Pink and gold clouds churn up the sky as dawn breaks over Chiang Mai. With hammering heart, I clamber into an open-backed truck, gripping the handrail to stay upright on the bench seat as we bump along streets, teeming with locals. Tuk-tuks veer in front of us; we flash past monks in orange robes, children in smart school uniforms, the golden stupa of a Buddhist temple, while inhaling a cocktail of traffic fumes, fish and ripe watermelon from roadside stalls.
At Rathvithi Road someone shouts, “We’re here!” and we alight, but the building is not what I expected. Can this be the place? I gaze along the road but, once my eyes fix on the signboard, there’s no room for doubt. It reads: Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution.
Running my tongue over my parched lips, I leave my shoes outside the door and shuffle my feet into slippers of dubious cleanliness. I hand my money to a khaki-clad female prison officer. She issues me with a bamboo-weave tray containing some sort of uniform and ushers me to a cloakroom to get changed. The outfit comprises a blue cotton V-neck top and matching trousers with elasticated waistband, similar to medical scrubs. Removing my watch and jewellery, I change into the baggy two-piece. The stiff fabric scratches my body. I shiver as I fold up my dress and hand my tray of valuables to the girl guarding the door.
In Thailand, this could be your worst nightmare.
Let’s rewind and play that scene again. I step down from the truck, expecting to be admitted to a prison, encircled by high walls and razor wire. But this is an elegant 100-year-old wooden building, set in a flower garden with a gently rippling fountain. We’ve come to the vocational training centre of Chiang Mai Women’s jail where governors have introduced enlightened programmes to rehabilitate female prisoners and equip them with a skill for their return to civilian life.
An on-site café, restaurant and handicraft shop offer training in the catering and retail trades and a chance to interact with customers from the outside. But the jewel underpinning the centre’s success, and attracting both local people and travellers, is the spa and massage centre. Selected non-violent female prisoners take a 180-hour training course in traditional Thai massage and gain a recognised qualification so they can support themselves in the future. While in training, their practice clients are members of the public.
No longer a hidden gem, clients wanting to beat the queues should arrive ahead of the 8.00 a.m. opening time. Early customers walk straight in but, after this, a deli-counter style queuing system operates with timed tickets issued for later that day. I opt for the one-hour full body massage. Two-hour sessions and foot massages are also available.I ask the guard if I can take her picture and she poses, smiling. “But no photos of inmates,” she warns sternly.
My massage therapist appears, wearing a smart pink overall with magenta trim and leads me to a relaxing chair where she scrubs my feet with perfumed water. I ask her name. Her colleagues giggle and translate for her, but she smiles enigmatically and turns her head away. This is strictly a no-name place.
We move on into the treatment area, where couches are jammed so close together, I could reach out and stroke the hand of the stranger lying on the adjacent bed. Fortunately, privacy’s a non-issue because Thai massage takes place fully clothed. Ceiling fans whir overhead, setting the saffron curtains billowing; clients are asked to stay silent during their treatment but the women trainees laugh and chatter as they work.
My masseuse is tiny and bird-like but super-strong. Starting with my feet, she kneads, pokes and prods along pressure lines in my body, known as ‘sen’ in the language of Thai massage. This is supposed to unblock energy flow. She grips my left foot and rocks like a mother cradling her new-born baby. Next, she pulls my leg in a seesaw motion and leans back as if abseiling off my body. As my taut muscles alternately stretch and compress into a powder keg of pain, she asks in English, “It hurt?”
Communication is through hand gestures peppered with the occasional spoken instruction: “Turn over” I obey, but “sled down” is a new one. I give it a go and she nods approval. Now she’s tugging both my arms back beyond where nature designed them to go. She flicks me forward and I’m flying. My bones crack and it’s over; trapped energy released, weary limbs rejuvenated.
Outside in the waiting area, I sip jasmine tea and chat to a second guard, whose role is collecting money and keeping the books. She tells me eighteen women are currently training to be massage therapists and, following parole, they will be able to step straight in to jobs in network massage shops. Nor will they leave prison empty-handed.“I keep a book bank,” she explains, “the women get 50 per cent of their earnings as a lump sum on release, along with a share of the tip box.”
In Thailand, as elsewhere, female prisoners are often victims of poor life chances, drug crimes and poverty. What better formula to prevent reoffending than to equip them with skills and an honestly-earned nest egg? The women rebuild their self-respect and clients appreciate the professionalism of their massage treatments. Everybody wins. No one is beholden.
I linger over my tea until the cup grows cold and the jasmine aroma fades, then I empty my wallet into the tip box and liberate my shoes.
Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, 100 Rathvithi Road, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand.Opening hours – Monday to Friday 8.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays – 9.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Costs - A one hour full body Thai massage costs 200 baht (around £4.50).
The Modern Slavery Helpline run by the charity Unseen UK is at risk of closing if new funding can't be raised. I'm re-sharing a blog I wrote recently for Unseen that explains why I support their work. If you want to help the appeal, the link to their website is below.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of The Rule Breaker's Guide to Step Up and Stand Out by saxophonist, poet, speaker and performer, Georgia Varjas. Here is my review.
This article first appeared as a guest post as part of my blog tour for Lies Behind the Ruin. I'm grateful to Books, Life and Everything for hosting me and have included the link to the website.