Author Archives: Bill Grimson

Under The Surgeon’s Knife

Nobody plans to get sick on their holidays (not if they are sane anyway). However, over the years through circumstance I have had to avail myself of medical treatment in Thailand due to Flu, fatigue and a badly gashed finger. In each instance the treatment has been quick, efficient and delivered by well-trained medical professionals matched with modern Pharmaceuticals.

Of course Thailand for years has always had a certain reputation as the place to go for inexpensive but still professional plastic surgery procedures. It is even more famous/infamous as a world leader in that wonderful euphemism – “Gender Reassignment”. Of course in the past decade, like other parts of Asia (especially India) it has become increasingly popular for foreign visitors to come specifically to have medical procedures carried out apart from “Body sculpting”. This includes hip and knee replacements right up to heart surgery.

In the main I believe this has occurred due to the cost of treatment being relatively inexpensive, but still A1 professional compared to the “through the roof” cost of medical treatment in North America, Europe and Australasia. Many Farang are now doing the Math, and have worked out that some elective procedures can be carried out in a country like Thailand safely, and after factoring in airfares and a weeks recuperation in a luxury hotel that it quite often comes in cheaper than what just the procedure itself would cost at home.

phyathai hospital reception

The decision to undertake surgery in a foreign country is never an easy one and is not helped by much of the information/disinformation available. The press I find either over hypes the positive or alternatively over emphasises the negative side of foreign medical treatment. From the positive side you see blowsy documentaries about the 5 star hotel features of many hospitals in Asia, which are quite true in many cases. From the negative side, the Tabloid press loves to trot out (For a fee of course) some poor sod whose life has been ruined by a botched operation in Asia or other foreign parts. It’s not an easy decision – the prospect of being sick and broke 5 thousand miles from home is never a happy one.

My wife Mali and I faced this decision last year. Two days before we were due to fly to Thailand, Mali suffered some internal pain and had x-rays done. The end result was that her doctor advised that in the next three months an operation would be necessary but he advised that it was safe for her to still travel to Thailand. We tossed it over and decided to have the operation done whilst we were back in the Kingdom. Our decision was helped by the prior knowledge of other family and friends who had undergone surgery successfully in private Thai hospitals.

When we arrived we picked the Phyathai2 hospital in Bangkok where Mali would have the operation. Like other private hospitals that I have visited over the years both in Bangkok and the country, I was impressed by the layout – clean, efficient and with loads of staff. Of course those prior visits had always been to out-patients – Mali in contrast was soon to engage in the ultimate trust of putting herself under the surgeon’s knife. After her initial examination she was booked in for her operation three weeks later.

after the operation

The day before the operation, Mali checked into her private room. It had all the appointments, bathroom, refrigerator and cable TV. Once again, I found the vast number of staff to be impressive. The Thai surgeon came in and introduced himself. He talked about the coming operation and his prior experience and in passing mentioned that he had just returned from a holiday in Sydney, Australia. I found it strangely reassuring that he had been to Sydney more so than his medical credentials (strange are the workings of the monkey mind). “In charge” of everything was Mali’s elder sister Dhum who elected to sleep in the room with Mali over the next three days. Her main role was to see that her baby sister was well looked after – I was relegated back to our hotel room in Siam.

family visit

The operation was successful and after a couple of days Mali checked out and we returned back to Isaan for her to relax and recuperate. After the operation, I was once again impressed by the efficiency and friendliness of all the Staff, but in the main just by their sheer numbers. Of course there was a “Thainess” about the three day stay, brought on by the pandemonium of a constant stream of family/ friends including nieces and grand-nieces constantly popping in.

Never a pleasant experience to go under the knife and not one to choose lightly in a foreign country, but in Thailand I have found it to be a viable and safe option.

Bill

The Festival Of Phimai

The Isaan town of Phimai is situated about a forty-five minute drive north of the Provincial capital of Nakhonratchasima. It’s a quiet unassuming little town (mind you – the modern traffic has become particularly fierce) and in terms of landmarks has only two real calls to fame.

