Friday, January 29, 2010

The last of Laos and Thailand

Finally, wireless internet! And in case you're wondering, I named it "Fatline". props to anyone who can identify which science fiction novel that's from. It was a toss-up between that and "Ansible."

Here's the last of the trip to Thailand. Enjoy.
With all the poking, prodding, shoving and slapping going on, you'd think it was Naughty Hour at kindergarten. Instead, it's just the Jomtien Beach roving gang of massage therapists assaulting tourists both physically and with their cheerful cries of "Hello, darling, you want massage?" Jomtien is the quieter, older beach of the Pattaya beach complex; Pattaya itself is where the crazy blinking neon and endless parade of ladyboys apparently happens, when it's not on Sukhumvit in Bangkok, that is.

This is the beach resort of middle Thailand, and if you don't like being contorted into a "relaxing" position by a masseur/euse, there's the second most popular activity here in Jomtien: listening to Russians shouting. There are a lot of Russians here...the signs are in Russian and Thai in some places. The way you can tell when someone is Russian is because they are shouting; also because usually they will cut in front of you in line without giving you more than a glance that basically says, "You are so far beneath me I can't even see that low."

Okay, so maybe I am engaging in blatant cultural stereotyping...but the French people aren't shouting. They're just quietly looking more cultivated and sleek than everybody else (see how I slipped in another cultural stereotype?). The Thai definitely aren't shouting, and the British are too overwhelmed with heat and humidity and the crush of humankind to speak, let alone shout. There don't seem to be many other Americans here, or at least, I haven't heard anyone speaking unaccented English, although there seem to be some Scandinavians, mostly in the company of young ladies wearing extremely short shorts.

So what is there to do in Jomtien other than find a short-shorted lady friend? Get a massage. Listen to shouting. There's also diving, which is not very good here compared to the rest of Thailand; basically, all the serious divers go to the islands in the south, where they can engage in the main diving activities: a) diving, b) getting impossibly muscular, tan, and blonde, c) drinking, and d) having sex with each other and every remotely attractive paying customer. These do not always have to happen in this order, but they definitely have to happen; divers are invariably about twenty years old and all very good looking, so being in large diving communities tends to make one feel inadequate. Which then leads to taking a bunch of drugs and dancing semi-clothed at a Full Moon party on the beach in Phuket. So diving is a risky business.

Jomtien is supposedly very small, although the sort of culture shock I suffered from doing a rapid transition from Don Khon to Bangkok must be felt to be believed. With each new conveyance that brought me to a yet larger city, I thought "Surely it can't get bigger than this." In Pakse, I marveled at the rampant availability of...well...everything. There were plastic baskets and t-shirts and food on grocery store shelves, all RIGHT THERE, and you didn't even have to buy it off a guy on a motorcycle. After the aircon bus to Ubon, I stared, stupefied, out the window of my fancy pickup truck transfer, goggling at the bright lights and cars. Cars! There are CARS in Thailand. In Laos, everybody rides motorcycles; there are cars, but nothing nearly like so many as there are in Thailand. Then, as my overnight train chugged its way to Bangkok, the roof of my head lifted off. It's amazing how only three or four days completely separated from all the trappings of civilization can make you forget it exists.

Oddly enough, it felt much slower on the way out...away from the cities. The slow easing into Ubon was a boon after busy, crazy Bangkok, and then Pakse felt even quieter yet. Don Khon basically kept me hammock-bound and isolated, but in the best possible, most sleepiest way. Jomtien was, despite being the sleepier of the two town options -- Jomtien and Pattaya -- full of neon lights and harassment and the smell of diesel, and motorcycle taxi-men picking their teeth on the side of the road, and the neverending parade of scantily dressed tourists. For the modest Thai, who go in the water with their clothes on, it must seem somewhat horrifying.

I walked along the curving sea path my first night in town and listened to the waves; it was dusk, so the folding chairs that jostled for space like so many New York businessman in an elevator had been folded and put away, and the air was cool and sizzling with the smell of cooking bananas. I stood on the rocks looking out at the ocean, seeing the tiny clip of a sliver moon, and felt totally at peace.

