Monday, August 13, 2012

Mother's Day, 12 August 2555 and Connections

Merit Making On Mother's Day In Isaan
Yesterday, 12 August 2555, was Mother's Day here in Thailand.  The day coincides with the birthday of the Queen who is considered to be the mother of the Thai people.  The Thai people consider the holiday to be a very important celebration.

People travel from all over to return to their home in order to pay respect to their mother.  Gifts are given to the mothers and just as important, children prostrate themselves in front of their mother and supplicate for her blessing for the upcoming year.  This year Duang's son and his wife drove ten hours from their workplace in Rayong to Udonthani to be able to pay their respects to their mothers.

Although the holiday is on Sunday, the celebration actually starts on Friday.  On Friday, school children invite their mother and grandmother to attend a party at their school.  Food and drinks are served, entertainment is provided by the children, and speeches are given.  Typically trees or flowers are also planted on the school grounds by the children and their mothers.

This year the Thai government provided 800,000 trees to be planted to honor the Queen's 80th birthday.  The Queen is well known and honored for her contributions to sustainable development and conservation of Thailand's natural resources as well as reforestation efforts.

Duang, Tey, Mai, and Peelawat Plant A Flower for Mother's Day 2010
Duang and I had attended the school festivities at her old elementary school in Tahsang village in 2010 or 2553 if you use the Thai calander.  It was a very nice affair of which I wrote of in my blog

Baan Tahsang Elementary School
There were a great deal of tears during that celebration two years ago.  The school principal had told the children about how much their mothers loved them and about all the things that their mother did to take care of them and make them happy.  This is not an isolated occurrence in Thailand.  This week another expat in the Udon area wrote on the Internet about having attended a similar "celebration" at a school where a song was started.  All the people started to sing the song but quickly everyone was crying.  The songs lyrics were about a mother who left home and her children to work so that her children could have food and clothes.  This is not uncommon here in Isaan.  The region is very poor with many mothers and fathers leaving the rice paddies and cane fields to work in Bangkok, the industrial estates surrounding Bangkok, or the tourist centers of Pattaya or Phuket Island.  The expat wrote that the sadness was too much for him to bear so he would not be attending the elementary school "celebration" this year.

Mai, Tay, and their Grandmother Crying At School Mother's Day Party
Due to Duang's shyness regarding her face, we did not go to the Tahsang Village Elementary School celebration this year but we did celebrate in other ways.
Friday night, Duang's son and wife arrived from Rayong.  They stopped at Tahsang Village on their way to Udonthani.  Peelawat wanted to be with his Aunt and Uncle so they brought him to Udonthani.  Saturday they took Duang clothes shopping for Mother's Day.  Duang ended up with two pieces of silk from which she will sew some new outfits.  Perk and Puii wanted to pay to have the cloth cut and sewn but Duang was happy to just have the cloth as a gift.
Peelawat spent the night with us and we had a very enjoyable time. He likes to look at my photographs of airplanes on the computer and I am teaching him how to use the mouse.   Although he was determined to sleep with me Saturday night, Duang and he slept in one of the spare bedrooms.  Sunday morning we had to be in Tahsang Village for a special merit making ritual at 7:00 A.M.  I had set the alarm clock for 5:00 A.M. but there was no need for that - Peelawat was up and about at 4:55 A.M.
We arrived at the village just before 7:00 A.M. for the start of the merit making ritual at Duang's Aunt's house.  The merit making ritual was to feed the local Monks from the two village Wats.

Four of the Five Monks to be Fed
Five Monks arrived - four Monks from the Wat inside the village and one Monk from the Wat outside of the village.  It is very important in religious matters to have an odd number of Monks in attendance. The Monks are from different sects as distinguished by the color of their robes.  The Monks from outside of the village wear a dark red robe and follow a more strict regimen such as eating only one meal a day.  The Monks from inside the village wear a more orange colored robe and can eat two meals a day.  Duang's family favors the "Outside" Monks and Wat so many times we have driven the dirt road past the rice paddies and through the cane field to get to the Wat on the edge of the flood plain.

