It all started innocently enough, with a trip to the top of Doi Suthep, the 1500-meter mountain beside Chiang Mai. Cyrus and I had booked a mountain biking adventure through mountainbikechiangmai.com, which consisted of being driven to the top of the mountain in a truck, and turned loose escorted down the mountain through an elaborate system of trails and old roads over the course of a four-hour journey.
Everything was provided, from the mountain bikes themselves, to the body armour, helmets, jerseys, and not least of all, the fun. Also included was the rank smell of the equipment, and whatever organisms might be causing it. They started us out easy, going down a paved road to a small mountainside village, and then through trails and hill tribe roads. We were grouped according to ability, and Cyrus and I were placed in the intermediate group. This was fine, as it took some getting used to the bikes and terrain. Cyrus had a hard time with the equipment being twice his size, which seemed odd, as he was nearly the size of many grown Thai men.
In the end, he shed his protective gear (except the helmet, of course) after which his skill level improved exponentially. We were fortunate to have bought several snacks and drinks, which provided some necessary fuel for the ride down. By the end of the ride, we could easily have belonged to the advanced group, but the trails did provide ample opportunity to test our skills. The scenery and vegetation alone justified the ride, and did I mention the fun? It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to explore the backcountry of a Thai mountainside, and we surely would have gotten lost if not for our guide.
At the base of the mountain, tired and hungry, we rode to a small roadside restaurant for our ‘lunch’. An odd time for our midday meal, as it was 3 o’clock, but better late than never. The meal was provided by our hosts, who kindly took our vegetarianism into consideration. Vegetable fried rice with egg was a welcome sight, even if the only vegetables in sight were Chinese broccoli and corn. A look at the rice with chicken that our fellow riders were enjoying revealed a smorgasbord of veggies, mixed in with the chicken and egg. Apparently meat eaters need their vegetables more than vegetarians…
That evening, after a much needed shower, Theresa pointed out the small patch of red bumps adorning my right shoulder. My first thought was that I had reacted to a plant I had come in contact with, or that something nasty had been living in the dank jersey I had worn for the first half of the journey. It declined over the next couple of days, and I forgot about it, until the following weekend, when it re-appeared with a vengeance. It spread down the whole of my arm to the wrist, and down the other arm as well.
It disappeared the next day, all but the original small patch on my upper right arm, and I began to formulate theories as to its origin. Could the combination of ambient pollution, non-organic food, and the release of toxins from all the Thai massage I was getting, topped off with a rank microbe filled jersey have pushed my bodies capacity for expelling toxins over its limit? We tried tea-tree oil, antibiotic ointment and anti-histamine, all to no avail. To confirm my theory, I needed a specialist. After consulting several long-term expats, it was suggested that I go to Chiang Mai Ram hospital, just a few blocks from us. Not normally one to go to a hospital for anything short of a life threatening injury, it seemed like a drastic measure, but one that might offer a novel experience, so thus it was that I found myself on the front steps of a Thai hospital, with no insurance, and no small amount of trepidation.
Walking into the hospital, I found the information desk easily enough, and was asked to fill out a simple form stating my name, passport info, insurance etc. They then pointed me up to the fourth floor, where I was directed to a waiting room. No sooner had I arrived than they took my weight, height and blood pressure. I was then shuffled to another waiting room, and 15 minutes later, I was seeing a doctor. She quickly diagnosed eczema as the source of my condition, which confirmed my suspicions, namely that my body couldn’t process its toxins quickly enough, and she prescribed some cortisone cream.
In my experience as a herbalist working in a pharmacy, I often came across this seeming hypocrisy, that a condition caused by toxicity and impaired immune function should be treated with a toxic and immune damaging substance, but I accepted the prescription as a ‘just in case’. After another 20 minutes in the waiting room, I was escorted downstairs to the pharmacy and cashier, and given my prescription and bill.
I had a flashback moment to the movie I had watched the night before, Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. In it, he targets the giants of health in the US, the HMO’s and the health care companies, who, along with the pharmaceutical companies, had conspired to make sickness one of the most profitable industries in America. Besides the horror stories of those who lack insurance in the US, he pointed out the even the Americans with health care are often shafted by their insurance companies, and how the US ranks lower than any other major industrialized county in the world for the overall health care status of its citizens.
As a Canadian, this information was not new to me, and indeed the movie had a segment on how wonderful our health care system was in Canada, debunking many of the myths that had been out forth to Americans about the Canadian system to discourage any move towards the evils of *gasp* Socialism… He then journeyed to the UK and France, where universal health care is a given, and showed how well their systems work, and how the citizens could not imagine the horrors of a county without such a system.
He ended the movie by interviewing a group of 9/11 rescue workers who couldn’t get any assistance for the illnesses they acquired digging through toxic debris in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. After learning of the wonderful health care given to the terrorists being held in US run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, he journeyed there with a group of them see if he could get them some free health care. After their boat was nearly shot out of the water by US forces, they landed on Cuban soil (an act for which he was placed under investigation by Homeland Security). He learned of the fantastic universal health care in a country suffering from economic sanctions by the US for the last 30 years, and in the end, he, and all five of the rescue workers received free treatment, despite the fact that they were Americans with no Cuban insurance coverage. Sorry to spoil the plot, but it was a real eye opener.
Back to my situation, my concern over the cost of my visit was escalating as I approached the Cashier. I was astounded by the staggering cost of health care in Thailand. 300 Baht for the doctor, and 80 Baht for the prescription. That put it at $10 for the doctor, and at $2.90 for the cortisone cream. Not bad for a country with a weak economy, and no national health care program. I would have paid more than that in Canada, even with the full coverage of our wonderful health care system. Maybe requiring health care services in Thailand wasn’t such a bad thing after all.