Well correctly speaking, (and we need to be correct here), we’re talking about the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution.
The governors of the women’s section of Chiang Mai prison, located in the heart of the old city, have instigated some extremely enlightened, and truly praiseworthy schemes over recent years and we reckon a visit to the prison should be a part of any visit to Thailand’s second city.
These include an excellent spa/massage centre, a handicraft shop and a good restaurant and coffee shop. You’re not going to be served a cappuccino by an axe murderer and you’re not going to be massaged by a serial killer — these are all women serving relatively short sentences for relatively minor crimes and are allowed to participate in such projects when nearing the end of their custodial sentences as rehabilitation schemes. (You may wonder why they are serving time for ‘minor’ crimes in the first place… that’s the Thai judicial system for you.) Most women are there on drug convictions and most come from the poorest sections of society, with hill-tribe women being particularly well represented (or over-represented, one might say).
Inmates are taught cooking and massage skills as well as English. Their wages and tips are kept aside for their release dates — an enlightened idea. Certainly all the women we talked to were looking forward to employing their newfound skills in rewarding ways.
Some odd articles are around on the web with prison guards standing over massage tables, sullen waitresses and dingy rooms, but we found it bright, nicely decorated and spotlessly clean. The cafe is set in an attractive garden and the staff, both warders and inmates, were friendly. You would not have known you weren’t in any other Chiang Mai spa or cafe. (Here’s a more sensible review we found.)
Thai massage was 180 baht an hour with special foot or hand options available too. The cafe had a full range of coffees and juices and fine Thai, and even a few Western dishes, at reasonable prices. (Khao soi or pad Thai for example were around 40 baht.)
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 26th March, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.