As part of the merit making ritual, a bobbin of cotton string, very similar to what in the USA is called butcher's string - the string that you find binding a beef roast togetherwas rolled out and held by the Monks as they chanted. . This is very typical of the rituals, Buddhist as well as Animist, that I have observed here. Short lengths of the string  are tied around the wrists of people during Baii Sii ceremonies for weddings, healing, exorcisms, bon voyages, and to honor esteemed guests.  Longer and heavier lengths of the string are used in the funeral ritual.  As part of the blessing ritual for vehicles, intermediate lengths and smaller bundles of the string are wrapped around the steering column to protect the operators and passengers of the vehicle from bad luck as well as harm.  In some prayer rituals, single strands of the string descend from a grid of string above the worshipper with the free end coiled on top of the worshiper's head.

I am not an expert on the full meaning of the strings, but I have come to the conclusion that the string connects and facilitates communication from this world to the other world.  In a certain way, the string also binds the people together, with each other as well as with the spirit world.

A String Binds and Connects the Monks During the Ritual
Well, yesterday was a day of connections for me as well.  My number one camera is in Bangkok for repair.  Two weeks ago I brought my old digital camera, Nikon D2H, out to the village to photograph a family member becoming a Buddhist Monk.  To my disappointment, I discovered that the camera is also in need of repair.  The camera is not taking properly exposed photographs in any of the automated modes.  Once the first camera arrives, I will send the second out for repair.

Duang's Aunt had called to ensure that we would be attending this ritual and that I would be photographing it.  It was a given that we would be attending. Duang is very religious and I do not want to interfere with that.  However, taking photographs did present a challenge.  I started thinking and gave it some serious thought.  I ended up using the camera the old fashioned way - "manual mode".  I used a light meter to get the exposure, set the camera manually, and used a speedlite for fill in flash.  It worked,  It worked like it used to be in the old days.  I had been reconnected to a camera that I had not successfully used in two years.  I had reconnected to a technique that I can't recall having last used.  These connections reaffirmed the adage that "you can't always get what you want but if you try you just may get what you need".  Hmm ...sounds like that it would make a great song.  Whoops ... Mick Jagger already wrote it.  Once again the saying "Where there is a will, there is a way" proved to be prophetic and a lesson to never be forgotten.

A Familiar Face?
A while into the ritual I kept looking at one of the Monks,  He looked familiar.  I started thinking about the stereotype that certain races of people all look alike and was feeling some pangs of guilt.  After a while I moved over to where Duang was praying and asked her if the Monk was Kwan's uncle.  She confirmed that it was and that he has been a Monk for about a week now.  Another connection had been made or rather realized for the day.  I first met Kwan's uncle on my first visit to Baan Tahsang.  It was not a pleasant experience.  I had gone to the village for our wedding and the ordination of Duang's son as a Monk. He was not the village idiot although he acted like it for the entire 5 days that I was there.  He was in reality the village drunk.  It had gotten to the point where I had squared off and was prepared to punch him in the face.

Sometime later, he went off and saw a special Monk to get help to stop drinking.  I alluded to him in my first story about alcoholism cure here in Isaan,  There was a remarkable transformation in him after he visited the Monk and took the cure.  He became a very nice hard working person.  I actually ended up liking and respecting him very much.  He has been a subject of many of my photographs involving daily life here in Isaan.  To this day, over three years later, he remains alcohol free.

Every Thai male 20 years or older is expected to be a Monk at some point in his life. It is believed that a boy can only become a man after serving as a Monk. Even the current King of Thailand spent time as a Monk.

Being ordained as a Monk earns great merit for a boy's mother and to a lesser extent for his father. The boy's mother gains more merit because the act of becoming a Monk is not available to women. The boy's father naturally had the opportunity to earn the merit by becoming a Monk himself when he was young.

