One of the best parts of traveling in Asia is the ridiculously cheap prices for “beautification” treatments – cheap massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. It’s wonderful spending a few hours pampering for a fraction of US prices. In the US, I consider it an occasional splurge. When traveling in Asia, it’s a requirement to have a Chiang Mai Spa day!
My friend Deborah and I returned to Chiang Mai to retrace the northern part of the Mae Hong Son loop, a 10-day scooter adventure through northern Thailand. After our long 4-hour flight from Taipei, we were exhausted and decided to spend our first day at one of the many spas in the neighborhood of our hotel.
Lila Spa – a very special place
The spa we chose is unique in that all the massage therapists are former prison inmates. It was started by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director of Chiang Mai Women’s Prison, as a way to offer employment opportunities to newly released inmates. All therapists are carefully screened and go through a 100-hour massage training program. Given this chance to contribute to society, they hopefully will avoid returning to a life of crime. The Lila Spa is a little more expensive than others in the neighborhood but it also has more of a “spa-like” feel than many of the more run-down budget spas.
We were warmly welcomed on arrival by a small gang of beauty therapists and were given a menu listing a variety of beauty options – either individual treatments or package deals. I chose the 1 hour 30-minute oil massage plus facial, followed by a pedicure. The whole thing cost 900 baht (about $30USD).
The importance of sign language and gestures
Since I’m old, they assigned the most elderly former-convict-turned-massage-therapist to me. She spoke no English and I understand no Thai, but we were able to communicate (kind of) by using sign language, gestures, and grunting. At least I thought we were.
The Elderly Therapist showed me to my room which was very clean, posh, and spa-like. With hand gestures, she pointed to a little black thing, another little white thing and a dark green sarong to cover myself with. Since I’ve had many massages in the past, I consider myself a massage pro so I kind of tuned her out. (Big mistake.)
Naked and stupid
She slipped out and I began the uncomfortable process of getting nearly naked in public, put the little black thing on my head (to keep the hair out of my face during the facial?) and wrapped myself in the dark green sarong. All wrapped up with a little black thing on my head, I sat on the edge of the massage table, waiting patiently.
Finally, the Elderly Therapist knocked softly and came back into the posh spa-like room. She took one look at me, sitting there all properly, and she burst into laughter. Out of control laughter. Hmmm….I thought it seems we have a problem. After she dried the tears, she pointed to the little white thing still lying on the massage table and motioned to my head. THAT’S where the white thing goes. Then she grabbed the little black thing off my head – a pair of disposable plastic/paper panties. On my head.
Moral of this story, and an invaluable travel tip: when you don’t speak the language, pay very close attention to the sign language and gestures or you may find yourself sitting naked with your panties on your head. Don’t be like me.
We both laughed. Very hard. It was a bonding moment, an ice-breaker, shared laughter at my stupidity. Then she dried her tears and got down to business, starting with the knots in my calves and ending with a relaxing 30-minute facial. She was well trained and her strong hands found knots I didn’t even know I had. I wondered about her life, how she ended up in prison, what twist of fate allowed me to live the amazing life I do while she struggled with things I probably can’t even imagine.
Following the facial, she led me to the pedicure/foot massage area with large recliner chairs and passed me off to the pedicure therapist for the final treatment. She was much younger, maybe mid-30’s, and had also spent time in prison. Why? I didn’t ask but I did wonder. I chose a wild shade of purple and sat back to let her beautify my tired looking feet.
After the pedicure, I carefully slipped my purple toes back into my flip flops and lingered while I waited for my friend. I look around at the former convicts, some young, some elderly, and feel a little less guilty about spending $30 on selfish pampering. I know that their employment may prevent them from being sucked back into a life of crime on the streets.
Location: 127/13 Prapokkloa Rd. Sriphum Maung Chiang Mai
(Old City near Anoma Bed and Breakfast)