CHIANG MAI, Thailand - For a brief moment, the soothing music and gentle touch of the trained masseuse catapulted me to a luxury resort. Then I opened my eyes and saw the corrections guard.
Wearing a light brown uniform, she sauntered over to one of the masseuses milling about and whispered in her ear. I was instantly jolted back to reality and remembered where I was.
While the relaxing massage and calm atmosphere was reminiscent of any comfortable spa experience, the trained masseuses wearing crisp pink uniforms were not: they were female inmates convicted of various crimes. Located right in the heart of the old city, the Chiang Mai Women Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center helps women inmates develop skills that will help them better reintegrate into society. In Chiang Mai - a city of 150,000 in northern Thailand known for its rich culture and historic temples - that includes learning the techniques of Thai massage.
I arrived at the site early - appointments can fill up fast and you can't book in advance - and was greeted by a swarm of smiling women in crisp pink uniforms. I paid my 180 baht (about $5.50) for a one-hour massage to one of corrections officers and was handed a matching set of muted orange pants and shirt to change into. Once changed, my treatment started with the gentle washing of my feet before I was escorted to one of several massage beds positioned throughout the room. About 20 women prisoners scampered about, getting ready for an influx of clients. The women, who are all non-violent offenders, complete 180 hours of massage training.
My masseuse, who knew basic English but also used hand gestures to get her points across, instructed me to lie on my back. Unlike the long, sweeping strokes and muscle kneading of a Swedish massage - which is the most the popular type of massage in the West - Thai massages involve yoga-like stretching movements. The masseuses often use their own legs and arms to contort the client, and this massage was no different. At various times, she stretched me, bent me, pulled me and popped me. The pressure, which sometimes included her entire body weight, was just right, while the peaceful music, low lighting and tasteful decor lulled me into total relaxation.
I've never been one to talk much during massages, and this time was no different, though I had hoped to learn a little more about the woman providing me with such an unorthodox experience. But the language barrier posed a problem. Besides, she seemed intent on focusing on the task at hand, and I was intent on feeling the stretch in my arms and legs. Afterward, I was handed a cup of tea and escorted outside to a beautiful garden, where a small contingent of people were waiting for their appointments, and taking selfies.
I met Echo Xiao, a 32-year-old from a suburb of Beijing who was about to get her third massage at the center. Xiao, who had heard about the vocational training center from a friend, said she appreciated both the massage price and the training center's mission. "I think it's wonderful because they can work and have something to do," she said of the inmates. The training center grounds also included a restaurant called Chuan Chom that served a variety of Thai dishes and an assortment of beverages for a few dollars as well as inmate-made products like handbags. At one point during my post-massage lunch of chicken and rice and iced coffee, I witnessed one of the inmates welcome several friends and family to the center. They embraced, talked and snapped photos of each other as she smiled and tears streamed down her cheeks. For visitors here, the center is tourist attraction - a story to tell back home. But for some women serving time at the facility, the massage center could be a chance at a new beginning in their lives.
The Chiang Mai Women Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A one-hour foot massage is 180 baht (about $5.50), while a one-hour Thai massage is the same price. A two-hour Thai massage is 360 baht (about $11).