Not all young men become Monks.  There is a great deal of peer as well as societal pressure on the young man as well as his parents for a young man to become a Monk. So for a Thai man to not become a Monk at some point in his life is a bad reflection upon his parents as well as on him. Due to economic considerations, some young men do not become Monks.  I suspect that may have been the case for Kwan's uncle.  But at 46 years old and more importantly, while his mother is still alive, he became a Monk.  I was excited and pleased to see him as a Monk.

Since he has been a Monk for just one week, he was not up to speed with all the aspects of the ritual.  However the other Monks helped him out.  After some words and encouragement, he got up to sprinkle water on the participants and home in a "blessing" ritual.  In the blessing ritual which I have witnessed many times, a bundle of coarse reeds are dipped in a bowl of special water (holy water?) and flicked on the heads of people or walls of a home.  For some reason, perhaps because they feel that I need more because of my size or faith, the Monks, wherever I go always seem to be able to sprinkle (drench?) me with more water than anyone else - much to every one's amusement and delight.

Monk Blessing the People With Water
Well yesterday I got my typical heavy dose of water blessing.  I don't know if if he done something wrong the first time or not but the Monk returned to give me another blessing.  In addition to another heavy sprinkling of water on my head. he tapped the top of my head with the bundle of reeds.  We all laughed and I was told that I was very lucky and fortunate to get such a good blessing. That could be true but I was just happy to reconnect with an old friend - and most happy to see him still sober and living his faith.  Since he was part of the "Inside" Monks, he was putting some of the food into a plastic bag to eat for his second meal back at the Wat.  He was taking so much food that I offered him the use of my backpack to fill and carry back to the Wat.  Every one understood my joke and we all had another good laugh.

After the Monks had finished eating, they left the home to return to their Wats.  There was plenty of food leftover as well as food back in the kitchen so every one sat down to have a meal together.  It is planned that way and also part of the ritual.

Young Boy Praying As Directed by His Mother
The merit making ritual was very interesting to witness.  There was a great deal of chanting both by the Monks and the people.  The chants were in Pali, the original language of the Monks who brought Buddhism to Thailand.  The use of the original language and ritual connected the villagers to their long distant past.  The participation of the young children and the instruction that they received during the ritual was a connection to their future.

Last night, after Duang's son and his wife prostrated themselves on our living room floor in front of my wife seated on the couch and remained motionless as she gave them her blessing, I was so impressed with the order of Thai society.  I posted a photo of mothers, grandmothers praying with a small child in their midst and wrote " Without mothers there would be no children. Without children there would be no mothers. We need to love and protect them both for without them there would be no life."  Words for Mother's day and every other day of the year.  Mothers are our connection to the world.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2012 - Still Time Left

This year's Phuket Vegetarian Festival will be held from 15 October to 23 October; still plenty of time to make travel arrangements.

The religious celebration is one of my favorite events to attend and to photograph.  Duang and I have attended the festival twice, in 2008 and in 2010.  It is once again two years since we last attended so there is a strong possibility that we will attend once again.

The Vegetarian Festival is Phuket's biggest celebration and is a grand event for Phuket's Chinese community. Phuket was once a large tin mining as well as trading center. The Chinese immigrated to trade and to work in the mines. Today a large proportion of Phuket's population is Chinese. During the Vegetarian Festival, there are many ethnic Chinese visitors from throughout Thailand as well as from Malaysia and China.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival started in the early 19th century. In 1825, a visiting Chinese opera company, that had visited from China to entertain the tin miners, caught malaria while performing in Kathu. In those days, malaria was often fatal. The opera company decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet as an offering to two of the Nine Emperor Gods. The opera company recovered from their illness. The people of Kathu celebrated by holding a vegetarian festival each year to thank the gods and celebrate the opera group's recovery. An additional belief that inspires the festival is to bring good luck to individuals as well to a community.

The festival is held over nine days during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calender.

The central belief of the festival is that by eating vegetarian food and observing 10 rules, believers can purify their body as well as their soul while bringing good luck to themselves along with their community.

