A clutch of massage centers in Chiang Mai are staffed by ex-convicts who are like real life Thai versions of the Orange Is the New Black characters
When my hormones began running riot in the late 1970s and early 1980s, women-in-prison movies were still a sub-genre of sexploitation (read: softcore porn) cinema. Movies like Chained Heat and Reform School Girls (starring Wendy O. Williams, the late singer of the Plasmatics) epitomized a genre where the jailbirds lounged around in lingerie, so they could tear them off each other in catfights and lesbian encounters. Adding insults and injuries to this volatile mix was another stock character: the sadistic female warden dressed to chill as a Nazi dominatrix.
In these films, the plots were as flimsy as the inmates’ lingerie, and the women’s main desire was less for freedom than to be ravaged by men, as typified on a movie poster for The Big Doll House: “Their bodies were caged but not their desires. They would do anything for a man, or to him.”
Much more recently, the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black, created by female producer Jenji Kohan—based on the memoir of a female ex-con, Piper Kerman, and predominantly starring a female cast—has trashed and mocked many of these stereotypes. Still, the first episode of season one begins with a steamy sex scene in the shower between the lesbian couple Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon).
Upon seeing the sign for the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Centre, a montage of images from the TV series and some of those old films began projecting onto my mind’s movie screen, though the only words that sprang to mind were, quite frankly, one of the worst lines of dialogue in any movie I’ve ever seen, snarled by Wendy O to the nasty warden: “You’re the shit stains on the panties of life.”
Surely these massage centers in Chiang Mai were no joke, and no softcore fantasy designed to tease and titillate. These women had done hard time. They’d committed serious crimes. They were real jailbirds. However, the thought of getting a traditional Thai massage from a murderess was more scary than sexy. Where had those hands been? Wrapped around the shaft of a knife or another woman’s throat?
Lila Thai Massage (127/13 Prapokkloa Rd)is one such venture in Chiang Mai, staffed by former inmates. At first glance it seemed much like any other traditional Thai massage parlour. The place was clean, the receptionist congenial, and the masseuses were dressed in old-fashioned uniforms of shapeless tops and bottoms.
The managers had taken great pains to address some of the safety concerns bound to arise in such an establishment. Every room had a box with a lock to secure your valuables. That was a relief. I didn’t enjoy the thought that I was in a den of potential thieves, but old stereotypes stick like jailhouse tattoos. Unless directly faced with our prejudices, most of us would probably think of ourselves as reasonably open-minded and not too judgmental. The reality is that we are all prisoners of those prejudices, which have been conceived out of ignorance and nurtured by the mass media, so that you think you know something about crime but have never met a convicted criminal or spent time with anyone who’s actually been in jail.
All over the world, former inmates face rampant discrimination and society’s scorn. Because of the laws of karma in Thai society, and the lack of rehabilitation programs in Thai jails, the Kingdom is a hard place for ex-convicts to make a fresh start. For those reasons, the former director of Chiang Mai Women’s Prison, Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, came up with a plan for the jail to collaborate with the Institute of Skill Development on a massage course that would help the ladies find gainful employment after they’d finished their sentences.
In 2008, Naowarat helped to open the first Lila Thai Massage Center in the old part of Chiang Mai. The novelty of a massage parlour staffed almost entirely by ex-convicts provided plenty of publicity in the short term, but over the long haul, the well-trained and friendly masseuses have built up a loyal following. So much so that Lila is now in the top 20 of all Chiang Mai’s many spas and wellness centers on TripAdvisor, and in June of 2016 they opened their sixth center right in the city’s historic mid-section (the Chiang Mai Women’s Massage Center also enjoys a high ranking on the world’s most visited travel website).
My masseuse looked like the kind of normal woman—somewhere in her 30s—you might see cutting hair in a beauty salon or working as a cashier, but I couldn’t picture her in a cell somehow or imagine how she had gotten there. Before entertaining even the barest semblance of a sketchy softcore scene from one of those wanton-women-in-prison movies, I saw another sign on the wall that read, “To protect women’s rights and dignity, Sexual harassing behaviour is very serious offence, either physical or verbal. Offender will be acted and punished by the laws under the Criminal Code Amendment Act. (sic)”
Clearly a few old stereotypes of sexploitation cinema, like the wayward woman, had persisted, or some customers thought this was a front for the more unseemly services offered at certain establishments in Thailand.
That was not the case. This was a very professional and competent massage for a reasonable rate.
The most interesting part of the experience came afterwards, when I finally mustered the courage to ask her, “Excuse me, but umm, I don’t mean to be impolite but… were you really in prison?”
She smiled with embarrassment. “Yes, three years.”
It would not be fair to her to reveal the contents of what was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a former inmate, and I’ve interviewed quite a few of them (mostly foreigners) over the years, but I came to the conclusion that this was a very likable young woman who had gotten caught up in a tragic turn of events, for which she expressed great remorse and had promised to make amends. Everybody deserves a second chance, don’t they?
Us travelers and road warriors always get criticized for this or that, for despoiling the environment, or contaminating the culture, or taking advantage of locals. But here’s a detour on the travel trail that’s not a potential guilt trip but an opportunity to help a former convict escape the vicious circle of poverty that breeds crime. At these massage centers in Chiang Mai that’s the best kind of ‘happy ending’ on offer.