My friend cautioned me about Thai massages. “Watch out for ones that offer ‘the beautiful finish!’” he joked.
“Haha,” I said, “no worries.” I’d heard great things about traditional Thai massage. Wasn’t that what the country was famous for: the food, the beaches, the massages?
Wasn’t that what Thailand was famous for: the food, the beaches, the massages?
In Chiang Mai, massage parlours are everywhere. Near the night market, on open pavement, you find displays of tourists getting pampered. I flirted (briefly) with a fish biting massage, “Tickle By Fish,” which is all the rage. Hundreds of Turkish Garra rufa fish, which regard human feet as appetizers, swim in a warm water tank and dine on your dead skin.
The ancient city offers everything from the shady to the luxurious. The “Radiant Beauty Heart Chakra” special at the upscale Four Seasons, for example, sets you back 9000 baht, or $260 USD.
Preparing for Prison
I wanted something affordable, but with edge, which is why I found the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison massage appealing. It was said to incorporate elements of yoga, plus the masseuses were soon-to-be-released felons. These weren’t Bangkok stranglers, the guidebook reassured, only minor offenders. Massage school was part of job skills rehabilitation, a course, like cake decoration. The money went directly to the women for use after their release.
The money I paid would go directly to the women for use after their release.
I decided to have a couple starter massages so I could compare to the one I got at the prison. First, I chose a 750 baht ($21) oil massage in a reputable downtown hotel. The spa had teak paneling, and sounds of burbling water and songbirds emanated from invisible speakers. A hostess appeared, dressed in silk, bringing welcome tea, a steamy hand towel, and a leather-bound menu offering everything from “Heavenly Stones” to “The Bliss of Paradise.”
I was escorted to a changing room and then to a cubicle fragrant with incense. The masseuse worked one quadrant at a time, discretely covering the finished bits with a blanket as she went. We communicated through raised eyebrows, nods, and smiles. She was tiny and surprisingly strong. If you opened your eyes, while head down on the table as she poked your spine, you could see, through the face hole, a mandala of fresh white gardenias, chrysanthemums, and Damask roses. Nice touch. Omm.
The Village Special
My next session was in a town called Fang, two hours north. I ordered the village special for $130 baht ($4). I was with a group of friends when the desk clerk offered each a massage in our hotel rooms. We all said yes. How many masseuses could there be in a village this size, I wondered. Not for long. Ten minutes later, I opened the door to a flushed-looking woman, about 30. “Ni” she said, pushing into the room, all business.
She had no sooner placed me under the only sheet and made the universal sign for “roll over” when her cell phone rang. She fetched it from behind
my pillow, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. She began a heated argument—most likely a continuation of a fight my massage had interrupted—while twisting my elbow up and over my head. Her finger pressure was killer. Ouch, ouch, I said, and she hung up with an apologetic smile.
Despite the aggravation, the rest of the session was great. I mumbled thanks and paid double.
Who’s the Criminal?
Back in Chiang Mai, I was ready for the prison massage. I arrived at the rehab center on Ratwithi Road, directly across from the Women’s Correctional Institute, to find pretty inmates chatting on a bench. A George Clooney look-alike with Italian stickers on his backpack was also in the foyer. “How much for one hour?” I asked the receptionist. $180 baht, I was told. Less than $6.
I looked remarkably like a convict, while my masseuse—the actual convict (what had been her crime?)—looked like a tourist.
I was handed a bundle of cotton and pointed to an “out of order” water closet in which to change. I emerged wearing an institutional green top, with a confusion of ties, and baggy one-size pantaloons. I looked remarkably like a convict, while my masseuse—the actual convict (what had been her crime?)—looked like a tourist, in crisp cotton shirt and pink culottes.
She assigned me a locker and key. I had nowhere to put the key so I handed it back. She declined, so I placed it on the floor. It was that or swallow it.
I was in a dorm with a dozen low beds. Already face down with his own masseuse—on a bed inches from mine and close enough to hold hands—lay the handsome Italian. OMG, had they assumed we were together? I was sure we’d be separated by rooms or screens, but I was wrong.
Filmy curtains—mosquito nets, actually—were drawn, enclosing the four of us.
Throughout, the two ladies held quiet exchanges in musical Thai. I practiced mindfulness, trying to ignore them, the Italian, the sounds of barking dogs and passing motorcycles.
Thai Massage In a Prison: The Verdict
The experience was transporting. My 90-pound criminal threw herself into it, employing knuckles, elbows, forearms, knees, legs, and, eventually, her entire torso to stretch me into previously unattainable positions. I heard a noise I’d never heard before—the sound of my toes cracking. It was the sound of surrender.
The masseuses worked in sync, flipping us in unison. There was a backbend where they straddled our mats, grasped our heads and pulled us into a cobra position. I glanced over at snake brother. “Ahhhh,” he groaned, in what sounded like English.
The stranger and I shared a look of utter contentment.
This was followed by two-handed chopping along the spine. Finally—this was for me alone—my masseuse held up a jar of Hop Headed Barleria, a green herb balm, which she dabbed on recent mosquito bites.
It was the best of my three massages. The stranger and I shared a look of utter contentment. While I didn’t see him leave, I did run into him at a temple shortly after.
There was a flicker of recognition, but I chose to be discreet.
He was holding hands with his boyfriend.
Anne Bayin is a Canadian writer and photographer whose work has been published in The Guardian Weekend, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Macleans, MORE Magazine and others. She has published two photography books, “Dreamscapes,” a collection of abstract landscapes, and “The Liberty Project,” a photo series inspired by Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.