A Shrine Volunteer Covers A Container of Rice Which Will Be
 Distributed As Part of Vegetarian Meals to Believers

The 10 rules that believers are supposed to follow are:

Maintain body cleanliness

Use only clean kitchenware that hasn't been used by people who are not participating in the festival

Dress in white

Be moral in thoughts and actions

Do not eat meat

Do not have sex

Do not drink alcohol

Avoid foods with strong flavor such as garlic and onion

People in mourning should not participate in the festival

Pregnant or menstruating women should not attend the ceremonies

During the festival, many rituals are conducted to call upon the gods. These ceremonies include body piercing, fire walking, bathing with hot oil, and climbing ladders constructed with sword rungs. The ceremonies are held at each of the nine Chinese shrines.

The largest rituals are the daily processions of believers during the morning through Phuket Town. The origins of the processions go back to the early days of the festival when a local resident went to Kansai, China to invite two deities to reside in Kathu, a district of Phuket. He returned to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth lunar month. He brought back with him the sacred documents used in the ritual back in China. Residents of Phuket had a grand procession down to the dock to welcome him back upon his arrival from China. Today's processions commemorate his original welcoming ceremony.

Spiritual Mediums, called "Mar Song", also written as "Ma Song", become possessed by the Nine Emperor Gods. The Mar Song are dressed in clothes befitting the god that has possessed them. People believe that the god will protect the mediums from harm while they perform the various rituals and acts of self mutilation.

Each of the main Chinese shrines parades through Phuket Town on their appointed day during the festival. During the parade the Mar Song demonstrate the power of their respective Emperor God by withstanding the pain of their ordeal. For devotees, the Mar Song through their ordeal, are able to remove evil spirits and can bestow good luck upon others as well as for the community. With their power and devotion Ma Song are highly respected and revered. Along the parade route many people and businesses set up tables of offerings to receive blessings from the passing Mar Song. Long strands of firecrackers are set off as a Mar Song approaches to scare away the evil spirits. The greater the sound and noise the more effective the ritual of driving the evil spirits away on to the Ma Song. 
As the processions advance, huge amounts of firecrackers are set off. The air becomes filled with the sharp staccato of bursting firecrackers, flashes of light, flying shards of bright red firecracker paper wrapping, and huge clouds of choking sulphurous smoke. The fusillade of firecrackers is especially heavy for the passing of the shrine idol. The shrine idol is placed on a chair that is carried upon the shoulders of several young men. The young men wrap shirts around their heads to afford some protection from the onslaught of firecrackers that are thrown at their bare feet or explode above their head from suspended strings. Power of the Emperor God is manifested in the ability of the young men to not be frightened or injured by the sound, fire, and confusion created by hundreds of firecrackers exploding about them. Other followers assist the young men when the firecrackers commence small fires on the shrine idol. They rapidly wave cotton tee shirts around the suspended chair to extinguish the flames.

The Mar Song are considered to be warriors. Their bodies are typically heavily tattooed with Oriental designs. The Mar Song are in a trance like state - they appeared to be talking or chanting to themselves with their heads trembling from side to side almost as if they had Parkinson's disease. The trance-like state for some people is attributable to a form of self hypnosis. For the devotees, the trance is due to possession by an Emperor God.
The morning processions will occur from Wednesday the 17th through Tuesday the 23rd.  The processions commence at 7:00 A.M.  Participants in the procession are members of specific shrines for each day.
For 2012 the participants and schedule are:

          Wednesday, 17 Oct - Sapam Shrine

          Thursday, 18 Oct - Sam Kong Shrine

          Friday, 19 Oct - Baan Tha Rue Shrine

          Saturday, 20 Oct - Bang Neow Shrine and Chering Thalay Shrine

          Sunday, 21 Oct - Jui Tui Shrine

          Monday, 22 Oct - Kathu Shrine and Yok Ke Keng Shrine

          Tuesdy, 23 Oct - Sui Boon Tong Shrine

If your time is limited, I would recommend attending the processions on Sunday and Monday.

