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Tea Leaves

Happy beginnings in Thailand's prisons

Unique skills training program transforms lives of female inmates

Women prisoners attend a Thai massage class at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institute in northern Thailand.   © Reuters

The prison inmate behind me clamped her thickly tattooed arms firmly around my neck. I could not move an inch. I started to wonder whether I had made a good choice for my afternoon recreational activity.

I was just around the corner from the women's jail in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, in an old wooden building into which I had been enticed by a sign promising "Prison Massage." Pimchan, the inmate who had hold of me, was enrolled in a program that teaches traditional Thai massage to serving convicts to give them career opportunities when their sentences end. Pimchan was out on day release to practice on paying customers like myself after completing some 500 hours of study in prison, as well as learning basic English and Chinese.

Some farang, or foreigners, assume that a massage in Thailand automatically involves a sexual element. That can either lead them to make a beeline for the nearest massage parlor as soon as their plane lands in the country or else avoid anything hands-on for the duration of their stay.

You won't find women touting outside of stores with signs that say "Thai Massage" or "Traditional Massage." (Photo by Tomasz Bidermann)

To avoid embarrassment (or disappointment) such visitors should read the recent coronavirus lockdown rules from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which list three types of officially recognized massage -- "soapy," "oil" and "traditional."

With lockdown rules having closed the first two categories, I was forced to research them virtually. I discovered that a place advertising "soapy massage" is, to all intents and purposes, a brothel. The customer goes in, chooses a woman, pays a set fee, and then proceeds with her to a private room.

There is technically a "massage," but it's done body-to-body with both parties naked and oiled up. Unsurprisingly, this tends to culminate in sex, which is included in the price. These establishments operate openly, even though selling sexual services is illegal, cloaking the services they offer in thin euphemisms. They were the first of the three categories to be locked down in the pandemic.

Establishments advertising "oil massage," or just "massage," have a sprinkling of young women outside touting for business. They offer a genuine massage while the customer sports a pair of skimpy undies supplied by the house. Toward the end, the masseuse will propose "extras," at a price to be negotiated. We are not talking about a jasmine-scented face towel.

Finally, there is Nuad Phaen Boran, or traditional Thai massage. Here we are on the right side of the law. These places have "Thai massage" or "traditional massage" on their signs, and there will be no women outside touting for business. Customers are obliged to take off their clothes, though only in order to slip into comfy pajamas. However, what happens next may still shock a few farang.

My traditional massage started promisingly enough as Pimchan made a respectful bow, with her palms clasped together, before asking for permission to touch my sacred body. Less than a minute later, however, I found myself embroiled in what appeared to be a one-way mixed martial arts match.

Despite the rigorous requirements of the prison's traditional massage training program, it is in extremely high demand by inmates. (Photo by Andrew Benfield)

Pimchan was on her back on top of me, leveraging my arm into a lock between her legs. After a further series of painful joint manipulations, she moved on to digging her fingers into a wide variety of pressure points, then thrust her elbows and forearms into any soft parts of my body she could find. For the grand finale, she stood up and walked all over my back.

Around 2,500 years ago, a Doctor Jivaka, physician to an Indian king and a friend of the Buddha, developed a system to remove blockages and get energy flowing smoothly through the 10 vital meridians believed to run through the human body. The techniques were exported from India to Thailand a few centuries later, along with Buddhism. Over time, they were spiced up with additional bits and bobs from other Asian arts (including a fair bit of jiujitsu, if you ask me) ultimately evolving into what is now called traditional Thai massage.

Doctor Jivaka was definitely onto something. About 20 minutes after Pimchan had finished pummeling me into submission, the pain started to subside and I found myself deeply relaxed, humming with a kind of subtle electric energy, and enjoying a newfound physical ease and fluidity of movement.

The best feeling though was that, instead of fueling vice in some soapy or oily massage joint, I had just played a small part in helping someone go straight. Despite the rigorous requirements of the prison's traditional massage training program, it is in extremely high demand by inmates. This is because it offers one of very few viable career options in Thailand if you are female, poor, uneducated and have a rap sheet.

Pimchan now seems well on her way to a fresh start once she is released from jail: which proves that a massage in Thailand can be about happy beginnings, not just happy endings.

Andrew Benfield is a Singapore-based writer

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