Prasad_Hin_Phimai

The first is the Sai Ngam “Beautiful Banyan” tree on the outskirts of Town. The second and most important landmark is Prasad Hin Phimai, which is an Angkor period monument situated in the middle of the town. Its style of architecture is similar and of the same era as other monuments in the region, namely Phanom Rung Hill in Buriram province and Khao Phra Vihaan on the border with Cambodia.

Although for most of the year Phimai is a fairly quiet rural backwater, it comes to life for five days each November when the “Festival of Phimai” is celebrated. During the five days, the normally busy but in the main quiet town is dominated by thousands of visitors both locals and the others from all across the country.

People gather to eat and drink, shop for handicrafts in the many markets that spring up in the town and in the main just let their hair down. The two centre point events during the festival are the sound and light show of ‘Vimainatthakarn’ at Prasad Hin Phimai and the longtail boat races on the Mun River.

sound_and_light

Although I have always felt that Prasad Hin Phimai suffers by its domination by the town (much the same way the Allied War Cemetery is dominated by Kanchanaburi) it is in turn a superb location for the sound and light show. It highlights the restoration of the monument that was carried out about twenty years ago which was I am told initiated by her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The sound and life show, which is shown over three consecutive nights, is extremely professional and highlights the Khmer heritage from this part of the Kingdom. A mixture of classical dance, music and of course techno light takes the audience back in time. Again it’s the monument that really makes it work, together with the fact that due to their proximity the audience can intimately take in all the action.

longtail_boat

prayer

Whilst the sound and light show satisfies the cultural aspect of the Festival, the longtail boat races on the Mun river meets the “fun” side of the five day event. The races are held by local and out of town teams who compete for a prize. Although its in the main a fun event, the boat teams still take the events seriously with many teams praying and lighting incense between races.

band

The backdrop to the races is a cacophony of sound from hundreds of people supporting their local teams, betting on the outcomes and with loud bands all helped on their way by a ‘Jumbo Jet” sized sound system. All in all a fun day out.

Although it probably sounds like a value judgment to say that the “Festival Of Phimai” doesn’t have the scope or sophistication of say a similar event in Sukkothai, it still highlights the historical importance of Phimai and how Isaan is gradually becoming a serious tourist destination.

Bill

Going For Rides On Country Buses

arriving bus

Thailand is a nation of people continually on the move with all this movement helped on its way by a superb transport network. Whether it be by rail, bus, plane or increasingly by car, most areas of the Kingdom are easily accessible. Excluding other means of private and public transport, it’s the Bus that seems to be the prime people mover.

Of course Bus travel comes in various forms. In big cities like Bangkok, bus travel is identified with the jungle like nature of the daily commute. Bored passengers, silent drivers and with conductors incessantly clicking their ticket cylinders to attract attention or maybe trying to stave off boredom. At the other end of the bus spectrum are the air-conditioned “VIP” style buses that ply the long distance routes. More comfortable to be sure, but a tad boring.

The happy medium in this mode of transport is the country Bus. On a country bus you may still be simply commuting, but at the same time you become part of the rich fabric of rural life. No more big city anonymity, on a country Bus you are definitely part of the scene. Although the air-conditioned buses are gradually dominating the market, for short and medium trips the local buses still are popular.

The buses themselves tend to be old. With sturdy steel bodies and on some of the older ones still having timber floors they travel down rural roads and highways constantly on the lookout for passengers who seem to hail the bus where and when they feel like it.

busboy

In some respects country buses are similar to ocean going trawlers – except instead of netting fish they net people. The chief “fisherman” is the busboy, who seems to spend most of time clinging to the side of the bus shouting and alerting prospective passengers that the bus is coming. Although the bus timetable is fairly “elective”, deadlines still have to be met and as such passengers don’t dawdle getting on the Bus. On a couple of occasions I’ve been to slow and have almost been catapulted back onto the road by the rapidly accelerating Bus.