To get the full experience of the processions and associated ritual, you can visit the shrine before the start of the procession.  I recommend that you arrive before 6:00 A.M. to witness close up the preparations of the Ma Song.  Be forewarned, the preparations include piercing the Ma Song with various objects ranging from needles to assault rifles  It is quite a spectacle and a unique experience.

Headed Home With A Vegetarian Meal From the Shrine

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Life and Beauty - This Week

Duang - One week later and with stitches removed

Yesterday we had to drive back down to Kohn Kaen for the stitches to be removed from Duang's face.  The two hour drives down and back were fairly uneventful other than the numerous motorbikes travelling the wrong way on one-way roadways; a common occurrence here in Thailand.  There were even two pickup trucks going the wrong way; not all that uncommon either.  Unlike the previous day when I almost killed a motorcyclist, there was no excitement while driving.

The previous day I had gone grocery shopping alone because Duang is still shy about appearing in public with her swollen face.  Here in Thailand we drive differently than in the USA or Canada.  We drive on the left hand side of the road.  The slow lane is the lane furthest to the left on the road.   The fast lane, the passing lane, is the furthest right hand lane of the highway.

I was in the slow lane of the two lanes of the road that go north.  A median separates these two lanes from the two south bound lanes.  The entrance to the Lotus-Tesco Shopping Center is on the left.  I put on my signal to indicate that I was going to make a left turn into the entrance and commenced to slow down to around 20 KPH (12 mph) for the turn.  I noticed a motorcycle headed towards me, going the wrong way in the gutter of my lane.  I slowed even further and determined that in making the turn I would not hit the on coming motorbike.  Just as I commenced my turn to the left. I heard a loud noise and saw a flash of color pass by on my left side in the gutter of the lane that I was in.  A motorbike flew by me on the inside of my turn.  It appeared to be going around 70 KPH (40MPH).  The motorbike driver swerved to miss me, over corrected , swerved once again and missed the oncoming motorbike.  It all happened extremely quickly but played out in slow motion in my perceptions.  I remember thinking that the motorbike driver was going to fall off the bike and kill himself if not kill the oncoming riders.  Through luck, Divine intervention, or perhaps skill, the motorbike avoided any accident and continued down the road at 70 KPH.  It was a very close call.  Unfortunately this was not the first time that I have been passed by a motorbike on the inside of a turn or been passed on the wrong side by a motorbike.

I was amazed at my reaction.  Of course I was shocked - shocked at this happening so quickly and unexpectedly as well as how stupid the motorbike operator was to have provoked the incident.  A scene from one of my all time favorite movies came to my mind, "Lawrence of Arabia".  One of his followers, a man that Lawrence had risked his life to save earlier, kills a member of another tribe. The death must be avenged and the murder punished but that would trigger the need to avenge his death if he were killed by a member of the aggrieved tribe. To avoid a tribal feud and the disintegration of his fighting force, Lawrence kills a man.  Later, obviously upset by the incident, he reports back to his commanders.  They are extremely sympathetic and try to allay his emotions with statements about how difficult war can be, and how sometimes you must do bad things in order to achieve good.  Lawrence then shocks them by informing them that they did not understand and that he was upset because he enjoyed killing the man.  No, I did not enjoy almost killing that young man but what surprised and shocked me was that I did not care that I almost killed him.

They say that life is cheaper here in Asia.  My experience is that such a perception is true.  I once commented to another foreigner that you could hire someone to kill another person for around 5,000 baht ($150).  My Thai friend added that sometimes it is done for free out of friendship.

If a Thai were to kill another Thai in an accident, he or she would be expected to compensate the deceased person's family between $3,000 to $6,000 USD.  Blood money of $3,000 to $6,000 for a vast majority of Thais, most specifically people in Isaan, is a great financial burden.  However, for me, the issue or rather surprise is that the value of a human life has been quantified, monetized, and accepted before the fact.  In the US the value is undetermined and subject to litigation on a case by case basis.  For me it seems peculiar that the value of a life is subject to the skills and effectiveness of a lawyer and sympathies of a jury.  To discuss and attempt to seek a universal value for a life before a death is a taboo for many people.

