As I lay back on the bed, the first pert young Thai woman lent over me; she undid the buckle of my belt, unzipped the fly, and gently tugged my pants down a few inches. Her buddy sitting beside her looked down approvingly at my bare torso, poured warm lotion onto my belly and started to slide a smooth curved object sensually up and down. She glanced over to a TV screen. “Your bladder is still not full,” she announced. “Please drink some more water and come back in half an hour.”
I was escorted back to the waiting area at Station 5 (Imaging). On the next row of seats a wizened member of the Taliban fingered his beard and turban sheepishly as a lithe junior nurse cajoled him. “Mr Rashid, drink water now.” Next to him, a woman cloaked entirely in black, with her nose and mouth obscured by one of those creepy, beak-like masks they wear in the Gulf, monitored the scene warily (maybe – who knows?). In the next row a young Arab man of no more than 25 slumped over two generous-sized padded seats; he had previously waddled in from the Diagnostics area where it could not have escaped notice that he weighed a good 350 pounds. Just opposite me, a Thai-Chinese girl in T-shirt and shorts flicked through a Bangkok glossy magazine and sipped urgently from a Bumrungrad Hospital-branded plastic bottle.
There is a sub-culture of people stretching from the Middle East, across Southeast Asia and into Greater China who make an annual pilgrimage to Sukhumvit Soi 3 to have their blood pressure, urine, chests, heart and other body parts and fluids examined by the mainly female, youthful and rather becoming staff at Thailand’s number-one private hospital. Out of curiosity I decided to infiltrate them, posing as a member of the hypochondriac end of the medical tourism milieu.
It takes a morning (old hands recommend turning up when the place opens at 7am), and works pretty much like clockwork. Clutching your sheet of boxes to be ticked (‘cashier’, ‘electrocardiogram’, ‘ultrasound’), you are guided clockwise around the 11th floor, being stethoscoped, having blinding light shone into your eyes, trotting on a treadmill with cables attached to your chest, getting X-rayed, peeing into a little plastic jar, and all the rest of the prodding and poking. Halfway through, you pause in the comfortable if excessively healthy snack bar to catch up on the breakfast you had to skip in order to give a pure blood sample. The seriously keen – over half the patients passing through, though fewer of the Arabs – can don beige hospital tunics to add an extra dash of clinical ambience to the experience.
In the afternoon you go in for your results. You get a booklet full of seismograph-type heartbeat printouts, lists of blood and urine contents, scans of what they swear are your liver, prostate and other innards, and fun facts (who’d have thought I had hepatitis B immunity?). The doctor assigned as yours, though you barely see him up to now, quickly talks you through it. In my case all was normal and fine, except the poor guy obviously had terrible eyesight and actually imagined that I was a bit overweight. As if his credibility weren’t sufficiently in tatters, he then added that the recommended daily intake of beer is one can. I humoured him. Indeed, for just 15,000 Baht (a full check-up for a male), it was an unexpected dose of mirth to round off what had already been a highly entertaining day.
Last week also entailed a meeting with semi-distant family, a mildly adventurous train ride to a fishing town (suggested by the Wally Wilde Travel Advisory) and a series of slightly cholesterol-laden meals at authentic, spacious and pretty cheap Middle Eastern restaurants – an appealing by-product of the hospital’s presence. But the most interesting part of the Bangkok trip was penetrating the Bumrungrad cult. Now I know what the aficionados are talking about. It’s morbid; it’s sexy; it’s, well, different. You can see why they do it every year, even if you do have to buckle yourself up after the ultrasound.