A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Eat, pray, poop

*Public health and personal hygiene in Thailand*

Air quality and traffic safety

Chiang Mai’s main streets surge with cars, trucks, motor bikes, tuk-tuks and song-thao’s (small open air buses belching particularly egregious black clouds). I have never been anywhere this polluted. I often breathe through a scarf; after doing a Masters in Public Health, I have some idea what all that particulate matter does to the lungs. Plus the air is so full of dust and exhaust that it actually FEELS dirty as you inhale. I don’t think Thailand has much in the way of emissions laws, and it shows.

They do have helmet laws for motorbikes, a good thing considering it is common to see up to five people (usually a couple of them small children) balanced on one bike. The enforcement, however, is spotty and predictable. Perhaps half the people on motorbikes actually wear helmets. Thais and Westerners alike often don them in cop-heavy areas to avoid tickets and remove them once the coast is clear. The benefit of this practice is unclear to me - who wins, really? In contrast to my helmet habits vis a vis rollerblading, I actually wear whenever I find myself on a motorbike, which seems to be almost daily. Maybe it is because as a passenger I am not in control, and there is surely some phenomenon whereby humans, at least the more foolhardy members of the species (among which I openly count myself) feel safer if we are in control. The classic example: Your odds of dying in a car versus a plane crash, juxtaposed with how many people feel safer driving than flying.

As for traffic patterns, and by way of further explanation for why I gladly wear a helmet: At stoplights or in slow traffic, when all the cars and trucks are stymied, the law of nature is evidently that motorbikes flow to the front. In moving traffic as well, they travel along the lane lines, weaving among larger vehicles like water running through pebbles. The chaotic order of it is actually quite elegant. This is emergence theory in action: With relatively little regulation, an efficient, self-organizing system arises from the many individual moving vehicles. Traffic comes to seem like an intelligent being, moving and flowing of its own volition, an endless stream of horns and exhaust and close calls.

Crossing streets as a pedestrian carries its own challenges. Stop lights and walk signals exist at the major intersections. However, at most places – and really, even where there are signal towers – you just wait for a gap in traffic that affords you three or four seconds to dash across. When you look right and left, be sure to account for the fact that cars drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and remember, this is not California - cars definitely do not slow down or stop when you step out into the street. I’d like to think they would swerve to avoid you if it came to that, but I’m not planning to find out. I have many good reasons to live, including…

Street food

First, foremost, and above all: The street food is amazing. Definitely one of my favorite things about Thailand. Most items cost fifty cents to a dollar, at which rate you can afford to try a vast array of unknown substances and see what you like. I have found little I don’t like.

There are public health issues, of course. For one thing, the delightful, delicious food vendors often add the much-vilified MSG to their food. Depending how much you care, you can ask them not to put any “choo-rot” into your food. Then there is the problem of controlling intake with all this food around. I could paint this a public health problem: As the obesity epidemic balloons (yes pun intended), human eating habits have been extensively studied and it has been found time and again that, to put it simply, when there is food within easy reach, we eat it. I could also paint this as a personal problem: The abundance of street carts with all manner of food costing almost nothing surely counts as ‘easy reach’ for me.

On the up-side, the food must be pretty safe, because I have yet to get sick and I am not being at all careful. On the down-side, I am not doing much to off-set the caloric intake. On the up-side, I have purchased some comfy new pants with elastic waists, so it’s all good. Except that I do manage to eat a bit too much one day. The next morning I sit down to meditate as usual, and about two minutes into my reverie, something twitches in my gut. I run to the bathroom just in time to answer nature’s sudden and rather urgent call. Happily, I feel fine afterwards and complete my meditation feeling veritably enlightened. This little sequence of events rather reminds me of something catchy. It’s like… Eat, pray, poop. And hey, that conveniently brings me to…

Bathrooms and plumbing

I do not relish using the bathroom in my guesthouse. Baring my nether regions to mosquitoes is one reason. Another is that the floor is usually wet from the shower, which is in no way separate from the rest of the bathroom. Which is a common set-up here, but as Thais don’t wear shoes inside, I am constantly stepping barefoot onto a wet floor, which just feels a little gross. Moreover, there is no toilet paper. At first I spot a roll sitting randomly around the guesthouse and put it in the bathroom where it belongs. It lasts a couple days. Then I switch to the tissue I have left over from camping, figuring any day now Tam will notice we are out of toilet paper and replenish. Instead, I overhear her talking about a plumbing problem she just had to fix, complaining that someone must have put paper down the toilet. I inwardly scratch my head; clearly, toilet paper is not part of the set-up here.

