Healing bodies and souls
Text & Photos Jim Neale
“Where do your therapists get their training?” I asked inquisitively to the black silk-attired woman sitting behind the teak desk.
“Prison,” she answered, smiling serenely.
“Prison?” I grinned, waiting expectantly for some form of reassuring laughter. None was offered. It wasn’t quite the reply I anticipated as I stepped through the tropical floral entrance of the Thai spa. Soft music, scented candles and a multitude of benign Buddha statues embellished its interior as I contemplated the unique recruiting policy.
Warning signals started flashing as I attempted to appear unconcerned while making furtive glances and slowly edging towards the door, but my Thai host could read me like a well-creased tourist map.
“Please. You’re most welcome here… any support will help these women,” she implored, as her glistening eyes grew more delicate and my paranoid visions began to dissipate. Somehow, I knew I would survive unscathed and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of a traditional Thai massage.
In the changing room, I put on the loose-fitting Thai fisherman’s pants and wandered through to an open-air communal massage area. There were several small mats lined paralleled across the floor with a mixture of Thais and foreign tourists in the process of being stretched and pulled by their determined therapists.
Depending on their flexibility, an occasional painful gasp or ecstatic moan might be heard from the displayed, pretzel-like forms.
My therapist was a solidly built woman in her mid-thirties, wearing the same comfortable baggy clothes of the spa. Her ink-black hair was pulled back in a tight knot with no make-up applied to her impassive face.
They were there to heal their inflicted patient through holistic massage techniques – and nothing else. The only concession to adornment my therapist allowed herself was a sacred Sak Yant Buddhist tattoo, whose mysterious Sanskrit characters ran the length of her powerful full arms.
After an hour of experiencing challenging stretches and liberating pulls, the permanent kinks and gnarls in my vintage, sports-abused body began to release themselves.
I was rejuvenated beyond expectations as I felt blood flow freely and nerve endings fire unimpeded throughout my body. I walked with the posture and symmetry of youth, and what was more important, I felt no aches or pains.
I was not sure how long the effects would last, but now I certainly knew where to go when the body went kaput!
Inspired by my tangible physical results, I needed to learn more about this exceptional spa. I knew from my guidebook that Chiang Mai was the cultural heartland of Thailand, and home of many of the country’s most respected traditional massage schools.
After my initial inquiry, I was soon introduced to the 63-year-old owner of the Lily Thai Spa, Naowart Thaarisutharat, or “Mom” for short. This handsome woman had a commanding resonance and alertness about her, which divulged the clues of her previous vocation: Director of Chiang Mai Women’s Prison.
A 43-year career in the correctional community gave her a keen insight into the limited options these women face while trying to reintegrate into Thai society.
In response, Naowart established the Lily Thai Spa to help recently released inmates find employment and begin a new, drug-free life. Through the translation skills of her equally bright and vibrant university-aged daughter, Nanthawan Thaarisutharat, or “Bank”, I learned the background, details and strategy of this multigenerational family business.
Chiang Mai Prison houses over 1,000 female inmates, the majority of whom are serving two- to ﬁve-year sentences for drug offences. Most were selling, or addicted to, the Thai form of methamphetamines called “Ya Ba”, or “crazy medicine” – a horrific scourge that has swept through Thailand in the last few decades, destroying families and undermining some of the strong social fabric of the country.
Naowart has seen this devastation firsthand, as she observed many of the released inmates abandoned by their families and friends, and worse still, finding no employment. Something had to be done.
A devout Buddhist and a professionally trained correctional officer, Naowart designed a strategy that blended the structure of the penal system, the healing aspects of Thai massage, and tenets of Buddhist altruism.
“I believe in this programme and I push my girls hard so they will be able to support themselves,” she said firmly to me through her daughter. Naowart is indeed “Mom”, offering both supportive friendship and a purposeful vocation as these women adjust back into society.
“When these women are paroled, they receive 100 baht (US$3) and that does not go too far. They soon find themselves in trouble,” she continued reflectively as she quietly poured me a cup of tea. “I had to open this spa, and when people started to understand what we were doing, our business grew and I had to hire more staff.”
I wondered how she could put so much trust in these newly released inmates. “In prison, you have time to see someone’s heart,” she said, uncannily reading my thoughts. “I can see a person change. When they first come in, their head is lowered and they have little self-esteem. But as we spend time together, we often connect. We brought in monks, missionaries and positive speakers to teach them a new way of life. Some we can reach, some we never do.”
They both sighed, as I noticed the strong mother-daughter bond and the shared commitment they have for their mission.
To begin working at the spa, each candidate must complete a 180-hour massage training curriculum, which is certified by the Thailand Institute of Skilled Development, Ministry of Public Health and the Chiang Mai Woman’s Prison.
Special instruction in ethics, values and Thai healing philosophies are strongly stressed in their training. This enthuses a sense of professionalism, pride and self-esteem, which has helped maintain such a high rate of success.
Naowart has not only changed lives and directions of these women but has transformed some of the viewpoints and prejudices Thai society has held towards them. Currently, half the spa’s client base are fellow Thais, which is incredible considering Chiang Maiʼs popularity as a major foreign tourist destination.
Measured by statistics, it might be one of the most successful prison rehabilitation programmes in the world. Out of 100 inmates Naowart has hired in the last five years, only one has returned to prison. A one percent recidivism rate is quite an accomplishment considering the highly addictive nature of methamphetamines, and compared to a 50 percent re-offence rate in most Western countries.
This remarkable spa not only alleviates the tired and ailing bodies of visitors, but it restores the lives and souls of their therapists as well. Next year, Naowart and a few of her employees will tour and address other correctional facilities around the country, demonstrating the effectiveness of their programme and its potential to transform the lives of other incarcerated women.
Perhaps their success comes from a combination of factors: an environment which imbues motivation, fuelled by the richness of Thai culture and balanced through the harmony ingrained in Buddhism. But these are only speculations and impressions, gatherings from a meandering tourist with a misaligned back and a stiff neck.
“What is your secret?” my curious nature once again asking “Mom” as I was leaving. She looked up and offered a generous, soothing smile, which captured my attention. It was then I suddenly realised that this simple, caring smile was my answer, and it seemed a fitting explanation for this special refuge of healing.
For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 111.