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28 Days to Better Health: Week One in Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Chiang Mai, the Rose of the North

My feet are sore from walking this new and unfamiliar territory.  This month, I’m living inside a walled city, built in 1296.  This one-square-mile of ancient city was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and is now the center of modern-day Chiang Mai.

 

It took four months and the labor of 90,000 men to dig the moat that encircles the city even today.  So much defense was needed to protect the Kingdom because Chiang Mai was the main trading center between China and Burma.  Surrounded by mountain ranges including the tail of the Himalayas, rich in teak forests, fertile valleys, and healthy rivers, Chiang Mai was a prize worth fighting for.  In 1557, the Burmese attacked and took control of Chiang Mai until 1774 when they were finally driven out.  In 1892, Chiang Mai became a part of Siam (later called Thailand).  Today, as Thailand’s second largest city,  approximately one million people live in the greater Chiang Mai metro area with nearly two million foreigners visiting each year.

 

Monks walking to temple

Monks walking to temple

 

Day 1

I’ve found one of the highest-rated Thai masseuses in the city.  Her prices are steep compared to the other shops that can be found on every street.  But, the reviews say she’s worth it.  And they’re right.  Her name is Orn and she’s tiny but mighty.  One hour in her hands and I’m a changed woman.  She shines a light on pain I didn’t know I carried.  “You need to drink more water” she tells me.  I ask her how she knows. “Feet feel like sand.”  Cost: $28 US.

 

Day 2

I’m drinking more water than I can stand.

 

The temples of Chiang Mai are numerous and stunning.  Their mirrored mosaic surfaces glitter and dazzle and their golden spires pierce the sky.  Sans shoes, visitors are free to enter most.  I’m enjoying each new discovery in the course of my daily walks.  Today, I also discover the juice lady who makes unsweetened fresh fruit and green juices for less than a dollar.

 

1

Fresh juices are affordable in Chiang Mai.

 

11 AM: I’m back on Orn’s massage table.  This time, she uses hot herbal compresses the size of baseballs to push deeply into the ridges between my muscles.  I cringe and sigh.  It often hurts but I welcome it.  In the afterglow, I feel blissfully high and totally relaxed for hours.  Cost $28 US.

 

Day 3

I try to stop smoking abruptly which makes for a terrible day.  I can barely function or walk due to brain fog.

 

My goal is to make it to Sriphat Medical Center, a government-run teaching hospital affiliated with Chiang Mai University and known for having some of the best doctors in the city.  The center is outside the walls of the old city and the journey by foot is somewhat terrifying.

 

Chiang Mai street

A quiet Chiang Mai street.

 

With spotty sidewalks, I walk along the street with cars, buses, and scooters passing just inches away from my soft, fleshy body.  There are few stoplights, and no stop signs at all, which makes crossing streets dicey.  Even at the rare pedestrian crosswalk with a “walk” signal, the red light for traffic is merely a suggestion, ignored by most.  Since the traffic is unrelenting,  the only way to cross is to step out into it.  And pray.  Hesitation could get you killed.  Scary as hell.  A real-life game of Frogger.

I finally arrive at the Medical Center and after some runaround, unclear as to where to go, I’m told to come back tomorrow to schedule an appointment.  Back across that road again…

 

Day 4

I’m failing at quitting smoking.  Back to smoking a lot.

 

9 AM: I enter Sriphat hospital and find my way to Registration. There, an English greeter asks what I need.  Her command of the language is elementary and so she mistakes my request to see a thyroid doctor (I pointed to my throat) as a request to see an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor.  Fortunately, this is sorted out by another worker who copies my passport and enters identifying information into a computer.  I’m given an appointment for later that day with an esteemed endocrinologist and long-time professor at the university.

 

Waiting to see doctor. Sriphat Medical Center.

Waiting to see the doctor at Sriphat Medical Center.

 

5 PM: I arrive on the 13th floor for my appointment and I’m amazed at the efficiency.  There must be 100 people in the waiting room with thirty nurses behind ten nursing stations coordinating visits to the various doctors that are currently in.