Once on board, you discover that the Bus wasn’t designed with comfort in mind. Vinyl seats without much legroom and in the middle of the day they can be furnace hot with the only relief from small ceiling fans. But these are minor irritations and well compensated by other factors. The first of course is the human factor.

On a country Bus you will find yourself rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life. Farmers, traders, school children, servicemen returning from leave and of course Buddhist Monks. Constantly chattering and smiling it makes for a relaxed and entertaining trip – even the drivers look much happier than their counterparts in the big cities.

The second compensation is food. On the air-conditioned “VIP” Bus, the food on offer tends to be a snack in a Styrofoam box together with a watery soft drink. In contrast on a local bus you often encounter a wide range of wonderful food. Once the Bus has stopped in small towns it is often met by a stream of local people hawking freshly cooked food. Everything from chicken, sticky rice, fruit, sweets, fresh coconut milk and soft drinks.

school bus

Complimenting the local bus network are the smaller Sorngtahews that ply the smaller routes between towns and villages. One of their prime roles is transporting children in the mornings and afternoons to their schools in local towns. In the afternoons when you see the kids piling into these vehicles and quite often sitting on the roof due to overcrowding, you see another aspect of rural life.

In all the years that I have traveled to Thailand one trip on a local Bus always sticks in my mind. About 14 years ago , our holiday in Thailand was drawing to a close and we faced the inevitable flight back to Australia. We boarded a local bus that was surprisingly going all the way to Bangkok. It was late at night and I felt that it was going to be five hours of boredom.

As usual, I was wrong. Mali and I were befriended by the busboy and two of his friends who lightened the trip. They insisted that I share their take away meal of chicken and sticky rice and washed down by an endless supply of fresh coconut.

Three big boned Isaan Country boys who through their natural friendliness and sense of fun turned a journey that could have been boring into one that was truly memorable.

Only in Thailand!!!

Bill

Early Morning In Beautiful Thailand

village fisherman

Two of the lifestyle categories that people are sometimes lumped into are that of “Morning People” and “Night People”. Why people fall into these categories is probably due to simple preference, attitude to life, or even genetic disposition. An attitude that is often driven by the fact that daytime hours tend in the main to be devoted to work, study and all the humdrum responsibilities that we face daily.

In contrast early morning and evening/night is our time. At night one can let the cares of the day go and relax and enjoy. Early morning is the time to gird your loins for the coming challenges of the day, but for a few hours at least you can still enjoy the quiet, the cool and truly take in the sweet smell of the earth.

I identify as a morning person and have done so all my life. Nowhere else in the world do I identify more as a morning person than in Thailand. For the nocturnal person, Thailand is filled with night festivals, markets and vibrant nightlife. For the morning person, Thailand is a place of calm and promise of better things to come.

I would find it hard to think of any place in the Kingdom that can’t be enjoyed in the early hours of pre and post dawn. Even busy Bangkok, where after a few days there I pine for the dust of the countryside, is to me more liveable at that time of day. Just getting out in the pre-dawn and wandering down quiet Sois and streets that in a few short hours will once more be thronged with people and traffic takes away some of the irritation of Urban life.

Other places where I have enjoyed the calm has been in tourist traps such as Koh Samui and Pattaya. At dawn after late night revelers have finally gone to sleep you can walk down the beaches, with their beach chairs stacked and umbrellas furled, and hear the water gently lap without its sound drowned out by the noise of Jet Skis and banana boats. Similarly, just watching sunrise over the Mekong and the activity of river fisherman checking their nets is only surpassed by sights such as the panoramic view of a Lao mountain range as the sun rises at the Isaan river town of Nakhon Phanom.