In the Muslim countries where I have lived, there was a similar attitude towards life in that whatever happened was deemed to be "God's will".  This attitude seemed to, for many people, absolve or excuse people from acting responsibly or acting prudently in terms of personal safety.

I do not make any moral judgements in this regard.  I write to inform readers how things are elsewhere.  I write to point out how things are different from place to place.

I write of this incident not to share a personal story with my readers but to share experiences and observations of life in other countries and societies.  Because I or Duang have experienced or observed things personally, I am able to write about them and to share them.  It is not about me, or us, the story is about life.

Now, back to Duang's face lift.  We went to the hospital to have the stitches removed.  Just like in America we had to wait for the doctor.  Duang's appointment was for 12:00 Noon but the doctor was not available for her until 1:30 PM.  No problem, waiting here in Isaan is very entertaining and informative.  We waited in an area that contained small offices, small rooms for medical procedures, as well as an open triage area.

It was a busy day with all the seats inside the area filled as well as some seats outside of the area filled with patients and their supporters.  It seemed that each patient had a story to tell or if they could not their support people were all too willing to tell the story.  There was a young man who was going to have a hernia repaired.  His blood pressure was 154/90 so I expect he was suffering some anxiety over his upcoming surgery.  There was a middle aged woman who was having follow up work done on her fingers and thumb.  She had sewed them together in an accident. Apparently they had become infected and the surgeon had amputated some of them.  According to Duang, the bone was good but the meat was bad.  It did seem like some of them were shorter too.  There was a middle aged woman having a procedure done on her nose - implanting a silicone shape to give her nose a more Western appearance.  There was another middle aged woman who was going to have a hernia repaired.

In addition to learning why each patient was there, we also found out how much their surgeries were costing.  The young man's umbilical hernia repair was 50,000 Baht ($1,666 USD).  In contrast my similar operation in California about 6 years ago was $15,000 USD.  The woman's hernia operation was 55,000 Baht.

After a while a tall, slender, extremely attractive person in a very nice skirt and blouse walked into the office and sat next to Duang.  TIT, This Is Thailand, I knew what she was and why she was there.  I am not sure if it was a sixth sense, her protruding Adam's apple, or her low voice that lead me to believe that she was a "Kathoey' (Lady boy).  In no time at all Duang had learned that yes she was a lady boy and she was going to have breast implants done that afternoon for 65,000 Baht ($2,166).  The presence of the lady boy and the two others that arrived later was all just a matter of fact situation.  Everyone knew and no one minded.  Thailand is recognized as a tolerant culture.  The saying of "UP2U" is popular for good reason.

Turn around is fair play even in Thailand.  While Duang was getting all the personal information from the other patients, she was telling them about her face work and showing the work to them.  She then had to explain to them why she was not going to have her nose and breasts worked on.  I understand enough know to have an idea what is being said so I explained that I did not want those changed and liked everything the way that they were - much to their amusement.  I have grown accustomed to the openness of Lao Loum culture and lack of privacy - accustomed but not accepting as of yet.  Of course I smile and chuckle every time that I compare Thai procedures with American procedures.  I remember getting pages of documents outlining the eye doctor's "Privacy Policy". the Pharmacy's "Privacy Policy", the hospital's "Privacy Policy" knowing full well that there is none, and that if I want treatment I have to accept their policy.  In reality the only privacy policy that I am interested in is how are they going to ensure that I do not show my butt or anything else to other people while in the hospital.  However, I imagine that if I were sick enough I wouldn't care.

Eventually we got moved to an area outside of the procedure rooms and in the midst of the triage area.  There was and elderly woman who had fallen down the stairs laying on a gurney.  We got to observe the doctor examining her and deciding to send her to x-ray.  A younger woman was under sedation on a gurney closer to us - she was the wife of a policeman who had gone swimming three days earlier in Pattaya.  She was now experiencing "heart trouble" and tingling in her arms.

