By Jillian Kramer
September 05, 2019

The streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand are littered with signs for massage centers offering traditional Thai massages, oil massages, foot rubs, and more — but only one boasts that its services are performed by ex-prisoners.

It’s there smack on the sign, in its very name: The Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners.

Founder Thierry Gallo, a Belgian businessman, says he launched the program in 2014 when he learned that women serving sentences in Chiang Mai Women’s Prison received training in Thai massage and other spa services — but still struggled to snag a job after their release. 

“Women who come out of prison are often discriminated against and it is very difficult for them to return to work,” Gallo said via email. The women — the vast majority of whom were imprisoned for drug offenses ranging from small sales to trafficking — also often face families unwilling to help them post-prison, he says, or return to domestic abuse at home. “It is difficult for them to find any kind of security — emotional or financial.”

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Since it opened, The Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners has grown to four separate locations throughout Chiang Mai, and has employed some 150 former prisoners, he says. Each woman receives 50 percent of the cost of each service performed, plus any tips given.

“The women who work with us gain a great self-confidence, an ever-growing confidence, no matter how old they are,” Gallo says. “Once they have found this confidence, everything is possible: some get married and have children; others even start their own businesses.”

Back on the street, staring at that telling sign, my husband and I knew we had to experience this program for ourselves. We ducked into its Jahban Road branch and each asked for a full-body oil massage. (FYI: traditional Thai massages do not include the use of any lotion.)

Two women dressed in matching pink uniforms led us back to a private room with comfortable massage tables, where we laid down under laundry-fresh sheets.  

The massage itself was professional — the best we’ve experienced in Asia, in fact — and relaxing. Afterward, we were invited to unwind in the center’s lounge with a cup of delicious tea.

The massages cost 450 Baht, or about $13.50, each, and it’s money, we feel, very well spent.

“This program allows them to find, upon their release from prison, a place that is safe to work,” says Gallo, “a place that allows them to value their experience and be appreciated.”

It’s worth noting that Chiang Mai has a second, older program that employs ex-prisoners in its massage centers. Lila Thai Massage opened in 2008, according to its website, and has multiple locations in the city. It’s got some great reviews online, and may also be worth visiting.

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