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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Unlocking My Muscles at the Women’s Prison

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | June 5th, 2008 | Comments 5 Comments »

Massage places in Thailand are about as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Santa Monica, so choosing to allow a convicted criminal to pummel the daylights out of my muscles may seem like an odd choice – or an inspired one, depending on one’s perspective.

But, I chose the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution (www.correct.go.th/fdccham) because it gives soon-to-be-released women a chance to practice a new commercial skill, to earn some head-start money and to interact with the public in a controlled setting. As the young electrical engineer lying next to me said, “It massages my heart, too.”
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Following the narrow streets of the original walled city of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s first capitol and second largest city, I was confused by the ungated, pleasantly tiled patio featuring a sprawling mango tree with purple orchids cascading from its branches.

I was expecting cinderblocks, barbed wire, guns and guards. What I found was an atrium-like restaurant adjacent to a coffee shop serving cappuccinos and homemade pastries.

Housing 1,200 women convicted of drug crimes, the prison allows women who have successfully undergone drug rehab to participate in a 3-month voluntary vocational program to learn massage, cooking, dressmaking, hairdressing or waitressing. Well more than half of Thailand’s female prisoners are jailed for drug-related crimes.

Thai massage is a non-sexual, non-aesthetic experience where the massage mats are laid side-by-side in an open room, people are fully dressed in their own clothes or in cloth tie pants that look like hospital scrubs, and the masseurs banter with each other like hairdressers at an neighborhood salon.
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At 200 baht (about $6.70 US) for an hour, they’re cheap even by Thai standards. Getting a massage is a regular, social event similar to the way western men might gather at a barber shop. It’s not unusual to see Thai massage mats and reflexology chairs publicly lined up at the popular outdoor night markets to reinvigorate intrepid shoppers.

At the women’s prison, I was led into a quiet, dimly lit, air-conditioned room with 5 mats on the floor and 5 reflexology chairs adorned with blue embroidered cushions. Then, I was directed into an institutional storeroom to change into lightweight cotton wrap-around top and pants.

Tik, a 31-year-old convict with 8 months more to go on her 3-year sentence, washed my feet in refreshingly tepid water. She had taken a course in English in the prison and picked up phrases from her English-speaking massage clients.

With a quick smile, she gestured toward a mat on the floor and brought me a cup of Chinese tea. The room smelled like Chomthong, a mild, soothing herbal balm that would soon be penetrating my back from warm compresses.

Tik’s touch was surprisingly gentle, but took instant charge of my muscles, massaging me with fingers, thumbs, palms, the sides of her hands, fists, forearms and elbows. No kink was too stubborn for this criminal to break.

The room hummed with the cupping sounds of hands on flesh and the quiet banter of the baby blue T-shirt clad convicts massaging several people who came in after me: two older Thai men, a western woman and 25-year-old Lek, the electrical engineer from Bangkok who had been here before.

Tik coaxed my joints in directions they hadn’t gone in years, distracting me with her cajoling smile, soothing Thai and cooing “too hard?” to which I could only grunt. After an hour, my heat-swollen feet and ankles were back to normal and my joints felt like they’d been oiled from the inside out.

I followed my massage with a cappuccino and a Pad Thai noodle omelette with generous shrimp in the convict-run cafe. The airy room with calming green and orange woven tablecloths was filled with lunching prison staff, unarmed guards, locals and the prison director. The prisoners host, serve, cook and clean – everything except deal with money.

My cost: 180 baht for the hour massage (about $5.80 US) and only 75 baht (about $2.50 US) for lunch. Now, here’s a place where I can afford my convictions!

Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, 100 Rachvithi Rd., ph: 053-21-0824, open 8:00 am – 4:30 pm.
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Category: , Thailand, Massage
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5 Responses to “Unlocking My Muscles at the Women’s Prison”

  1. Pauline Field Says:

    I could feel my muscles relax as I read about your massage! Sounds like the kind of prison we need here. We sure are not into rehabilitating people. Too bad.

  2. Gary Wintz Says:

    Kelly,
    I am a big fan of Thai massage in both Thailand and the USA. I even married a Thai masseuse, who just happens to be the best in the Thai world.

    Your writing craft in describing Thai massage is remarkable and so accurate it makes me longing for one again right now.

    Thank you for making our world more humane and peaceful.

    Gary Wintz

  3. Johnny Says:

    Thai massage is addictive, I really miss getting them after I moved away from Thailand.

  4. Dru Thailand Says:

    180 Baht for the hour massage? It must have gone up. Last year, 2009, the total cost was just 150 Baht. It’s also not recommended to tip the girls because they say the guards get to keep it :(

  5. Anonymous Says:

    WOW thank you so much for the message,and Thanks for your insight for this method great story; this is the kind of feature that continues me though out the day

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