Duang was called into the room and had me accompany her.  Once again the room and equipment were not what I been accustomed to seeing in a US hospital or even a doctor's office.  The equipment was dated and the room appeared that it could be cleaner.  The doctor examined Duang and asked her about her condition.  Everything is going very well.  He answered my concern and question.  He told me that Duang will most likely stop looking in the mirror all the time in about six weeks.  We all had a good laugh.  He then had her lay on the procedure table and removed her stitches using a sterile scalpel blade which he used without a handle and sterile tweezers.  I was able to get up and watch the procedure up close.  The stitches were a very fine blue material - it looked like they were 1/5 diameter of a human hair.  I was impressed at the ease in which he could locate them and remove them. There was no topical analgesic used - only sterile saline solution and Duang never flinched.  We will have to return in three weeks for a followup examination.

After the stitches were removed, we exited the area through the area where we were originally seated.  The lady boy had two sample silicone breast implants in her hands.  She spoke to Duang and we went over to check them out.  One was larger than the other.  He handed them to me and I got to check them out.  I told him in Thai that one was "Big-Thai" and one was "Small-Thai" but to be "Small- Foreigner" he needed two of the "Big-Thai" implants.  Everyone had a good laugh.

The cost of removing the stitches was not included in the original bill.  After paying $13, we returned home.

This experience at the hospital as well as Duang's face procedure to date once again reinforced my perception that medical care needs to be only fit for purpose.  The facilities and their condition were not what I am accustomed to or expected in the USA.  However they were effective and met our needs.

Duang's face is coming along very well and even now it is obvious that the procedure was done very well.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Price of Beauty - At Least In Thailand

We have been back in Thailand for two weeks now; two very busy weeks.  Our time has taken up with household repairs and cleaning.  Last night we did not get home until 1:00 AM.  No - we were not in a fight or auto accident.  Duang had some work done on her face last night.

I have written a few blogs on medical care and its associated costs here in Thailand.  This blog is about the costs and procedure for Duang's blepharoplasty and rhytidoplasty - face lift and eye lifts..

Duang is approaching her 49th birthday and has been wanting to have some work done on her face for a while.  I did not think that she needed any work and I don't see anything wrong with looking your age.  However during the course of photographing Duang over 4,000 times, I was aware of certain areas around her eyes  and mouth where I  consistently made 'adjustments" when post processing her photograph.  These were also the areas that Duang wanted to be worked on. While is the United States she became interested in the television ad campaign that has saturated the airways for over a year.  I called to get more information as the ad informed.  I ended up speaking with what appeared to me to be a boiler room type operation.  The operator on the other end of the line wanted my telephone number.  Well I can be a difficult type of person especially when it comes to spending my money.  My adage when it comes to money is "I will call you.  You don't call me"  I refused to give the number and requested the additional information packet as promised on television.  About two weeks later I received a packet with basically a regurgitation of the television ad and print ads.  It was generalized as well as very lacking in specific details as to procedures, methods or costs.  The information basically pointed out that you needed to schedule an appointment with a represented doctor in the Boston or New York City area.  All in all it reminded me of the sales campaigns of the 1980s for time shares.  That was more than enough to dissuade me from pursuing the matter any further.  I told Duang to wait until we got back to Thailand and reminded her of the many foreigners who go to Thailand for plastic surgery as well as other medical procedures.

Well it turned out the Duang's brother's ("Number 4") girlfriend had a friend who had just had "face make" in Khon Kaen, 2 hours south of here.  I point out how we got the information because that is how things work around here.  As far as I know there is no telephone book or yellow page directory for Udonthani.  There is no local newspaper for the area.  We have cable television so  we do not watch local television.  As such we are not subjected to daily and nightly barrages of lawyers seeking us as clients or helpful information such as advertising by local businesses or services.  Information is passed from person to person.  Fortunately Duang has a large family as well as many friends so there is always someone or someone who knows someone that can help with needed information.

