After a hard day’s doctoring (well, three home visits isn’t bad), I drove the trusty Nissan Pajero down the bumpy track to Mushroom Lodge, where I am billeted. It was almost five o’clock and the sunlight was honey-coloured and gorgeous. I passed a track off to the right, signposted “Elephant Loop”. It looked so inviting that I couldn’t resist, and turned off. The track was definitely the “road less well travelled”. It was more rutted and bumpy than the road to the lodge. After 100 metres, the track entered a cutting, with high-sided walls, leading to a stream. I stopped the car to watch and wait.
Three hamerkop birds flew in and stood in the stream, fishing with their spear-like beaks. These birds have a curious head, shaped like a hammer, hence the name. They have dark brown plumage and long legs. I watched them catching silvery tiddlers in their beaks for ten minutes until there was a commotion in the sky. Several small birds were mobbing a large raptor. The raptor sought refuge in a tree at the stream’s edge. Through the binoculars I identified it as an adult African Harrier Hawk, with its small head, yellow face, light grey back, and white barred tail.
This was fun. I was really enjoying myself when I heard a baboon warning call. These calls are different depending on the threat. I was hoping that a leopard was going to come down to the stream to drink. I scanned the edge of the forest with my binoculars, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw a massive elephant, about twenty metres away, lumbering down the track towards the stream. There was another elephant following behind it and I became seriously worried.
I quickly went through my options. What was that saying, “Never get between an elephant and the river”? No, that was hippos, not elephants. The elephant was too close for me to reverse out of the cutting, it might think I was attacking it. If I stayed put, the thirsty elephant might push the vehicle aside or into the stream. If I drove away across the stream, the elephant might think I was retreating, and pursue me. I might even get stuck in the muddy banks of the stream.*
I decided to drive slowly forward, through the mud, across the stream and up the other bank, intending to demonstrate strength of purpose, not weakness. Once the vehicle reached the crest of the bank, I drove on for fifty metres, before turning round to see if I was being followed by irate elephants.
Question “What is the best thing you have seen from a car?”
Answer “No elephants in my rear view mirror”
So the first part of the track’s name was true to form. There were elephants. Was the track going to loop around? I pottered around for a few kilometres, photographing puku, yellow-billed and saddle-billed storks and eventually returned to the track close to the stream again. I drove tentatively to the edge of the stream and looked carefully for elephants, but they had gone. I crossed the stream and got back onto the main track to the lodge, thinking I had had a very close shave.
* The correct procedure was to remain still and allow the elephants to pass me, according to the experts.
With a proper Thai massage parlour just round the corner from my guesthouse, I went for a real massage on my last evening in Mae Sot. I had to change into baggy pyjamas and lie down on a thin mattress. The masseuse was brutal. It hurt. A lot. I thought she would realise I was in agony by my whimpering and groaning, but she probably thought she was working on the correct bit of knotted muscle. When I could take no more and begged her to stop, she seemed quite surprised. Not as surprised though, as when I got cramp, and had to get up and hop on my left leg (never the same since sciatica in 2012). And the ending was very abrupt. She stopped in mid stretch, saying, “Finish now.”
I am not sure if you can describe an hour of being a willing torture victim for £2 as good value. I took some photographs of the classic Thai massage technique, and some exercises to reduce “watta on the scrotum” (bottom right).
Just to reassure you, the masseuse was fully trained and qualified. Here’s her certificate…for reading, writing and critical thinking.
Bamboo is amazing. It can grow at 10 cm per HOUR, reaching heights of 30 metres. It can be stronger than steel. It can be eaten, made into paper, clothing, building material, musical instruments and furniture. As a boy, my father told me about “split cane” fishing rods. In 1981, my wife and I worked for Save the Children Fund, in Thailand. We bought some bamboo garden furniture made by Khmer refugees in Sa Kaeo camp, Thailand. We stored it in a garage in Bangkok and planned to transport it back to UK. The bamboo had been treated by immersing the poles in running water to leach out the sugars in the stems. This had not been done very well with the bamboo used for our furniture. Within a month, termites had reduced the chairs to piles of dust.
Endings always seem to happen quicker than you think. It’s as though time accelerates as the departure date approaches. In my final week at work, I wanted to build up a memory bank of sights and experiences, typical of my time here.
Each morning I cycle from my guesthouse to the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU), less than a kilometre away. The Thai Highway Code is pretty flexible when it comes to road junctions. It is acceptable to cut corners and riding down the wrong side of the road is de rigeur. Indicating which direction you want to turn is optional. This laissez faire attitude means that people have to drive slowly and courteously to avoid accidents. When I first arrived, I tried to cycle as I would in UK, but after five months, my standards are slipping. I usually stick my arm out in the direction I want to go, but sometimes it’s safer to keep both hands on the handlebars, near the brakes. Thai cyclists keep their attention focused on the road ahead, hoping that drivers following them are doing the same thing. On the other hand, I like to know what’s happening behind me, so I keep swivelling my head around, especially when I’m about to turn.
Early mornings are still chilly in Mae Sot, but having been brought up in the North East of England, I don’t need a fleece. The cyclist-chasing dogs are less active at this time of day. The temperature usually doubles from 15C to 30C by late morning. At 8 o’clock, it is rush hour and the roads are busy. Most of the traffic at this time is the “school run”, children riding with their parents on motorbikes and scooters. Thai law says that only the driver must wear a helmet, so usually the children are bareheaded. There are no local buses, but converted pickup trucks called “Song Taos” transport people to work or the market. I steer well clear of them; I wish they would steer well clear of me.
