As a tourist it can often feel difficult to make a positive impact on the lives of those you meet. My constant battle as a traveller is whether I am doing more harm than good by visiting developing countries. I have strongly held beliefs against animal exploitation like petting tigers or riding elephants thus boycott any form of animal tourism. However, when an opportunity for responsible tourism comes along, I jump at the chance.
While in Chiang Mai, I learned about an Inmate Vocational Training program that affords women serving time in the Thai corrections system the opportunity to train in a new career. They learn skills like Thai massage, cooking and weaving so as to be able to participate in the tourism service sector. The women you graduate from this program have a lower rate of recidivism and a better quality of life after they serve their sentence. While I never imagined I’m be getting a massage at a women’s prison, it turned out to be an excellent unconventional tourism opportunity!
I was interested to see firsthand this job creation program. Having heard that the centre does not take reservations but functions on a first come, first serve system, I arrived early in the day and I was able to make an appointment for 2:30pm. When I returned in the afternoon, they were turning people away as they had filled all the appointments for the day, speaking to the popularity of the project.
While I waited for my appointment, I visited the nearby Lanna Museum which I found to be a wonderful way to learn about the history and culture of Northern Thailand. The museum showcases the daily life of the Lanna people, both ancient and modern, including their food, religion, festivals and handicrafts. I loved that the museum focused on everyday activities like the importance of local spices in cooking while highlighting what makes the region unique. For only 90B ($2.50US) it is well worth the entry fee to fill your time while you wait.
My appointment time came around faster than I expected as I toured the museum and soon I was heading back, ready for my first ever Thai massage. I soon discovered that Thai massage is dissimilar to the Swedish massages I’d previously had. Thai massage concentrates on overall muscle groups and uses acupuncture-based techniques which can be somewhat painful. You can expect to be pulled, rocked, jabbed and even (gently) slapped. Of course, if that pain is too much you can speak up, but I can attest that the slightly uncomfortable feeling will lead to deep relaxation later on.
When I arrived, I was escorted inside where I removed my street clothing and donned a simple linen set of clothing. This is a common practice in traditional Thai massage as you remain fully clothed during the treatment and no oils are used. Once changed, my feet were gently washed and I was lead to a nearby room with eight beds lined up against one wall. On each bed lay a client being worked on by a young women. Truthfully, I was grateful for the opportunity to peek over at the other clients to find out what to expect!
It was a very physically demanding job for the masseuse, who spent the full hour pulling, bending, beating, pushing, and squeezing every piece of my body. She was highly skilled and the massage completely relieved all the tension I had been carrying and left me feeling wonderful. As I grew accustomed to her ministrations, I noticed my surroundings in more details and found them utterly charming. With perfumed water spritz in the air, soft instrumental Thai music in the background and the gentle whispers and laughter of the women surrounding me, it was a very pleasant atmosphere.
At the end of the hour, I felt light and stress free. No photos were allowed for obvious reasons, but I can promise that the setting was lovely, the women were kind and attentive, the facility was well kept and well run. For only 180B ($5.ooUS), I received an excellent hour long massage and much needed reprieve from the hustle and heat of the city.
Afterwards, I had lunch at the onsite cafe and took a quick look at the handicrafts on sale. While I was happy to support a good food job, the cafe is clearly not the main focus of the centre and the service reflected that. After trying to order two different Northern Thai dishes and being told without explanation that they were unavailable, I ended up with a standard green curry. Unfortunately, I can’t give the cafe the same rave reviews as the massage as the dining service was inattentive and the dish overpriced, but the cafe’s outdoor seating area was a lovely spot to take a break from the busy city. I would recommend having a coffee or smoothie during your wait in order to support the training of cafe workers.
My only regret is that I didn’t visit the centre earlier in my travels. I recommend coming at the beginning of your trip to Chiang Mai to relieve the tension of your travels with a Thai massage and then again before you leave for a foot massage to relieve the strain of exploring all the temples and night markets.
Are there any vocational training programs in your neighbourhood that support vulnerable people? If so, go check them out and let me know what you find!
Now It’s Your Turn! When in Chiang Mai, you too can receive a massage at the Vocational Training Center of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution (yes that’s the easy to remember official name!). It’s as easy as arriving early in the morning to 100 Ratvithi Road and reserving your appointment time. The Chiang Mai Historical Centre or the Lanna Folklife Museum are excellent places to visit while you wait. Both are on the same road and make excellent landmarks for finding the Vocational Center as they show up on Google Maps.