Stickman Readers' Submissions October 6th, 2011

I’ve Got A List Part 2

After all the food I’ve been talking about, I feel the need for a brisk constitutional. What better place to start walking about than here in my adopted hometown of Lampang?

It was our extraordinary good fortune to settle down in the small city that calls itself, “The Gateway to Lanna Culture”. After six years I really do consider Lampang to be my home. For me Lampang is a “Goldilocks” kind of town, not too big and not too small.

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There is a large enough variety of shops that I can easily buy what my modest lifestyle requires. There is a Big C and a Testco Lotus, and a new Makro is almost ready to open its doors.

Big C might not your choice for shopping, but I really enjoy going there, which is a good thing since I’m there so often. I think everyone knows my face there. The cashiers are always friendly and efficient. The security guards always have a big smile for me. The selection of food isn’t enormous, but how can I complain when they carry Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces? Most importantly for me is that the butcher’s shop is hygienic. In the course of an average month I spend quite a large chunk of my salary there. Sam always jumps at the chance to come with me to Big C. Perhaps it’s because there is the snack food “Trifecta” of KFC, DQ and Swenson’s, but he’s always on his best behavior there.

My budget doesn’t run towards high end electronics, but if some money suddenly fell into my lap, there are plenty of places which would be happy to help me deck out my living room with a state of the art home theatre. To my delight, Lampang’s MacZone has not only survived, but apparently is thriving. If there is anything I need that is not available here, Chiang Mai is an easy hour’s drive away.

There are many produce markets in town, so stocking up on fresh fruit and vegetables is never a problem. After all this time vendors know who I am and always have a smile for me, especially if I have Sam in tow. When we first moved here, my wife used to quiz me on how much someone charged me for say, a kilo of oranges. She never does that anymore. To my knowledge, not a single person has ever overcharged me. These markets are still as colorful and interesting to me now as they were when I first starting going to them.

The one thing I absolutely refuse to buy at these markets is meat or poultry. Yes, Old Sawadee (AKA Felix Unger) is obsessive when it comes to hygiene, especially where food is concerned, but tell me honestly folks, do you really want to eat meat that has been sitting out un-refrigerated in the heat all day…covered in flies? If so, please write to me. I still have my sanitation textbook from when I was in culinary school, and would be happy to describe in some detail the bacteria happily growing in your chicken, and the illnesses these buggers will inflict upon your GI tract.

There are quite a number of non food-related markets around town. Here you can find all kinds of useful odds and ends, as well a whole lot of useless junk. They are especially fun to walk around in the evening when it’s cooled off. If you are looking for inexpensive clothing or a set of inexpensive wrenches (spanners to you who aren’t Yankees) or an inexpensive…fill in the blank, you may just find what you’re looking for here. Not surprisingly, the night markets are places where young Thais come to hang out and socialize. It’s not uncommon for groups of students to want to practice their English with you. I always enjoy answering their questions.

Even if you are sitting or standing around someone is bound to come by with something for sale. There are of course the countless businesses attached to motorcycles. It seems you can buy everything from cold drinks to a bowl of soup. Then there are the ice cream men who travel all over the city, including residential neighborhoods. I can always tell when one fellow is nearing my house because I can hear The Mexican Hat Dance slowly increasing in volume. There another ice cream vendor that comes by selling ice cream sandwiches…and I mean that literally. Before moving here I never saw ice cream served in a slice of bread. It’s actually better than it sounds.

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Not having a motorcycle is no impediment to selling your wares. All you need is a push cart and you are in business. I see one enterprising fellow all over town pushing a cart overflowing with ladders, from short step ladders to ones so tall I wonder how he is able to wheel them around. If I ever need a new ladder, I will definitely give this guy some business. No cart? No problem. I see plenty of Thais carrying baskets balance on poles over their shoulder. I see one man constantly selling a kind of khanom that is a round disc about a foot in diameter. I wish I knew what these were called because these feather light sweets are very good. This guy always makes his presence know by honking on a large horn, ala Harpo Marx. I also see old women toting heavy baskets of vegetables down the street. Usually they will stop somewhere and sit on the sidewalk to sell their produce.

On thing you have to love about Thailand is that you can simply set up shop on the side of the road. That’s what my favorite gai yang vendor does every day. He just pulls his truck over, sets up his grill and begins barbecuing chicken. He sells out all the time, so you need to get there early. You see people all over Lampang doing business out of their pickup trucks. Just today I saw someone selling pineapples. Another was selling coconuts. Yet another was selling carpets. I guess it’s nice to have low overhead…and if one location is a bit slow, you can move on down the road where hopefully your prospects are better.

In its own modest way, Lampang is an attractive place. Since I moved here the local municipality has spent a lot of money re-doing several major parks in the center of town. They are both pleasant areas for walking, exercising or simply sitting and doing some people watching. The Wang River runs through the city, and along its banks there are some nice parks and footpaths.