Anyhow this woman had her eyes done 5 days ago.  The doctor was the number 1 plastic surgeon in Khon Kaen and worked at two hospitals.  He had been practicing for about 15 years.  His pricing seemed very good.  However after my experience with "Doctor Feelgood" ( an earlier blog about a the man who knew how to give injections out in the rice paddies and was injecting everyone with Valium), I wanted to check this doctor out before any commitment was made. Interestingly, I have yet to be informed of any doctor or business that was considered to be #2 or even #3.  I know that they have to exist but I have no idea who they are. Arrangements were made for Duang to visit with the doctor for last night.  As most things are here in Isaan, this was not a simple task.  It ended up that Number 4's girlfriend would drive us down to the doctor along with her friend who was having the stitches removed from around her eyes.

We ended up being 5 women and myself in Thailand's equivalent of a Toyota Corolla.  Four women were in the back, one woman sitting on another woman's lap.  Duang's former sister-in-law came along to see about having additional work done on her nose - Michael Jackson Syndrome?  many woman in Isaan have silicone inserts placed in their noses to make their appearance to be more "Western"  In may cases this does not work out well.  Another female friend came along I guess to provide morale support - that is how things are done here in Isaan.  If you are going somewhere there are always plenty of people ready and available to tag along.  I survived the two hour drive with 5 Lao Loum women all speaking at the same time just about all the time.  Actually I rather enjoy the sense of family and community these situations provide.

We ended up seeing the doctor and he informed Duang's former sister-in-law that no further work could be done or should be attempted on her nose.  I am still trying to figure out what was wrong with it to begin with other than it was not a nose belonging on a Lao Loum face.  Score one for the doctor.  I liked that he was not going to slice and dice as long as you had the cash.  We had a consultation with him and my concerns were addressed and my reservations were diminished.  Some work that Dung wanted he indicated was not necessary.  The next thing that I know that happened was that Duang and I agreed to have the work done.  I was shocked when his assistant came with two pieces of paper of which Duang was required to sign once.  After signing, he said "Let's go to the operating room"  Duang entered the operating room at 8:00 PM for a scheduled 2 hour operation.  The nurse came out at 10:00 PM and informed me that it would be another hour or longer.  Duang came out at 11:00 PM, 3 hours after the surgery commenced.

We had to pay for the entire operation that night - 35,460 Baht ($1,182 USD!) including take home medications.  The hospital took my credit card to pay for the operation.  We walked out of the hospital at 11:30PM.  We will return on Monday to have the stitches removed.

When we were in the USA, I estimated that a face lift along with eye lifts would run around $20,000.  Today, prior to writing this blog, I researched estimated prices for the work in the USA and came up with about $15,000.

I walked out of the hospital with three pieces of paper.  One was an invoice for the surgeon - 20,000 baht.  Another was an invoice for 5,000 baht for something.  The third was an itemized bill for 10,476 baht from the hospital.

For the three hour operation, we were charged $81.66 for the operating room, $2.50 for the nurses, and $172.80 for medical supplies.

It is hard to believe that two upper eye lid lifts, two lower eye lid lifts and a face lift cost $1,182.  However this is in line with what we previously paid to have Duang's eardrums repaired.  I guess this is why medical tourism is a growing trend here in Thailand.  Almost $14,000 in savings over having the procedure done in the USA more than covers the round trip flight and hotel stay.

To be honest with you readers who are in the USA, the facilities and conditions of the facilities did not measure up to what we are accustomed to and for the most part expect in the USA.  However you get what you pay for or not pay for.  As was often a determination in making decisions in my construction career, solutions need to be fit for purpose.  I suspect, no I actually know, from my parents medical experiences over the past year and one-half in the USA, that Americans, be it out of their pockets, their insurance premiums, or taxes are paying for a great deal more than is necessary or required for their medical care needs.  A great deal of American medicine today as it is practiced today is "Voodoo" medicine.  The witch doctor, chants and incantations have been replaced by high tech equipment, ostentatious facilities, as well as cost insensitive procedures.  To quote a former boss of mine "The juice is not worth the squeeze"  It may not be worth the squeeze but you are all paying for it.

I am not certain that we would not accept it any other way.

Bigger is better.  Newer is better.  More expensive is better.

They just all cost more.


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