Massaged by Inmates: Chiang Mai’s Women’s Prison
What comes to mind when you imagine a traditional Thai massage? My imagination once created a scenario in which a Thai woman twisted me into an impossibly complicated pretzel and drop kicked my spine. Maybe that’s what you pictured too, but let me clear this up a little: it’s not that bad.
During my first visit to Thailand in 2008, my mom and I were too intimidated to try the traditional method, so we opted for massages that were more on the tame side. This time, I knew I couldn’t chicken out. We had heard about the Women’s Vocational Training Center from a few people and we decided it would be a great place for our first Thai massage experience. They have great reviews and it supports a wonderful program. One hour massages are 180 baht (about $5.50 USD). Most other places we see around the city charge 200.
These women are all serving time in Chiang Mai’s women’s prison for lesser, nonviolent crimes and are close to completing their sentence. Working at the facility is a way for them to learn a profitable trade and earn some money for when they are released.
We were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the facility. There is a nice outdoor garden area with tables and chairs as well as indoor seating for a small restaurant. A cart of cute slippers and other inmate-made souvenirs stands outside the main entrance, and the guards were all very friendly.
We approached a small desk in front of what we guessed was the massage area and the english-speaking woman in her smart guard’s uniform told us the next available spot was at 3:10. It was 1 p.m. at the time, and we have since heard that they often fill up for the day by noon. Try to get there by 11 a.m. to secure your appointment and then you can explore any of the wats nearby, or browse the cultural center across the street while you wait. We opted to grab lunch in the adjoining restaurant during ours. Prisoners run the restaurant as well. Due to part of their training, they all speak English and, like most other people we have encountered in Chiang mai, are very amiable.
We both ordered the Pad Thai, which was presented as their specialty, and fruit smoothies. Everything was delicious! We sat indoors where we could enjoy the fan, but I will definitely sit outside and enjoy the trees next time we go.
When it was time for our appointment, we were given fabric slippers and loose tops and pants to change into. Our feet were washed, and then we followed our masseuses to the low, padded beds on which we would lie. There were about 20 beds in the dimly lit room and maybe 8 chairs along one wall used for foot massages.
The whole thing started at the feet and it seemed like she spent the entire hour ripping my calf muscles. I winced a few times, but I resisted the urge to ask her to go easy on me so I wouldn’t miss out on the benefits of the proper Thai technique. There was some pretzel action, but it was all pretty comfortable. I looked around when we first lie down to see other masseuses perched on top of their subjects with a foot on the back of their thigh, yanking on the foot from the same leg, so I had an idea of what to expect.
At one point, I wondered if she had ever pulled anyone’s foot clean off, but the pain never lasted too long. Most of the massage felt great and I definitely felt nice and relaxed when we left.
The strangest part was at the end, when I was lying face down and she sat on the back of my legs, held my wrists and pulled me up into a suspended backbend. I really didn’t know that my spine could curve that much and I think my back cracked a thousand times. We shared some giggles at my expense, and I was asked several times whether I was ok, so if you’re still nervous, don’t be! If it really is too much for you to handle, just say so and your masseuse will be happy to adjust.
When we left, we were given a cup of hot tea and we sat quietly enjoying our newly relaxed selves. If you’re in Thailand even for a short time, you must get a traditional massage. It is quite an experience and completely worth it!
- The Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Message Centre is located in the center of the old city near the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Heritage Center on Ratvithi Road.
- Get there by 11 a.m. to schedule an appointment – the days often fill up!
- Restaurant and coffee shop on site
- Traditional Thai Massage and foot massages are 180 baht (about $5.50)