During Loy Krathong, which in my humble opinion is the single loveliest night of the year, Lampang puts on one hell of a celebration. All the bridges are illuminated with fairy lights, and the sky is ablaze with fireworks and thousands of sky lanterns, while the full moon shines over everything. In the river, there are not only thousands of Krathongs, but colorfully decorated barges which put on a kind of aquatic parade. Down the main street comes another parade, with spectacularly decorated floats, with lovely Thai girls wearing traditional silk costumes riding on top. While Chiang Mai might put on a larger festival, I think the scale of the one Lampang puts on is more comfortable.

I think the same is true for Songkran. The partying is wild enough…and wet enough… if that’s what you enjoy, without being so insane that it becomes uncomfortable. If you want to remain high and dry, it’s easy enough to avoid the center of town. I on the other hand have always enjoyed getting soaked, and always head out on bicycle to enjoy it all. While I could do without the buckets of actual ice water, it’s usually so hot on those days that it feels good to get drenched. The locals are always friendly, if sometimes definitely mao mak, and I’m always getting drinks pressed in my hand. It goes without saying…but I’ll say it anyway…that scores of lovely scantily clad, soaking wet girls who are tipsily smiling at you will make anyone’s day!

During the rest of the year there are more modest celebrations that are still worth attending. Around Christmas time the center of town near Lampang’s clock tower is transformed into what could pass for a winter wonderland…if it were just a bit colder.

Lampang, which is a major ceramics producer, puts on a huge Ceramic Fair every year, which is a lot of fun. There are always concerts, with some big name Thai entertainers.

All of the things I’ve mentioned might bore you to death. This ain’t Chiang Mai. There is nightlife, but it is Thai style. Nobody is catering to Farangs here. There are no go-go bars or any other venues to play with the girls. Obviously Thai men are going somewhere. There are plenty of karaoke bars around town. Don’t ask me what they are like, because I’ve never been in one.

What Lampang does have and here I’m referring not only to the city, but to the entire province, is plenty of scenic hilly countryside. There are a good number of major national parks worth seeing. During the rainy season I like to visit some waterfalls because these are really roaring away. The area is geologically active, and has some hot springs if you are in the mood to get properly stewed. If you like elephants the Elephant Conservation Center is quite interesting, and will set you back only a few baht! I especially like to visit when they set up enormous kantokes filled with fruit and vegetables to feed the elephants, and have a big parade.

There are more temples than I can count, and I enjoy visiting not only the historic ones, but small out of the way ones as well. Temples might not be your thing, but I enjoy sitting and quietly enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

Again this is not the world’s epicenter for excitement, but frankly that is a part of its appeal to me. I enjoy a little peace and quiet. Although there are a fair number of Farangs living here, and I have a large number of them as friends, I like not living in an enclave or a bubble. If you are married, and are thinking of moving to Thailand, Lampang is a pretty comfortable place to settle down. It’s not like my wife’s tiny village in Buriram where everyone stares at you like you just stepped off a flying saucer, nor is a city so large that you are stuck in a perpetual traffic jam. Most importantly, there are some pretty nice people here as well. Most folks have made me feel welcome here.

Since health issues have played a pretty significant part of my life here, I would be remiss in not mentioning the medical care in Thailand. The best way to sum up the situation is to quote Dirty Harry, “Are you feeling lucky”? Depending on your circumstances you may end up walking away from a doctor’s care with a big smile on your face and whistling a merry tune…or you may exit not saying a blessed word because you are being wheeled away on a gurney stone cold dead. I’m not joking. Without a doubt you can find topnotch treatment…if you are willing to pay for it. As you may know, the cost of surgery, even technically demanding procedures, is much less than it is back in Farangland. Still, if your resources are at all limited, this is going take a toll on your wallet. Dr. P. at Chiang Mai Ram hospital is as good a cardiac surgeon as you will find anywhere. The good doctor, with support from a crack nursing and support team has performed surgery on me five times. Since I’ve always left the hospital feeling a million times better than when I was admitted, it’s not surprising I should have good things to say about the best that Thailand has to offer medically. I only wish I had some cheery words about what all that world class medical care cost my wallet, but oh well, I’m alive, and so it would be churlish for me to complain.

On the other hand, when medical care here is poor, it is really poor…poor enough in fact to kill you. I won’t bore you with the tale of my first visit to a government hospital. You can read that by going through my very first submission “How it All Began”, where I devote a chapter to that close call with the Grim Reaper. Suffice it to say that if some close Thai friends hadn’t gotten me out of there, I would have been pushing up daisies six years ago.

Up until recently I have never even set foot in another government hospital. All of my hospital visits (except for heart surgery) have been to Lampang’s one private hospital, which affords the same professional level of care you would find at any modern western hospital. Oh, in case you are wondering about the exception, there are no facilities anywhere in Lampang for heart surgery. This private hospital is where Sam was born five years ago. There was simply no way I was going to have my wife give birth somewhere that practiced a questionable level of medicine, despite the fact that my wife didn’t want to spend the money. There is a time I said that frugality should be secondary to survival! My wife reluctantly agreed.

