In South East Asia, not only is it possible to have a darned good massage every day of the week, but in many places you can also help some of the most disadvantaged members of society by doing so. In Cambodia and Laos, massages by blind or partially sighted men and women is quite common. There’s also a cafe in Kampot staffed by deaf or hard-of-hearing waiters and waitresses, in which the menus include tips on sign language, and where you place your order by writing it down and handing it to a member of staff. It’s a great idea, and I’ve only seen it in Kampot.
In Thailand, I find there are less of these kind of social projects, but I think/hope this is changing. On my most recent visit to Chiang Mai, I saw there were a plethora of massage centres staffed by female former prisoners. Lila is one such example, and does a roaring trade – I could hardly get an appointment there – but they don’t make a big thing about the background of the company and its staff, which I think is a shame. The Women’s Massage Center, however, which opened 10 months ago, with a second opening just two months later, actively promotes the fact that their masseuses are former prisoners. And I think people dig it for that. Again, it’s pretty hard to get an appointment, but it’s worth persevering. The ladies are good at what they do, and a right giggle with it.
After my massage was over (and boy did she lay into me! Tip: ask for a “gentle massage”, even if you ordinarily like it strong. Them ladies got muscles!), I chatted to Thunyanun Yajon (or Jinny, as she likes to be called) who runs the centre. She explained to me that in Chiang Mai alone, there are 1,800 women in prison. Quite a shocking figure, I think. And around 85% of these are in on drug offences (the north of Thailand being a drug trafficking hotbed, and drugs being an all-too-tempting method of income). At Jinny’s centres, she employs 30 women, and all those are trained for six months to be skilled therapists whilst they’re still in prison. Only the best are selected to work with the public. She said the ladies also make silk slippers and coats – “anything to give them skills and a chance at a new life, and stop them going back to drugs.”
It’s a sad fact that so many members of society are stigmatised, women especially, and women ex-offenders rarely get the opportunity to work again. The massage centres help change that. Rehabilitation, reintegration and empowerment are so important. “We didn’t think people would go for it initially, when we advertised that the massages would be conducted by ex-prisoners,” explained Jinny. “But actually, it’s become really popular. Unfortunately, that’s only with foreigners, but I hope that changes. For now, we don’t get many Thai people in here.”
I really hope that does change, and I hope we will see many more of these socially-conscious kinds of businesses come up in the world. It has to be the way forward. I’ve just finished reading Start Something That Matters (2011) by the brilliant American entrepreneur, author and philanthropist Blake Mycoskie, in which he talks about ways companies can give back to the world and leave it a better place, whilst also making a profit. If more businesses employed marginalised members of society, or even got on board with Blake’s “One for One” model (which he spearheaded with TOMS shoes), imagine how much happier and more empowered a world we’d live in?
Women’s Massage Center for Ex-Prisoners, Branch 1, Jahban Rd 95. Branch 2, Prapokklao Rd 252/15, Chiang Mai.
TOMS shoes: http://www.toms.co.uk