Too bad that was shattered the next day when the diving company, Mermaid's Dive, which was supposed to pick me up at the hotel between 8 and 8:15 am, failed to show. I waited. And waited. Then walked down to their office, which had a cheery sign on it that said, "Gone diving!" which just made me grind my teeth. Then I discovered from a map taped to their door that their main office was literally a block from my hotel...IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. So I walked back up there and man, were they happy to see me -- they'd been looking for me, I'd been looking for them, it was all nuts, so they kitted me up quickly (very quickly -- I ended up with a size medium wetsuit, which is approximately four times too big for me. I usually take an extra small) and a lovely New Zealander took me in his pickup to the pier where I hopped onto the boat, which was waiting for me.

Full of the usual assortment of smartass divemasters either ascending or descending the star towards their diving instructor certification, I bobbed my way up to the top sunroof as we headed for the island an hour and a half away. Here is a trick of the trade: if you want to see cool stuff while you're diving, flirt with the dive leader. That's not the only reason to flirt with the dive leader, since usually he (rarely she) is young, tan, muscled, and often possessing of an endearing English, Scottish, Australian, or Canadian accent. But when you flirt with the dive leader, he makes sure you see the puffer fish first or amuses you by hanging upside down and then diving is loads of fun. You know when else it's loads of fun? When I'm not overweighted. I never remember how much weight is right (answer: 3 kilos), so I always start out way overweighted, furiously struggling to use my breath to control my porpoising buoyancy and stop myself from drifting down onto the caltrops of sea anemones. You can supposedly remove weights underwater, but as a diving lightweight with only like 12 dives under my belt, I, um, well, it makes me nervous. What if I shoot to the surface?

So afterwards, I spent a lovely few hours on the boat impressing the divemasters with terrible offensive jokes and generally making friends, and then they invited me to come to Mermaid Talay after I'd showered, the dorm where the diving fraternity sleeps. When I got back to my hotel, with the genial laughter fading from my ears, I was alone in my room and realized the chest pain I'd thought was from rubbing straps had intensified, and I felt like there wasn't enough air in each breath I took. Immediately panicking seemed like a bad idea, so I showered, got dressed, then walked back to the dive center, figuring if I was dying, it would be better to do it among divers and not alone in a hotel room where no-one would find me.

They ran me through the DCS and barotrauma tests -- I didn't have any symptoms, including bad diving (no rapid ascents, no wild fluctuations in depth) so we weren't really worried, but the shop owner (fyi, the shop owners are never drunken carousing types. They did all that already) took my pulse, then had the clinic next door take my pulse, and everyone was concerned that it was high. It was a little over 100...and pretty much stayed there for something like the next eight hours. I drank some water, tried to relax, joined the divemasters for a soothing bite to eat where we discussed ladyboys in intensive depth (no, really, the operation lets you choose how deep you want it to go: 4, 6, 8, or 10 inches), and then they brought me up to the fourth floor Talay so I could wander between their rooms and see them all changing each other's desktop wallpaper to pictures of men with huge naked penises gleaned from Google Images. While drinking unrefined Thai rum straight from the bottle. And smoking.

Then they took me to Walking Street, the red light (even red-lighter than Bangkok, really) district in Pattay, assuring me we would keep it low key so I could rest, which we did: lots of sitting in bars watching impassive women pretend to enjoy forming a five girl daisy chain of cunnilingus. My favorite was how the girls seem to mostly just switch their weight from leg to leg while chatting with each other, sort of in time to the music, rather than actually dancing. My second favorite was the little numbers on disks they all have strapped to them somewhere. These are not strip clubs per se; often the girls are already naked, anyway. They're just bars where EVERYTHING is for sale; the numbers are on the girls so you can order them like a drink, and they can even be added to your tab. Some of them have fake breasts; most don't. Most look bored. At one point, one of the totally inebriated divemasters leaned over and shouted, "They look like they're having fun, don't they?" in reference to two girls dressed in sparkly angel costumes faux-giggling and smacking each other with big foam floggers, which they sometimes also directed towards the large fiberglass banana they were straddling. I almost laughed and said, "Are you kidding?" They look like they're WORKING, only their job is to make you think they're having fun.

