I must admit I was a bit apprehensive at the idea of an ex-convict massaging me but the reviews online were good so I decided to give it a try.
There are several places where you can try ex-prisoner or ex-inmate massages in Chiang Mai. I was originally going to try one of the 'Lila Massage' treatments but there was a long lineup at the shop, so I moved down the road to one on Phapokklao Road just south of the Chang Puak gate on the north 'wall' of the old city. It was called 'Women's Massage Center by Ex-prisoners.'
It was about 10 a.m., a time I like because the masseuses will be fresh, strong, and not yet worn down by a long day of massages. It's also not busy and it's usually easy to get an immediate walk-in appointment. A half dozen women in their 30's and 40's were sitting in front at a table nibbling on a variety of bagged treats and fruits.
'I'd like a Thai massage, please.' A woman produced a rate card. A one hour 'Thai' massage was 200 baht (about $8 US), an oil massage 380 baht (quite a bit more than elsewhere). My feet were washed in a bowl with some mildly abrasive soap, then dried off and I was led inside
About a dozen raised beds, all covered with clean sheets and Thai fabrics, stretched out in front of me. The place was plain but pleasantly decorated with a large golden Buddha overlooking all. There were no dividers between the beds for privacy but I was the only one there so that wasn't an issue. There was a small loft where I presume more private oil massages could take place.
I was pointed to a change room and given a loose-fitting cotton top and bottom to change into. My street clothes went into a small wicker basket which was placed under my bed. I noticed some lockers at the back where you could leave your clothes as well.
The masseuse, whose name sounded like 'Mui', had me lay down on my front. She began by applying pressure to my legs, moving up from my heels to my thighs with her fists, pressing them into my muscles for a few seconds, then releasing, then moving up a bit and repeating. As she got up to my lower back, she ‘walked’ up my legs with her knees, incrementally as she continued. She was giving me compression with fists and knees simultaneously.
Fists and palms continued on my back, working into my upper arms and neck. There was more kneading, twisting, and pressing on the backs of my legs as well as some bending, sometimes mildly painful but in a good way. The stretches that are part of Thai massage strike me as being something like an assisted yoga. To finish off the back side, she had me grip her wrists tightly while she pulled me backwards so that my back arched as much as my aging body would allow. This was a bit tricky for her as I'm a pretty tall guy at 6’4″ (195cm) and she was half my weight but she did a good job.
Next, it was time to turn over and work up the front of my legs. A couple of strong presses into both sides of my groin really got the blood flowing. Some interesting stretches happened here, the kind where it feels like you’re getting bent like a pretzel. Again, this got amusing at times, due to our vast size differences, but Mui got the job done. A leg gets bent and pushed sideways, massaged, then pushed across the other leg with some mildly painful muscle stretching and kneading of newly exposed areas. She used her heals as well to push into my inner legs. Finally, the arms and hands got massaged. My arms got stretched behind my head in yet another pretzel-like yoga move.
Next, I was asked to sit-up and she worked on my upper back. She leaned into my shoulders with her forearms, rocking and really getting her weight into it. There was some neck kneading and stretching, and finally a head massage, laying my head back into her lap. This included some facial massage (mouth, cheeks, eyebrows, forehead) and some scalp and ear massage.
She was quiet and professional throughout the massage. There was no light chitchat you commonly get in other massage shops. It was obvious that she'd had some sort of training as you might expect in a prison rehabilitation program. I'd expect that all of the women here will have had some training from a reputable massage trainer (unlike some of the other shops where girls are often trained 'on-the-job' by their 'sisters').
After getting dressed, I went out front where a cup of tea was waiting for me and I was invited to sit at the table with the others and relax. I was curious about what these women had done to get into prison in the first place but I didn't ask.
It appears that there are other establishments running this kind of massage. The most famous in Chiang Mai is the 'Lily Massage' chain. It was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director of Chiang Mai Women's Prison to reintegrate newly released inmates into society. Prior to their release, these carefully screened inmates go through an extensive training program which allows them to make a living and contribute to society. The Prison and the Institute of Skill Development developed a 180-hour massage training course for these inmates.
Unfortunately, these detainees often encounter discrimination from employers who refuse to hire them, despite their advanced skills. Sadly, due to a lack of employment opportunities some return to a cycle of crime and find themselves back in prison. The Lila Thai Massage was established to help eliminate this pattern of crime and lack of opportunity. For more information, check out:http://www.chiangmaithaimassage.com.
Apparently, you can go right inside the Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution as well and get massaged by a 'soon-to-be-released' inmate (carefully guarded!). It's located roughly in the middle of the old city. It's very popular and you have to book early to get in. I don't think you get any special luxuries such as lotions, etc., just a basic massage. I would go to one of the other places previously desribed, the 'post-release' places, and get there early in the day if you can. Mid-afternoon is typically the busiest time of day.
I can heartily recommend a massage from any of the 'ex-inmate/ex-prisoner' establishments. On top of getting a good massage for a reasonable price, you're supporting a very worthy cause. These women have little chance of getting meaningful employment otherwise.