But in the main it’s in rural Thailand, in the early morning calm that makes Thailand truly memorable and beautiful.

village alms round

In a Thai village from the first rooster crow at about 3am I get the urge to get up. Having done that and wandering outside the house you come across other early risers. During the winter cool many of them will be standing around small fires fueled by coconut husks and smoking hand rolled cigarettes. As the sky lightens and wandering around the village you will see people standing patiently at the entrances of their properties with steaming pots of rice in preparation for that iconic daily event – Monks Alms rounds.

BanPhutsa temple at dawn

From there you can kick start your cold motorcycle totally oblivious to the noise you are making (In Thailand you are forgiven) and then ride off to enjoy the dawn out in the rice fields. Moving along dirt roads you watch the mist burning off the fields and enjoy the cool air rushing towards your face. You will also share this space with farmers driving their cows out to pasture in the fields and occasionally see local fisherman trying their luck in ponds and streams.

village morning market

After going for a spin out in the fields, its then time to explore that other important place of human activity – The village market. As you ride down the main road outside the village you will come across a stream of people moving to the market. Schoolchildren who study in the nearby Town congregate and await local buses.

After parking your motorcycle amongst the sea of bikes at the edge of the market you stroll in. Your senses are immediately assaulted by the sounds of village commerce and local gossip. Nose and taste buds are tempted by all the fresh produce and freshly cooked food – you know straight away that breakfast is going to be good when you return home.

Well, that concludes my ode to early morning Thailand. To any resident/visitor who hasn’t seen (or its been a long time) a Thai dawn, then you are truly missing out on something special.

Bill

Paying Homage To Khunying Mo

khunying mo

The large numbers of shrines and monuments that can be found in Thailand are important examples of the nations pride in its cultural and historical heritage. Although approached from a Buddhist perspective many if not all have themes that are either animist or Hindu in origin, or have a direct reference to Thai history.

Although some if not most tend to be obscure, many others are also famous both in and out of the Kingdom. One of the most famous is the Erewan shrine in Bangkok. The recent desecration at this shrine and the subsequent death of its perpetrator certainly showed the depth of feeling Thais have towards their shrines.

paying homage

In the Isaan city of Nakhonratchasima resides one of Thailand’s most famous shrines. This of course is the shrine dedicated to the Lady Warrior – Khunying Mo. Also known as the Thao Suranari memorial shrine, it is dedicated to the wife of the Deputy Governor of Khorat who in 1826 led the successful resistance against an invading Laotian army.The stories of how she led the resistance vary, but are rooted in historical fact.

King Rama 111 bestowed the name Thao Suranari on the lady warrior after the victory in recognition of her bravery.

paying homage 1

The memorial itself sits in the centre of Nakhonratchasima with its centre point an elegant bronze statue of Khunying Mo looking out over the shrine. Affectionately called “Ya Mo” by locals, the memorial is also the site of an important festival each march that is dedicated to her.

garland vendors

Sitting in the middle of the busiest part of Nakhonratchasima, the atmosphere is more frenetic than contemplative. A constant stream of people from all walks of life visit the shrine each day to light incense, pray and in general search for better outcomes in their lives. Interspersed amongst all this activity are garland vendors, sometimes traditional dancers and occasionally perplexed Farangs like myself.

When the memorial was built in 1933, Nakhonratchasima was just a small country town. However in present times, being located in the one of the busiest and noisiest parts of the City doesn’t seem to distract from the atmosphere of the place. Thais seem to have that knack of integrating spiritual practice into their lives and take distraction in its stride.

Of course it also has to be said that Thao Suranari is more than just a shrine. Like the Morlam, Khunying Mo has become one of the most recognizable symbols of North-East Thailand. Statues of the lady warrior can be found in other parts of Isaan and her image has appeared on stamps, posters and her image on amulets are worn about the necks of people from in and out of Isaan.

The reverence that Isaan people hold for this shrine cannot be underestimated. In some ways I would argue that in a sense you have not truly visited Isaan if you haven’t stopped to pay Homage to Khunying Mo.

Bill