Meanwhile there is this curious feature I am noticing in Thai bathrooms at Lita and elsewhere: In addition to the shower head, there is another little nozzle beside the toilet. The shower head already being ‘telephone’ style, this second sprayer is puzzlingly redundant to me. I wonder if it may be for cleaning the bathroom floor or something. Now, around the time of my toilet paper travails, I hear some people talking about the ‘spray method.’ I think back to that odd little nozzle, and suddenly all is clear: Instead of wiping, you spray. I see, I see. In the wake of my epiphany, I try things the Thai way. You end up clean, but wet. I’m not sure I quite like it. Nonetheless, from now on I respect that paper is generally unwelcome in Thai plumbing systems.

Personal hygiene

About a week into Thailand, my deodorant runs out. No big deal, I go to Seven Eleven for a replacement. Alas, as Thais consider fair skin desirable, all the deodorants are labeled ‘whitening,’ apparently enhanced with some substance to lighten your armpits for all to admire. First of all I am white enough thankyouverymuch, and secondly, whatever chemicals they use to make your armpits change color, I am not interested. So I start going au naturel. At first I wash all the time, yet still stink to myself. Then a funny thing happens: Either I start stinking less, or I simply get used to it. I have not taken a poll of others’ opinions in the matter, so I have no idea if I am being grossly antisocial. Not that I care terribly much. I am much more taken with how modern life can lead us to become so cut off from our own bodies: How odd that I don’t know what I smell like in the absence of powders and potions. And all those chemicals can’t be good for you. Meanwhile, I haven’t shaved my legs in a month and am wondering why I ever bothered… Bringing me full circle, I feel this might make a good basis for some sort of public health campaign. Only I don’t have time to draft the pamphlets right now because I am well and truly occupied with planning for my mother’s visit December 6-19 and finishing up grad school applications.

I do, however, take a couple days out for an almost obligatory ‘trekking” trip booked through Lita Guesthouse. It is touristy but enjoyable. It includes:

A nice walk through the jungle with a group of people

An overnight stay in an elephant camp, including a ride on the animals. I manage to almost fall off the elephant (I’m pretty close in this picture).

Time to swim in a waterfall. There is a natural waterslide into a deep pool, and it is all delightful.
Delightful, that is, until I manage to actually fall down the wrong part of waterfall: In the course of my usual climbing around I slip on a rock, go down a little chute, and slide until when my knee finds a nice rock to stop on. Most people in the group are on their feet, staring down anxiously, wondering whether I am (1) okay and (2) crazy. As a bruise blooms on my knee with a ruby red bleeding center, I assure them of the former, and there’s not much I can do about the latter.

The last thing we do is white water and bamboo rafting (good fun but not documented because there was no way to keep the camera dry), followed a little time to buy souvenirs. I do not make any purchases, figuring this will serve as my souvenir. I do make sure to apply some Neosporin and a band-aid, said items being an often-used staple component of my day pack – I know myself. Come to think of it, if I had to choose between these and deoderant, no doubt which is more essential.

Posted by sbw2109 22:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Thai Massage with Pichest Boonthumme

* Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps*


At the beginning of each week you bring an offering for the Buddha consisting of fruit, candles, incense and flowers. Lotus flowers, symbolizing the soul achieving enlightenment, are preferred. Before class, you put the offering in a bowl and place it near the alter. This is all explained to me by my friend Matt, who also studies with Pichest, and I am grateful for the introduction, but am nevertheless acutely conscious of being an outsider and first-timer. I feel clumsy and uncertain arranging my items in the bowl – how should it look, does it matter which way the lotus flowers point, do you unwrap the candles and incense from their plastic? I shyly ask Pichest, who happens to be nearby, and he replies: “Why you make headache!” I.e., quit futzing around, this is not a Buddha offering photo shoot, it’s about the underlying intention. Smiling at the rightness of his response, I start to relax.

The classroom, located inside a set of sliding glass doors, has a large temple/altar area and Thai Massage mats arranged around the rest of the space. People drift in and take seats facing the altar, and Pichest sits down in front. An old Caucasian man dressed as a monk, one shoulder bared by his saffron robe, explains that there are only two rules here: First, don’t point your feet towards the altar, and second, the head pillow is for the head, not the bum. Then a student hands around a sheet with the morning prayers written on, Pichest turns to face the temple, it and the class begins chanting in Thai and Sanskrit.

