by Don Mankin
It’s Colts 13, Houston 0 as the half winds down. My wife and I are watching Peyton Manning lead the Colts to yet another NFL victory on a big flat screen TV. Nothing strange about this, except it's Wednesday afternoon and we are sitting in the lobby of the Dental Hospital in the heart of one of the poshest districts in Bangkok. Like many other cash-strapped seniors, we are dipping our toes into the wave of the future with our first adventure in medical/dental tourism.
This is not my first dental experience in Thailand. In the late 1990s, on a flight to Thailand for a business trip, I cracked a temporary bridge eating some nuts. It didn’t hurt and wasn’t much of a problem at first, but as I talked and chewed, the sharp edge of the broken bridge jabbed into my tongue. The easy solution – don’t eat or talk for two weeks -- was not an option, so the first thing I did upon landing in Chiang Mai was to ask my colleague who met me at the airport to recommend a dentist.
The dentist office did not look promising. It was dark and dingy with equipment I hadn’t seen in years. The possibility of pain was the least of my worries, though. It was at the height of concern about the spread of AIDS throughout SE Asia, and I wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t get the disease from this hapless dental adventure. My heart started pounding and I broke out into a sweat. “Should I leave and risk looking like a wimp and insulting my colleague,” I asked myself, “or should I stay and risk pain and death?” The risk of embarrassment won out over the risk of pain and death, as it usually does for me.
As the dentist lowered my chair to get a better look, I gulped, or at least the closest thing to a gulp given the wad of cotton in my mouth. I caught a glimpse of my colleague in the waiting room smiling and waving to me as if I had nothing to fear. In just a few seconds I realized that he was right.
She was the most careful, cautious and gentle dentist to ever thrust hands into my mouth. I barely felt a thing as she filed down the sharp edge. It was all over in just a few minutes. She charged me five dollars for her work.
On a more recent trip to Thailand a few years ago, just as dental and medical tourism in the country were beginning to take off, another colleague explained to me how the Thais were able to develop such high level competence in dentistry and medical surgery. “When Thai women catch their husbands cheating on them,” he explained, “they cut off their penises while they are sleeping.” As a result, Thai doctors had a lot of practice reattaching the “offending member” and, in the process, developed world-class skills in microsurgery, skills that come in handy in gender reassignment, cardiovascular, and complex dental surgery. I don’t know if his explanation is accurate, but it sure got my attention.
This past fall my wife and I, facing looming dental bills, decided to give dental tourism in Thailand a try. Unlike the dental office years ago in Chiang Mai, the Dental Hospital in Bangkok is a gleaming white and chrome three-story building in Sukhumvit, the heart of the international district. Inside is an atrium, the waiting area, with a large man-made pond and a floor to ceiling wall of glass in the rear looking out on lush gardens and Koi ponds behind the building. The overall effect is serene, as serene as one can be while waiting for a dentist.
Most of the people in the lobby were Westerners, ergo the football game. For those not interested in American football, there is fast Wi-Fi access for those who bring their own laptops and a computer work station for those who don’t. This facility is clearly devoted to affluent Thais and tourists from the US, Europe, Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.
Katherine is the guinea pig for this experiment since her dentist in the States told her a few weeks earlier that she had two cracked fillings and needed to replace them with expensive crowns. After waiting for a few minutes in the atrium, she was ushered into an office where a dentist checked the X-rays, looked into her mouth and recommended, in excellent English, replacing the fillings instead. A second opinion, from another dentist across the atrium, was the same.
Over the next couple of weeks, Katherine returned three times to replace the two fillings in question and fill seven other cavities. The fillings were done so painlessly that Katherine – a serious dental chicken – only needed novacaine twice. She claims that it was the easiest, most comfortable, and pain and anxiety free dental work she has ever had. The total bill came to about a third of what it would have cost in Los Angeles and a tenth of the cost of the work recommended by her dentist in LA. Six weeks later, the fillings are still intact and trouble free.
The overall experience exceeded even our most optimistic hopes. Everyone on the staff – dentists, receptionists, technicians and others -- spoke excellent English and was professional, attentive, and meticulous. The dentists were gentle and reassuring and seemed to be sensitive to the kinds of concerns that wary Westerners might have, like the concerns I had years ago in Chiang Mai. We appreciated the efficiency of the inclusive team-oriented approach, with all services from general dentistry to complicated implants, all available under one, gleaming roof.
To make sure that our experience was not the exception, we spoke to a Western couple we met in the waiting area. They told us that they live in Hong Kong but travel to Bangkok at least once a year for medical and dental procedures and exams and are very satisfied at the results, and especially the cost.
The overall experience was so positive that we almost look forward to doing it again next year. Hard to believe we are actually talking about going to the dentist….
Don Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. The Wall Street Journal called his latest book, Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic, 2008), “one of the best travel books to cross our desk this year.” For more information on Don or Riding the Hulahula, check out his website www.adventuretransformations.com.
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