They were labourer’s hands; calloused skin and sausage fingers. Kneading my back, they were ruthless. They probed upon a weak spot, my body would tense, and these fingers, sensing friction, would begin to pound. They worked quickly, cruelly, stampeding down my back.
I tried not to panic.
Like many places in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai’s streets are lined with Thai massage services that are essentially all the same and all priced ridiculously low. I sought a Thai massage with a difference.
Lila Thai Massage was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, the former Director of Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. The enterprise trains and employs women fresh from prison.
These women struggle to reintegrate into the community in the face of stigma and discrimination. For many women emerging from prison, the difficulty of getting a job sees them return to a life of crime. Lila Thai Massage is one way of giving these women a fresh start.
I thought maybe they could give my body a fresh start too.
The elbows were next. My masseuse’s elbows carved out my spine. With the inevitable crack signalling the surrender of ribs, you could sense the smile in her exhalations.
“Oooh snap,” she crooned softly. “Snap, pop, crack!”
I began to wonder what crime she was sent to prison for.
It was a sadistic torture, my body tensed waiting for the next bashing. My sweaty fingers clenched the sides of the bed above my head.
I wondered if my masseuse was using me to seek revenge on “the system”, as payback for the harsh injustices she’d faced in life. When her evil probing fingers began to tickle my underarms I knew the answer and resolved not to give her the satisfaction of an involuntary giggle.
Then there were the contortions. Perhaps after a long stint under the whims of prison guards, being able to control someone had gone to her head. She twisted my arms behind my back and enjoyed pulling on my elbows mercilessly.
She bent one leg over the other and raised the trapped one.
In the sitting position, she interlocked my hands and arched my back further, further back.
It was a relief to turn onto my back. I had an insufferable cold and besides being defenceless against her attack on my stomach, I had to concentrate all efforts on preventing my snot bubble from bursting.
On my back all limbs were readily available for retaliation and my nostrils were in a far better position to contain their mucosal contents.
But I learnt that my limbs were useless for defence.
I tried to tense and relax my left leg, then my right leg, my left arm, then my right arm, but every limb was unresponsive.
Dear god, I thought. She’s paralysed me.
Then the realisation hit – while my mind was still fretting about the attack on my body, my body itself had resigned itself to the assault.
In fact, my body was enjoying the assault. It was thoroughly relaxed. It was simply time for my mind to wave the white flag. And I gave in readily to the final sensations of that magical masseuse.
“Done,” she said primly, gently, proudly.
It was too soon.
My mind was only just beginning to enjoy the process my body appreciated from the start. As I arose from the table, my body was floppy, reborn. And I wondered if the ex-prison-inmate-turned-masseuse felt reborn as well.
And for more inspiration…
Ok, so maybe being broken apart and put back together again by an ex-convict isn’t your thing. Maybe some of these other Asian activities are…
- Making friends with the locals in Phong Nha Khe Bang National Park, Vietnam
- Getting drunk and giddy with local fisherman in Ha Long Bay
- Getting lost, sweaty and panicked on a hike around Pulau Kecil in the Perhentian Islands
- Learning how to operate the loom in Luang Prabang.