Morning prayers lasts half an hour or so. At one point Pichest gets up, dips a bundle of incense sticks in holy water, and walks around shaking sprays of fragrant droplets onto each student while chanting rhythmic Thai syllables. He gives an extra generous shower to a couple guys in the class, a mischievous glint in his eye. I like this guy’s sense of humor.

After all this is done, he turns from the altar to face the class, wipes his hair back from his forehead, and addresses us in Pichest-English. He does not mention Thai Massage whatsoever. Rather, the message is something like: People make their own problems. Problems in the head become problems in the body. Pain and suffering come from attachment and desire. The five senses and our ideas of “like” and “dislike” constantly mislead us. Likewise technology and social pressures. We are constantly wanting things, but you cannot take things with you when you die. “You look in magazine, think ‘I want this’ and ‘I need that,’ think you need perfect body. Important or not important, eh?!”

After about an hour he says, “Any questions, you have any questions for me?” One girl raises a hand and asks, “Pichest, today is my last day here, and I would like to make an altar when I go home… I was wondering what to put on it?” He cocks his head in consideration for a moment before replying: “Important or not important?!”

Around this time, a woman with very bad rheumatoid arthritis enters. She walks with a laboring, stilted gait, and the disease is gnarling her fingers and toes. He asks her what seems to be the problem. Scoliosis and arthritis, she says. He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Why, why you have?” “I don’t know,” she says.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he mocks almost kindly. “Why? Emotion!”

I wonder if she is angry at being told that this debilitating affliction is a result of problems in her mind. I can’t tell; she just sits there quietly while he delivers more of his usual sermon. I’m not sure how much she even understands, as his English takes a little getting used to. Pichest then invites her to come lie down. I cringe watching her walk over and make her way down to the mat through an awkward kneeling transition. He begins to feel around her body and invites the students to do likewise. Suddenly everyone has hands on her knees, hips, IT band, spine, stomach, neck, armpits, wrists, everywhere. It reminds me of a game we used to play in gym class called “Snakes in the grass,” which begins with everyone putting one finger on the person playing the snake, then you bolt away at the sound of the whistle.

One of her knees is swollen and locked. She cringes when he moves it more than a few degrees. He leaves the leg and begins with her neck and shoulders (unusual for Thai massage), then continues back down to her legs, the muscles of which are simultaneously clenched and atrophied. The class mostly hangs around watching him work, and some people occasionally break away to practice on each other. I watch him the whole time, impressed with the intuitive way he handles her body. An hour later he has unlocked the knee and is getting a healthy range of motion from her hips. She is smiling.

Next we break for lunch. I ask one of the veteran students how long the lunch break is. He shrugs, “No set time, just come back whenever.” I am not very hungry, so I just wander down the road a ways and come back. When I return, the woman with arthritis is gone, and Pichest is sprawled out on his back on a Thai Massage mat, sleeping like a baby. Most students are out at lunch, a few are here either napping or practicing on each other. Someone asks to practice some massage on me, to which I of course say yes. I’m just selfless like that.

At some point Pichest wakes up and begins going around helping/correcting people, and the class shifts nebulously back into gear. He drifts our way while my partner is working on my left IT band, and begins to demonstrate a different technique on me. After a few quick palpations of my left hip, he declares: “Very bad, big problem. No on skin, hurt deep inside.” I am struck dumb. I recently found out I have a labral tear in that hip. This was diagnosed via a contrast MRI for which I spent a couple hours in the hospital so they could first numb my hip with an injection, then stick a needle all the way into to the joint space under X-ray (to verify positioning of the needle) and inject a contrast dye, then stick me inside the clicking and whirring MRI machine for an hour or so, all of which carried a hefty tab (thank you Blue Cross Blue Shield)… And Pichest, after feeling around for thirty seconds, knows essentially the same thing. He then digs deep into some very tense muscles around the hip, nearing my pain threshold but never crossing it. When he is done, I feel ready to do a full-length ballet.

Around 4pm, we all sit up and face the front of the room. Pichest asks if there are any questions. One girl asks, “The woman with arthritis, why did you start with the neck and shoulders instead of the feet?” “Her body tell me,” he answers. “Need to listening to the body. If hurt here” (pointing to his shoulder), “cannot relax.” The class nods, the answer perfectly obvious in retrospect, but how many of us would have thought to deviate from the usual legs-first script in Thai Massage? Pichest then recaps his message from this morning, warning about the perils of “I think I think I think, I want I want I want.” Class ends with an abbreviated version of the morning prayers and an abbreviated reiteration of his morning message, and he tells us to go home and relax.

Thus goes a typical day.

Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps...

