En, a prisoner at Chiang Mai’s women’s prison, is working on the soles of my feet -- with a stick. She laughs and asks in English: "Tickle?" You bet. In fact, it hurts like hell. The 22-year-old spends an hour kneading my feet with her hands and applying pressure with the wooden stick.
On a mat nearby, an American tourist is undergoing the torture of a full-body massage. The masseuse stamps on the woman‘s legs with her feet, and draws the upper part of her body back into what looks like an impossible position. Thai massage can look and feel pretty brutal – especially when taking place in a windowless room next to a prison.
And yet the prison, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, has become an attraction for tourists who come to hike in the northern part of Thailand. By training inmates to give Thai massage, the facility offers its 1,400 female prisoners the opportunity to make some pocket money while they are still behind bars, and perhaps a legitimate way of earning money after their release.
The massages take place in an unremarkable little building across from the prison, in a room with rows of chairs. The walls have flowers and butterflies painted on them. Ten masseuses kneel in front of the clients – tourists but also locals – to rub (and club) their feet. One of the masseuses is En. She had to complete more than 100 hours of training before being allowed to practice. An hour’s massage costs just under five euros, and she gets to keep half. She says she’s saving the money for when she gets out.
"Prison is not nice"
Normally when you have a massage you close your eyes and give yourself over to complete relaxation – not here. What with guards patrolling outside and peering through the door if any body-pounding noise seems particularly loud, the vibe isn’t very comfy. There’s also piped-in Thai pop music – and the pain.
Why are you in prison, En? She smiles, and I’m surprised to see she has braces. Like all the other masseuses, she’s wearing a pink and white top with pink linen slacks. Her long hair is held back with a clasp. "Cocaine," she replies and I’m sensing that she’s not saying more because her English isn’t up to it.
Still, she’s able to get across that she got nine months for drug use, and has still two months to go. She shares a cell with 25 other women. "I’m happy I get out soon: prison is not nice,” she says. She knows what she wants to do after her release, and it’s not drugs – or tourists’ feet.
En wants to study computers, start a new life. What she earns doing massages will help her realize her plans. The massage is nearing the end, so I have yet to discover whether all the pain yields feet that feel like they’re walking on air. But even if that’s not the case, I already have the feeling of an hour, and five euros, well spent.
Read the original article in German
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