 

Upon arrival, my blood pressure and weight are taken.  I’m early, and so is the doctor, so I’m seen immediately.  I sit in a chair and explain my problem to the doctor who sits at a desk. A nurse stands by to take orders.  The doctor orders blood tests and tells me they will be ready tomorrow!  Great!  I’m asked to sit in reception for five minutes.  I’m then given a sticker which has my appointment for tomorrow and a receipt for the visit and blood tests which I take to the cashier who is 15 feet away.  I pay her and she directs me to blood draw which is ten feet away.  Then I’m free to go.  Absolutely, the most efficient medical experience I have ever had.  Cost of doctor visit: $5.67 US.   Cost of thyroid labs: $79.33 US.

 

Day 5

I’m somewhat stunned at the cleanliness of the streets here.  Each morning, shop owners wash and sweep their storefronts and it seems there’s a good system for trash collection.  All kinds of exotic flowers hang languidly over cement walls and fences.  It’s super hot walking across town even at this early morning hour.  Dogs, with extremely strong traffic-avoiding-genetics, lay in the streets, in gutters, and under cars.

 

Chiang Mai flowers.

Chiang Mai flowers.

 

9 AM: I see the doctor and my thyroid tests are normal. Puzzling. After some discussion and what feels like resistance to the idea (also puzzling), she orders additional blood tests to be drawn tomorrow. Cost of doctor visit: $8.50.

 

11 AM: Another delicious massage by Orn. “Feet still like sand.”  I protest “I’ll drown if I drink more water!”  She tells me things don’t change overnight.  After the massage, she brings me hot tea and cookies and reminds me to drink more, walk everywhere, and not eat too much. “Not everyday mango and sticky rice!  You get fat”.  Sad face.  But she says I can have one coconut a day.  Happy face.  She’s wise like Yoda.  Cost: $28.33

 

2 PM: I visit the dermatologist in my area to see if he might improve my complexion which is rapidly deteriorating with age.  Since I refuse to wear foundation makeup I’m hoping he can “fix it” so I can “forget it”.  I’m given an appointment in four hours.

 

6:00 PM:  The dermatologist’s office is packed and I’m the only Caucasian.  A sign above a bench in the waiting room says “For Monks First”.  The doctor speaks English having studied in San Francisco.  But he’s a bit odd.  Examining me, he shines a large light in my face.  Finished with his assessment, he continues holding the light in my face while reminiscing about San Francisco which is both awkward and blinding.  He suggests a mild chemical peel and microdermabrasion.  Right now.  “Will it hurt?” I ask.  “Not really” he says.  Mmm…ok?

 

Temple garden

Hiding in a temple garden

 

I’m directed to the front desk where an older woman wearing a rhinestone brooch refers to me as Miss Laura while explaining in meticulous detail what’s been ordered and what creams I have to buy.  They seem very expensive.  “This is from the UK.  Very high-quality and special price for you.”  Now I know it’s a racket but I’m in knee-deep and I don’t know what I actually need and what’s frivolous.  I end up with a cream that says its for “sensitive Asian skin”.  Sure.  She reminds me to drink lots of water. Then tells me not to eat too much.  Alright people, I get it already!  I’m a big fattie here in Thailand.

 

I’m led upstairs through a labyrinth of stairs and instructed to don a surgical cap, wash my face and blot dry.  Then a man who speaks English applies cream to my face which stings mildly.  That’s washed off and he runs something over my face that feels like a sandblaster and vacuum hose.  Not painful, just weird.

 

Cost for doctor visit, chemical peel, microdermabrasion and four very (ridiculously) expensive creams: $90.91 US.

 

Temple with wax monks

Inside a temple with wax monks. I thought they were really and they scared the bejebus out of me.

 

Day 6

I’m totally impressed with this microdermabrasion stuff.  My skin feels so smooth.

 

By now, I’m fully into my new diet.  For several days I’ve been eating one small regular meal and the rest of the day only fruit and vegetable juice with no sugar added.  I have not felt hungry.

 

8 AM: I walk to Sriphat hospital for the blood draw. The cost of extensive blood tests including a hormone panel is a pricey $140.06 US.  Then I walk across town through heat as thick as soup to my next appointment.

 

11 AM: I found a respected Chinese Medicine Clinic and have an appointment for acupuncture.  The facility is clean and the staff friendly.  The doctor speaks to me with tenderness about smoking and then proceeds to stick needles into my feet, hands, cheeks, forehead, and scalp.  I lay there motionless in the sunlit room for half an hour.  The needles are removed and she prescribes a special tea to drink when I want to smoke. I’m instructed to return tomorrow.  Cost of acupuncture: $14.18 US.  Cost of tea: $5.57.

