I have never been in as much pain as I was on the first leg of my flight from London to Bangkok. What had been a toothache in the final days of my three-week visit to London had graduated to a throbbing pain that radiated through my entire skull. One of my molars was obviously staging a mutiny and, as soon became evident, toothaches and airplanes do not cozy bedfellows make. Not even Oman Air’s superb in-flight entertainment could distract.
It wasn’t until we landed in Muscat for our six-hour layover that relief was in my grasp. I hightailed it to the airport pharmacy where the pharmacist, perhaps fluent in the universal language of pain, took one look at my frantic eyes and the palm permanently cupped to the right side of my jaw and handed over salvation in the form of a tray of tiny pink pills. They got me the rest of the way to Bangkok and settled into our hostel, but I knew my relief was only temporary…
Perhaps, I should have been freaking out. I had just arrived in a foreign country, the first day of what was to be a three-month exploration of the region, and I needed a dentist. Badly. Luckily, there’s something about pain that numbs anxiety and eliminates confusion. The memory of the agony that had come before the Tiny Pink Pills was enough to keep me from avoiding what I knew I must do. So, I Googled the closest dentist — in retrospect, maybe I should have been a bit more discerning? — and set out from my hostel.
Bangkok is known for its medical tourism industry. Procedures tend to be less expensive in Thailand than in the developed world, so citizens of other countries — especially the relatively nearby Australia — come to Bangkok to have medical and dental procedures done at a fraction of the price than would be available in their home countries. My decaying tooth and I had inadvertently stumbled into this world.
The nearest dentist — the MOS Dental Clinic — was a quick, elevated-walkway stroll from my hostel. We were staying in Sukhumvit, a business district of Bangkok filled with skyscrapers. The dental clinic was tucked into one of these steel towers. Interestingly enough, the small clinic seemed to be completely run by women. The receptionist didn’t speak English, but the dentist did. It wasn’t long before I was in the dental chair, cloth draped over my face, and needle injecting local anesthetic into my gums. On my first visit the dentist drained the root canals, applied medication, and put in a temporary filling. The following evening I returned to have the root canals filled and a temporary crown put on for the rest of my Southeast Asian adventures.
I can’t claim it wasn’t a bit disconcerting to have my vision obscured, drugs pumped into my face, and to lie there unable to understand the back-and-forth chatter between the dentist and her assistant, but it was a positive experience overall. If I have any ill feelings surrounding the entire endeavor, they are related to the fact that my dentist at home had worked on that same tooth a month prior and that the almost $400 price tag of the root canal in Bangkok crippled my already tight budget right at the beginning of the trip. (Note: The procedure was more expensive because it was an “emergency.” I believe the average price of a scheduled root canal in Bangkok is less than that, though even $400 is much less than what I would have paid for the procedure at home in America.)
Still, there was something nice about putting my faith in these foreign strangers, perhaps even poetic given that it happened to be my first real experience in Thailand, and — despite the painful circumstances — it was a positive one. Yes, I was paying for a service, but it enabled me to interact with the culture in a way I wasn’t exactly planning to and wouldn’t have done otherwise. Travel isn’t just about seeing the sun rise over ancient ruins or living out the adventures you planned for yourself as a child. Inconvenience and, sometimes, even physical pain follow you wherever you go, as does the necessary humdrum of everyday life. Embracing that can be part of the adventure.