Pichest’s school is located about a 20 minute motorbike ride from downtown Chiang Mai in a suburb called Hang Dong. Towards the end of the first week, tiring of the commute and ready for a break from city life, I decide to find a place in Hang Dong for following week. This being a purely Thai neighborhood, you cannot just hop online and book a guesthouse, so I use my lunch break to see what I can find the old fashioned way. It goes like this:

1. I ask some people with a little lunch shack down the street if they know of any rooms or guesthouses. I’m not sure they cannot understand me, or perhaps they do but I am a foreigner so they are not sure about the whole thing. In any case, smiles and shakes of the head and thank you’s are exchanged, and I move on.

2. I wander further on and end up following a dirt road which according to a faded sign leads to a ceramic factory. As I approach the factory I am invited to sit by a woman who speaks just enough English to communicate that she will call her boss. Meanwhile she is working on little dolls, putting eyes in heads and heads on bodies. She shows me how she puts the eyes in: She takes the eye on the end of a sharp stick, sticks it up through the neck into the doll’s head, and suddenly where there was an empty socket, an eye pops out. There is something simultaneously so freakish and humorous about it that I laugh, hard. She joins in and it becomes one of those giddy, self-perpetuating fits of laughter. We eventually simmer down, exchanging smiles and occasional giggles as we wait for the boss…

3. About ten minutes later, a trim, middle-aged Thai woman, arrives and asks me in impressively fluent English how she can help. I explain that I would like a to rent a room for the coming week. She says she thinks she heard one of her workers mention something, she’s not sure, but wait a moment…

4. She goes to ask the worker, who does indeed know of a room, but neither of them can take me at the moment, but wait a moment…

5. The boss then calls up her partner, explains to him where I should go. By this time it has been half an hour since I first arrived. I feel bad taking up their time and not at all certain this is leading anywhere. I try to say thank you, it’s alright, I’ll find my way, no need to take me…

6. I am presently sitting on the back of the partner’s bike as we make our way back up the dirt road, back past Pichest’s school, and on to a house which turns out to belong to Pichest’s cousin. This is slightly embarrassing for me because Pichest actually rents rooms at the massage school. No doubt this will get back around to him and he will wonder why I ignored his rooms and went poking around the neighborhood. If I could call the whole thing off I would, but that is no longer possible.

7. The partner from the ceramic factory explains to Pichest’s cousin in Thai that I wish to rent a room, so he takes us to see it The building is a long single storey structure containing several studio style apartments. The room is simple and clean with a large bed, smooth cool tiles on the floor, a cold water shower and a Thai toilet. I like the look and feel of it, and it is a few minutes’ walk from the massage school - perfect. I say I’ll take it.

8. Mission accomplished, the man from the ceramic factory now goes back to work. I am left to negotiate with Pichest’s cousin, who speaks as much English as I do Thai. I refer to the “Language” section of my Lonely Planet book, but my Thai pronunciation is apparently so poor as to render my attempts incomprehensible. I try pointing to the words I want to use, but he cannot read the tiny writing without his glasses. This is starting to feel like a comedy of errors. Happily, we eventually arrive at an understanding, I think, that I will pay 80 baht per night and start on Monday.

9. When my friend Matt learns I have rented a room five minutes’ walk away, he is interested. We go back to Pichest’s cousin, arrange for Matt to rent a second room, and everything seems set. Except that Pichest’s cousin kept saying something about fishing which neither Matt nor I can figure out. We shrug, nod and smile.

10. We show up on Monday to pick up the keys. Pichest’s cousin again says something about fishing. All we can understand is that he wants us follow him, so we do. He leads us down a dirt path, through a gate with an unlocked padlock, and around a small lake to a little wood shack with a large open air porch. Apparently this is his fishing spot. And apparently he is offering it up as a place to hang out. This place is my new definition of tranquility. Lush green foliage, blue sky reflected in the pond, and only the sounds of dogs, roosters and the occasional distant motorbike. Moreover, in a most welcome contrast to Chiang Mai, the air smells fresh. Pichest’s cousin turns the radio on to some melodic Thai music, opens the fridge and holds up a bottle of some sort of moonshine. He seems pleased when we join him in a drink. Having little common lexicon with which to converse, the three of us just sit looking out appreciatively at the scenery. The rest of the week, this shack by the fishing pond, an utterly unexpected amenity of renting these rooms, is where we come to practice Thai Massage and relax in the evenings. “Nice job talking to Thai people,” Matt says as we watch the sky change colors.


Posted by sbw2109 22:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (7)

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