x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In prison for a massage and a beast of an elephant trek in Thailand

Around Asia Effie-Michelle Metallidis discovers what prisoners and rescued elephants have in common in Thailand on week five of her Asian adventure.

The landscape of rural Chiang Mai on the way to Elephant Nature Park, an orphanage for abused elephants in Thailand. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National
The landscape of rural Chiang Mai on the way to Elephant Nature Park, an orphanage for abused elephants in Thailand. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National

In Thailand, massages are like street food - they're available anywhere, anytime, and there's interesting fare to choose from.

There is nuat phaen boran, or traditional Thai massage, which loosens the body through a centuries-old method of stretching and elbowing that is still taught in temples throughout the country.

There are the oil massages, the hot compresses, the imported Swedish and Shiatsu techniques, the hydro-therapies, and the combination of all of the above that inevitably results in some tiny sprite of a woman kneeing you in the spine.

And then, there is the woman's Thai prison massage. Yes. Even a correctional facility has managed to shoulder its way into Thailand's massage industry.

The building that offers the service is surreal - a low, gingerbread cottage with "Prison Products" emblazoned in bold white letters across the welcoming sign. Inside, foot massages and traditional, full-body Thai massages are available starting at 150 baht (Dh18.35) an hour.

Next door, a bakery with high, open windows and a veranda is also part of this entrepreunerial scheme. Whatever money the female inmates at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution make goes to their financial independence once they leave.

If they leave, that is. Muey, the cheerful masseur at my feet, has been working here for five months. Her colleague, more than three years. Out of 1,400 prisoners, only seven women are employed in the sloped, whitewashed room that functions as a daytime spa.

Several lounge chairs line the back brick wall and a curtain separates the foot massages from full-body treatments. A female warden takes appointments, while another wanders from time to time to keep an eye on things.

But beyond the minimal decor and the security detail, there is little that differs from a normal massage outlet. There are the same products, the same creams, the same chatter that fills a room when women converge.

I sigh as I slump into the La-Z-Boy - America's gift to Asian massage parlours worldwide. My friend Patty is asleep beside me. This is prison time well deserved.

Days before, we were ankle-deep in jungle mud, trailing in the footsteps of flatulent elephants as we refused to ride them during a sad excuse for an eco-trek we had signed up for.

We had just come from a day at the Elephant Nature Park (www.elephantnaturepark.org), a rescue orphanage that debriefs visitors on the horrors of how baby elephants are beaten with hammers and nails until they're tamed, and I couldn't bring myself to climb aboard a two-seater bench on the back of a baleful beast like a memsahib out for her daily constitutional.

Plus, I was still dealing with traumatic elephant flashbacks from my childhood that the orphanage had triggered: the jail scene in Dumbo; the opening pillage scene in Babar: The Movie; the Heffalumps from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.

"I will not ride that chained animal!" I declared, and promptly stepped in elephant dung as Patty brightly told the gap-toothed guide we would just walk.

And so down the hill we went, through runny faeces and muddy waters and tropical foliage, stopping to spray ourselves midway in a fit of anti-mosquito hysteria after a fellow traveller with a shaved head told us she had contracted malaria for two years. (Had she contracted it in Thailand? No. But we were on a rural hill with banana leaf trees. Same-same).

The elephants on the trek didn't seem to care one way or another who rode them; if you had food, you were of interest. If not, the long, seeking trunk that paused to sniff at your hands would recoil, and small, watery eyes turn towards forest roughage that held the promise of something edible. When you're capable of inhaling 400kg of food a day, it's understandable that bamboo would hold more appeal than a patdown.

Even at the orphanage, the elephants were impervious to our sycophantic ramblings as we helped to wash them in the river, the feel of our fingernails like the barest brush of a tick on thick, leathery skin. "Do you want an elephant massage? Do you?" Patty cooed repeatedly to swishing tails.

No. The elephants wanted sticks to scratch themselves with, some mud to rub themselves in, and the bananas that the mahouts, or elephant trainers, keep in food bags to lure them out of the water.

And that is the greatest lesson in camaraderie I learned from these revered, abused beasts. Whether blind, maimed or broken, a female elephant, like a woman passed out in a prison La-Z-Boy massage chair, or a prison masseuse with six months left on her rap sheet, is happiest when she is left in peace to go about her business.

Next week: sailing down the Mekong to Cambodia. Catch up on Effie's adventures at Around Asia.