But by this point, the pain in my chest was becoming inarguable. My heart rate was speeding and speeding, slowing down, then racing again, especially when I coughed. I could breathe fine, although it still felt like I wasn't getting enough air, and I needed to lie down. So I left the divemasters with my apologies and took a baht bus, what Jomtien and Pattaya call songthaews, back to my hotel, where I promptly fell apart. My heart was speeding, I had this pain in my chest, which hurt and hurt and HURT, not in a stabbing way, but definitely present.

So I took another baht bus to the hospital.

Bangkok is actually a beacon of modern medicine for all of Asia, which I knew before I got there; far from the thatched roof with chickens on it that people are probably imagining, it was instead an immaculate and friendly, desolately empty emergency room, with nurses wearing outfits straight out of Star Trek. They showed me in, wai-ed me (that's the greeting that looks like Namaste, but not over your heart), laid me out on a bed, pulled a blanket over me, and took my blood pressure (fine) and pulse (still about 102), and then a very nice, softspoken doctor came over and listened to my heart and lungs with his stethoscope (heart sounded fine, although fast, no arrythymia, lungs sounded a bit congested but no crackling indicating fluid). Then they gave me an EKG, which was sorta fun. I could walk and talk and had good balance and no dizziness or numbness or tingling. I also don't drink alcohol or smoke, and exercise frequently. I'm not obese, or even overweight. My thyroid UNDERfunctions occasionally, which would make me sluggish, not give me a racing heartrate.

The doctor said he thought it was nothing to worry about, and gave me some anti hypertension pills to calm the heart rate down, and Lorazepam to help me sleep (whee!) and some stuff for the cough. The EKG was normal (although still on the high end) and with no other real symptoms of anything serious (no frothy blood in the mouth or disorientation, etc), they sent me back to the hotel under orders to take it easy and sleep.

Total cost for emergency room visit, doctor, nurses, blood pressure, EKG and medications? You Canadians are probably baffled at the idea that emergency care costs anything, but Americans are probably cringing in anticipation. The total cost was 835 baht. Which is actually less than $30 US. They called me a taxi, which cost me about $8, and I went home and collapsed facefirst onto the bed.

So the final diagnosis is: I don't know what, if anything, is wrong with me. It's probably just the slight cold I had mixed with residual bronchitis (for which I am still taking antibiotics) mixed with strange pressures on the body from diving mixed with dehydration that combined to create the perfect storm of weirdness. I still have tightness in my chest, which intensifies to pain when I walk too fast or too far. I'm coughing a lot. But my heart rate is stable (low stable).

UPDATED TO ADD: I went to the doctor here in Perth, too, and she gave me some more antibiotics, antacids, antiphlegmatics, expectorants, cough syrup with codeine, and a ventalin inhaler with a spacer to allow the ventalin to reach my lungs a lot. As of today, January 29, I've got an occasional tickling cough and not, as my mother was afraid, a bacterial heart infection. the doctor thought it was mild grade walking pneumonia that just wasn't audible through the stethoscope yet.


erin said...

I was not a big fan of the Russians we saw in Japan. The ones at the temple were loud and pushy and ridiculously dressed, smoking and climbing on the buildings to take pictures of each different person in every possible combination, all while yelling across the 10 feet to each other with photo suggestions (I assume). The ones in the ryokan took the cable for the single Internet connection into the lounge every night and closed the door and stayed there for hours. So, pretty much the same as yours.

Tess said...

I'm glad you are feeling better. And I think EKG's are fun, too!!!

Anonymous said...

Yes... As an American, I spent a good hour cringing. $30 bucks? I need to move. Anyway, I'm glad you're feeling better and hopefully your health continues to improve.

MaggieMayDay said...

Hope you feel much better, very soon. Sick is no way to be.

Sounds like one of my asthma attacks,no fun. And hey, 100 IS my resting heart rate. Oh, yeah, that fat and old and immobile thing.

Susan Forbes Hansen said...

Oh pal, you had me scared even though I'd gotten your e-mail this morning, proving you were -- well, at least able to send e-mail.