blogger. He is the author of Bangkok in the 1930s, a walking tour available on the iPhone, and writes about life in Thailand on his blog .