Thai Internet wunderkind captivates audiences from behind bars
Panrit Daoruang, popularly known as ‘Gor,’ once blogged about his life as a teen drug addict. Now he crusades about prison overcrowding and helps fellow inmates.
Photo courtesy of Richard Barrow
Samut Prakan, Thailand
For Thailand’s most famous blogger, who launched an online diary at age 12, the current method of updating his website seems rather anachronistic.
From behind wire mesh and plexiglass, Panrit Daoruang – or “Gor,” as he’s popularly known – dictates to his former English teacher, Richard Barrow. Mr. Barrow takes notes and uploads the new entries for him on a laptop.
Though his autobiographical blogs remain extremely popular, Mr. Panrit, now 22, hasn’t touched a computer in two years. He is serving a three-year sentence for drug possession, and inmates like him at Samut Prakan Prison, near Bangkok, aren’t allowed access to the Internet (or even newspapers and TV).
At night, he shares a small cell, initially planned for 25 inmates, with as many as 65 other prisoners. For recreation Panrit plays chess and writes letters. The focus of his blogs has changed from the life of a troubled teenager to crusading about prison issues and being an electronic nanny to fellow inmates. “Richard,” Panrit says to Mr. Barrow at one point, “write down this number.... Tell Yui she must call Phi Ple [elder brother] more often because he misses her.”
An olive-skinned man with boyish features, Panrit is a popular inmate: He often translates for guards and foreign prisoners, one of whom had been reading his blogs before he wound up in the same prison.
“I want people to know we’re not all criminals and bad guys,” Panrit says of his reason for continuing to blog from behind bars. “It [also] helps prisoners’ families to know they’re doing well.”
Panrit and Barrow now run thaiprisonlife.com, a popular website (it’s ranked first on Google) about life inside Thailand’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. They also campaign against drug use and warn foreigners about the country’s draconian narcotic laws.
Panrit’s own misadventure with the law occurred three years ago, when a random search by police revealed “yaba,” or “crazy medicine,” amphetamine pills hidden under his belt. By then, the youth had been battling drug addiction for years, narrating his struggle on “Confessions of a Young Teenage Addict,” a blog, in English and Thai, that he started when he was 15.
Panrit gained a devoted following as thousands of readers, from kids to Vietnam War veterans, became attracted to his tale of transformation from precocious schoolboy to teenage addict to prisoner.
“As his story developed, I became hooked,” says David Millar, a technology manager in Manchester, England. “I had come to think of Gor as a personal friend. His honesty about his drug problems and troubles in his life really touched me.”
Today Panrit’s online diary is widely used for English educational classes in Thailand and abroad. He’s featured in an English textbook published by Longman, a leading British firm. “I want kids to know that nothing good will come out of drugs,” Panrit says.
Readers of his blog from as far away as the US have visited him in prison and looked up his primary school. “He has made our school famous around the world,” says Seesagoon Krishanachinda, the principal of Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan. “Although he left 10 years ago, he still inspires our students.”
An avid comic-book collector who was best in his class for gifted students, Panrit began to hang out with a bad crowd in seventh grade. He started experimenting with drugs and stealing money from his working-class parents – and blogged honestly about it.
He was just 16 when The Bangkok Post invited him to write a weekly column in the newspaper’s student supplement. In “Gor’s World,” Panrit chronicled the ups and downs of his life, including his parents’ financial troubles and his teenage girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy.
The young columnist never lacked for material: He soon became a doting father, got married, divorced, and dropped out of high school. To atone for his mistakes, he became ordained as a Buddhist monk before landing in prison.
“It’s been a real-life soap opera and people have constantly kept asking for updates,” says Barrow, a former BBC editor who teaches computer science in Sriwittayapaknam School. “Gor has a talent for telling a story, and he has a story to tell.”
In 1997, Barrow helped Panrit, then a sixth-grader, launch his career as the country’s youngest blogger when he assigned students a project to create their own websites. The 12-year-old called his “Gor’s Secret Diary.”
He soon progressed from entries like, “My favorite color is blue,” to intensely personal accounts of the life of Thai teenagers. School, puppy love, motorcycle drag races, and traditions like walking under an elephant’s belly for good fortune were all documented. “I just wrote about my life,” Panrit says. “I didn’t think so many people would be interested.”
They were – sometimes in unlikely things.
“One of the most popular pages on the site,” Barrow recalls, “was Gor’s photographed list of ‘things in my pocket’ when he was 14.” It included a bus ticket, a snapshot of his girlfriend, a school ID, a Valentine’s card in Thai, and a discount coupon for KFC.
Panrit also began to write about Thai culture on a new blog and offered his foreigner readers free Thai language lessons on another. Both sites still get a lot of hits even though he hasn’t updated them since he went to prison. The Thai press has called him the country’s “youngest ambassador” and its first “global citizen.”
After visiting Panrit in prison, Barrow returns to the school to wait for Nong Grace, Panrit’s young daughter, to finish her kindergarten classes. He lets the girl play in his office and teaches her English until her grandmother arrives to take her home.
A bubbly 5-year-old, Grace can’t yet write, but, thanks to Barrow, is already blogging. Using a digital camera he gave her, she takes pictures of trips to the mall and zoo. Her online albums show her feeding a tiger cub and riding an elephant. “This way,” Barrow says, “Gor will have a record of Grace’s life while he is in prison.”
Although he claims no credit, Barrow has been instrumental in his former student’s online fame. A publicity-shy man, Barrow is a prolific blogger himself, whose home-based Internet company runs a mini empire of blogs and websites (115 in all). They include Thailand’s most popular school website, as well as blogs on culture, food, and politics. He drives a clanking Toyota, lent to him by the school, which he uses to take older students on educational and sightseeing trips.
“Without Richard, I’d have ended up a lot worse,” Panrit says of his mentor. “He’s been like a father to me.”
A local company plans to publish Panrit’s prison diary after his release next September. The working title is “Addicted to Chaos.” In his new life, though, Panrit professes to want no more chaos. “That episode is behind me,” he says. “I have a little daughter to look after.”
And he’ll be blogging again: He has plenty of tales yet to tell.