Back to Bangkok

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Sep 16, 2006

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

We've arrived back in Bangkok after our journey to points northward. It feels good to be back, although our perspective has changed somewhat. Now that we have seen that Thailand is more than just it's capital, we have a deeper sense of the place and culture that we are experiencing.

Bangkok is such an international and advanced city that it is easy to forget, as you ride high above the city in the futuristic sky train, that there are those people whom we visited that are excited and grateful to now have one fluorescent light and a karaoke machine inside their thatched bamboo hut.

I've been experiencing a recurring sinus infection since the beginning of the trip, which has been manifesting itself every two to three weeks as congestion and a mild fever. I've heard horror stories of the medical facilities in Cambodia (which are not up to international standards) and so we decided to check out what sort of medical facilities Bangkok had to offer.

I had heard rumors about the glories of Thailand's private medical system-- that this is a global center for transsexual operations and the like. Well I wasn't going that far-- I just had a sniffle and a fever and was not looking to have any vital components altered or snipped. We checked out two hospitals-- BNH and Bumrungrad International Hospital.

Just on appearances at BNH, we were stunned. A white-uniformed doorman greeted patients as they arrived. The lobby of the hospital was a massive place, with the feel of some sort of luxury hotel more than a hospital. All personnel were extremely courteous and professional, dressed in uniform which communicating exactly who they were-- maids in black and white uniforms with aprons (serving drinks!), clerks and information in grey suits, nurses in perfect white uniforms and hats-- like the kind you see on old movies but never in real life. We were informed that a doctor's consultation and hospital fee would cost 700 baht, or about $18 (plus the cost of medication). On the way out the door, a uniformed man asked if he could arrange a taxi for me. Stunning.

We decided instead to go to Bumrungrad International Hospital, whose reputation I had heard more about. While not as visually polished as BNH (it was under construction), it was still an impressive facility. The lobby of the hospital was in muted wood tones, filled with very comfortable sofa chairs. It also had a Starbucks (for better or worse), an overpriced internet cafe, and a small drug store. The facility did truly live up to it's name as in international hospital, as we must have seen half a dozen different kinds of people in ethnic dress walking through-- Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, African, Western-- it felt a bit like we were attending a conference at the United Nations.

We proceeded upstairs to registration, my photo was taken and from that moment on I was surprised to find that my photo appeared at the top of all my paperwork. I was whisked off to the ear nose and throat clinic and it was there that I met Dr. Chira, a Thai man most likely in his late sixties. His consultation fee was 700 baht (about $18) plus a hospital administration fee of an additional $5, and of course any procedures and prescriptions would be extra.

I decided to go ahead. Dr. Chira gave me a look and a listen. I was not expressing any symptoms at the moment, but as I said the fever and congestion recurred every three weeks. He decided to send me up for an x-ray, which I found a little strange and I became suspicious that he was trying to jack up the price. However I was calmed by the fact that this would be covered by my travel medical insurance, so I went along.

I was escorted two floors down to the x-ray facility and within 5 minutes the procedure was done, and I was back on my way to Dr. Chira's office. When he called me in, I was most surprised to see that the x-ray had actually been transmitted to his PC monitor.

I was able to see that although I had no symptoms, one of my sinuses was clearly still infected. This is something I never would have known had he not recommended an x-ray. He prescribed a round of antihistamines, decongestants and antibiotics. Total price of the diagnosis and x-rays was $40, although the medication kicked the price up an extra $100. Still, I'm symptom free now and I should be reimbursed by my insurance, so as far as I'm concerned it's money well spent, especially when you consider that a doctor's consultation alone in the US (especially at a hospital) would certainly not be less than $100.

The speed, efficiency and professionalism with which I recevied service was greater than anything I'd experienced in the US (I mean, who takes x-rays for a sinus infection?) and the fact that I experienced this kind of service in what is supposed to be a developing country is nothing more than mind-altering. There were no grumpy nurses expressing their bad days to the patients. There were no receptionists overwhelmed with calls so as to make any of the patients wait. This was a class operation, through and through.

Of course, there is the larger issue of that fact that these international hospital facilities can offer such prices because the Thai labor is so inexpensive, and that local people must receive a lower grade of care at the public hospitals. These hospitals exist to serve only foreigners and those lucky rich Thai people that can afford a medical extravagance.

This is part of the draw and repulsion that we experience in Asia-- the haves and have-nots are wildly out of balance here, more so than in the west (or so it seems). I suppose I'm lucky that here I'm one of the elite, by virtue of my white face I can afford medical service that would be an extravagance for nearly every employee who expertly served me that day. However I think back to the old man we met in the village we stayed at, outside Chiang Rai-- the man who needed medicine for his leg but could not afford it. What of him and his kind?

For that, I simply don't have an answer.

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