 

Chiang Mai flowers

Chiang Mai flowers

 

1 PM: Orn told me about a highly specialized type of Thai stomach massage that people get for detoxification.  She also mentioned it was very painful.  So I said: “I’m in!”  Upon arriving at the practitioner, I’m asked to drink a vile brown liquid which makes me queasy.  Then I’m told to walk for a few minutes down the street.  Then I lay on a mat in an open-air room on a busy street with four patients and four practitioners sharing the space while I get my naked belly and innards mangled slowly from the outside.  This was a painful and odd experience that I won’t soon forget.

 

At one point, the masseuse does what could only be described as a violent Heimlich-maneuver on my uterus and ovaries.  This causes me to burst into hysterical tears for reasons unknown to me.  It wasn’t because of pain.  And I could not control it.  Terribly embarrassing.  The intense crying continued against my will for several minutes.  Supposedly this is a therapeutic release of an energy block.  She suggested that maybe I use that area a lot and I said “Are you calling me a slut?”.  Just kidding.  I didn’t say that.  I just thought it.

 

She works on my feet and pulls every toe to crack it which is a feeling I despise.  She wraps around me like a wrestler and pushes my body into pretzel positions which cracks my back but also terrifies me.  I’m  given six pills to take at bedtime tonight and tomorrow.  “For clean you out!”  Mmmmk.  I don’t think I’d do that again.  Cost of massage with pills: $28.34

 

4PM:  I find a recommended dentist and have arrived for a check-up and cleaning.  His office is clean and inviting and full of teak wood. He takes no X-rays.  His English is precise and his voice sounds just like George Takei’s from Star Trek.  After inspection, he reports that I have no cavities but do have excessive tartar so he has to really clean.  He spends 45 minutes personally cleaning my teeth while an assistant suctions spit.  When he talks I fantasize that I’m getting my teeth cleaned on the Starship Enterprise.  It’s the best dental visit I’ve ever had and my mouth feels new.  Cost: $25.52

 

Dentist office

Dentist office

 

At bedtime, I take the three pills that were given to me by the stomach-massage-lady.  Let’s just say I should’ve slept in the bathroom this night.

 

Day 7

One thing I’m loving about Chiang Mai is the total lack of the hard-sell in shops and no harassment by tuk-tuk drivers. A simple beep-beep as they pass is as aggressive as I’ve experienced.  It’s lovely.

 

Also notable is that I’ve not seen one clearly mentally-ill person in the streets nor any obviously homeless people.  I don’t know where they are.  Perhaps they’re actually being taken care of, unlike in the United States.  I don’t know.

 

10:30 AM: Acupuncture again.  The doctor asks me to promise that I’ll reduce cigarettes gradually and once down to a certain number never increase beyond that number.  I promise, but I’m not sure I believe myself.  Cost: $14.18

 

Market cat

Market cat in Chiang Mai

 

1 PM: Another massage with Orn. I tell her about my stomach massage and how I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck.  “Go easy on me” I beg.  She gives a nurturing and gentle one-hour massage.  She tells me that after stomach massages people usually don’t want to talk with anyone for a day or two.  She couldn’t be more right.  Cost: $19.85

 

Back at the hotel, I’m watching news about our newly inaugurated American President.  I’m devastated, worried and feel so helpless.  I’ve despised politicians before but I’ve never felt anywhere near this level of fear about the future of my country.

 

Despite the unpleasantness the night before, I take the second set of three mystery pills from the stomach-massage-lady.  This time, little happens.  Thankfully.

 

Photos from my First Week in Chiang Mai (click to view):

 

10 Comments

  1. Dearest Lady,

    Your ventures in health and medicine are such a curious and unique insight into a culture! I hope there will be more you share of this.

    • More to come dear Sir!

  2. I am currently in Chiang Mai. There are homeless beggars who come out at night and sit in the showdows with their children at the night market.

    • Thanks for providing some insight. How sad that is.

  3. Best of luck to you! Anxious to hear how this health experience turns out for you. Toss the cigarettes….but easily said from a non-smoker. Have been considering acupuncture myself recently. I’m in Philly, PA. One of my best friends is in Chiang Mainthis month too!

    • I’ve always had good results with acupuncture. It’s worth a try if you’ve never experienced it. Thanks for reading Martha.

  4. You keep going girl!

  5. Really enjoyed this. Your style kept me reading. Can’t wait for week 2!

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