When it comes to visiting the pediatrician, frugality wins every time, and it’s off to one on Lampang’s many clinics. These are where doctors make their real money. I am ambivalent about these clinics. On one hand, I once went to an eye doctor who deftly lanced a cyst for me. I told that cutting tale in Eye to Eye.

While I’m on the subject of past medically related submissions, I’ve written a few including, Dr. Hackenbush I presume, I want a New Drug, Life and Death Redux, Most Definitely Stoned, Not a Bad Way to End the Year, and a follow-up piece, And Not a Bad Way to Start Off the New Year. You might enjoy these. You might hate them. If nothing else, perhaps they will help put you to sleep if you are ever suffering from insomnia!

On the other hand, my hackles get raised when someone who supposedly has a legitimate medical degree tells me that although my son seems to be suffering from nothing more a simple cold, she is going to put him on antibiotics, “just in case”. It takes all my self-control to not take this woman by shoulders and give her a vigorous thrashing. “Just in case of what!” I want to shout. “In case the moon is made of green cheese? What the hell do you think an antibiotic is going to do for a viral infection?” Thai doctors seem to hand out antibiotics like they were candy…whether they are needed or not. Not only is this utterly useless, but someday if a course of antibiotics is called for, the bacteria you want to kill may now be resistant to your prescribed treatment. I have patiently, oh so patiently, explained this little scientific fact to my wife, but because of a) the pitiful science education she received in school and b) her utter faith that “Because they are doctors, they must know better than you”, she continues to believe what she is told. I of course take the only option open to me and flush the stupid antibiotics down the toilet. Sam of course always recovers without the slightest complication.

Two positive things you can say about Thailand when talking about medicine are that a) you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to get drugs from a pharmacy and b) Thailand allows the importation and manufacture of many generic drugs that are not available back in Farangland. Regarding the first point, back in the U.S. simply to renew a prescription after three refills required that I revisit the doctor that wrote it. I don’t know what an average office visit costs now, but before moving here that would set me back about $100. Regarding generic drugs, some cardiovascular medications like Zoccor or Plavix were, and remain today very expensive. Here in LOS the generic equivalents are extremely affordable.

After my scathing description of the government hospitals, you may be surprised to hear me now tell a warm a fuzzy tale about how well I have been treated at one here in Lampang. For the record, there are two government hospitals here. I won’t give the name of the one that almost killed me. The other one that I will refer to now is called Lampang Hospital. I will credit my wife for getting through the doors here to begin with, given my reluctance to go there on my own.

If you read the last two submissions I listed a few paragraphs back, you can find out in detail about the medical care I’ve been getting. I’ll just say here that through my wife’s efforts and the efforts of people she knows who work in the hospital I now am entitled to free medical care. I have been getting both traditional physical therapies for neck and back pain along with traditional Chinese therapies which include acupuncture. I also get free office visits to other doctors, including a cardiologist, an urologist, and a dermatologist. Best of all…and get ready for this one…all of my daily medications are now 100% free! Hell, even with generic equivalents I was paying over 5000 baht a month for these. Now I don’t pay a single baht! I know someone must be asking, “Sawadee, you are a Farang. How in the world are you entitled for all of this”? The short answer is that I am over sixty years old, and I pay taxes here in good old Thailand.

To summarize my feelings about the state of medical care in Thailand, I would have to say it is hit or miss in the public facilities, and good to excellent in the private ones. It helps always to read up on your medical situation. If nothing else you can carry on an intelligent discussion with your doctor…and perhaps you can spot something amiss before disaster strikes!

Oh, while not medical in the precise meaning of the word, I would like to say a thing or two about optical care. I’ve been wearing reading glasses for almost twenty years now, and fortunately my eyesight has remained good overall. I’ve had to have a few pairs of glasses made while I’ve lived here, and have never run into a problem as far as the lens are concerned, but every pair of frames I’ve ever bought has never lasted. No matter how well I protect them…they are always in a hard case when not in use, they always seem to bend. In Lampang there are more opticians than you would think possible for a town this size. I swear you can’t swing a cat without hitting a branch of one of the major eyeglass shops. I’m sure the very same ones are all over Thailand. Every time a pair of frames wears out I always ask for some that are ruggedly constructed. No, I don’t want designer frames. WTF do I care about what is featured in some stupid magazine? Those in my opinion are overpriced; often butt ugly and not the least bit better design wise. I once saw a BBC documentary that showed a single factory turned out every single brand of designer frames on the market. Even the manufacturer admitted that there was not anything special about any of them…except for the labels. Anyway, the shop girls…who are always pretty and always wear white jackets, as if to give them some technical panache, always show me the same old junky frames. Perhaps it’s just me but they never seem to understand what I mean by ruggedly built. Oh well, at least the frames are not very expensive so I guess I’ll just keep on replacing them.

Stickman's thoughts:

Lampang sure is a pleasant town and it is amazing that there are so (relatively) few foreigners residing there. Of course the reason for that – the unspoken reason of course – is that girls from Lampang don't offer themselves for sale in places where foreigners typically go…

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