I often see an elderly gentleman, sitting outside the shop which is his house, soaking up the weak sun’s rays. He looks like Uncle Ho (Chi Minh), with his whispy white whiskers. He rests his hands on a walking frame and watches the world go by. I nod my head in his direction as I go past; he acknowledges this with a barely perceptible movement of his forefinger from the Zimmer. Further along the street, the roller shutters of the hairdressing salon have gone up revealing the tawdry interior. Usually I see one of the stylists brushing her teeth or primping her makeup in front of the mirrors.
On the opposite side of the road, there is some waste ground with a dusty court, divided by a low slung net. Here in the evening, the lads play takraw – foot volleyball using a rattan ball. Fifty metres away there is an open rubbish tip, with stinking yellow bins waiting to be emptied by the refuse collectors. Just before I reach SMRU, there is a lady selling parcels of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, skewered with a toothpick.
I leave my cycle unlocked outside the laboratory and climb the stairs to the doctors’ room. I normally keep my medical kit here and it reminds me to pick up the lab test results for the clinic from my pigeon hole. I climb aboard the Toyota minibus, claiming the seat behind the driver. We leave soon after 8am for the drive to Mawkerthai, 60km to the south. We normally pass the senior school at 8:15, with all the students assembled in the courtyard, standing to attention while the National Anthem is playing.
If the vehicle needs diesel, the driver stops at the Shell Station on the highway. A petite petrol pump attendant wearing Shell teeshirt, with Ferrari decals, and baseball cap blows her whistle impatiently to direct the driver where to stop for refuelling. Curiously, many petrol stations have a bank of ATM machines on the forecourt.
The road south is a four lane highway, but without a central barrier, so as not to impede reckless, impatient drivers who are “double overtaking”. Rather than staying in the nearside lane, our driver keeps to the outside lane, presumably to avoid having to slow down for vehicles turning left. When approaching a police checkpoint, we slow down but rarely need to stop, unless there is a crowd of people waving flags and asking for donations for a good cause (chugging).
When we reach the small town of Yeak So-o, we are about halfway to the clinic. As we have turned off the main highway, the B roads are less well maintained. In a few locations, the side of the road has been undermined and washed away. Just outside PhoPhra, in one place, the tarmac has been churned up by heavy vehicles, almost like a ploughed field. The Toyota’s shock absorbers are not very effective at smoothing out the ride. Just after the white clock tower in PhoPhra town centre (if it shows 9 o’clock, we are on time), we pass my favourite banana fritter vendor. If anyone is hungry, we might stop for food and an iced coffee, which contains over 100% of your daily requirement of refined carbohydrates and saturated fat. Warning – these drinks are addictive.
At this time of year, most of the nursing staff are outside in the sunshine, trying to keep warm, when we arrive. After doing ward rounds in the Special Care Baby Unit and the In Patient area, I walk over to the Out Patients Department so I can be consulted by the nurses working there. I use this time for teaching and reading.
As a British GP, most of my time was spent dealing with long term conditions, self-limiting minor illness, and maybe once a day, I’d feel chuffed with myself for diagnosing a new disease. This is what I was trained to do and it still feels good to make sense of puzzling symptoms. However, here in Thailand, I am more like a consultant, only seeing the complex patients referred to me. The difficulty is that once I have made the diagnosis, there may not actually be any treatment available for the patient. In the past few weeks I have made quite a few diagnoses which have given me no pleasure, no sense of achievement, because this did not result in any benefit for the patient. A man with cancer of the penis (don’t worry, no photographs); a man with cirrhosis caused by hepatitis B; someone with bronchiectasis in lungs wrecked by tuberculosis; a man who limped because hardly any blood supply was getting to his left leg; another who died of internal bleeding when his main artery ruptured. I might have made the diagnosis, but it didn’t help the patient.
On the very last morning, a 5 month old malnourished baby was admitted to the clinic with diarrhoea and septic shock. Her ribcage was moving like a set of bellows as she was gasping to get air into her lungs 80 times a minute. Her pulse was racing at 220 beats per minute, and she was jittery with a fever of 40C. Her feet and hands were icy cold and blue. The nurses had set up an intravenous infusion and started a powerful antibiotic. We didn’t forget to administer an injection of vitamin B1, just in case thiamine deficiency was affecting the heart. Dr Norisak and I sponged the baby with lukewarm water to get her temperature down. I comforted the baby’s auntie who was looking after her (the mother was working in Bangkok). Within 30 minutes, the pulse and respiratory rate were slower, the temperature was down and the capillary refill time was back to normal. The baby was very lucky to have pulled through, but she was my last patient. As I wouldn’t be monitoring her progress, I made a mental note to email the doctor taking over from me.*
By 12:30 I am ready for lunch, so I stroll over to the shack serving rice noodle soup with a Burmese obstetrician. When I first started eating Thai food, I found it very spicy. Now my taste buds have been incinerated, I like to add a dessert spoonful of chilli paste to stimulate some endorphin production.
When I left on the final afternoon, I gave the clinic staff some presents and said goodbye, but it was all very low key. No one showed any emotion, apart from me. I think they are used to having a high turnover of foreign doctors. Perhaps they felt I had earned enough “merit” from my work that I needed no gratitude. I am glad to be moving on, but have enjoyed my work on the border immensely. I don’t feel like a Hollow Man at all.
* The following day, an email message informed me that the baby was very poorly, but was making progress and doing well.