It’s Mother’s Day here in Thailand, the Queen’s birthday, August 11. We are in Lamphun, a small, old city about twenty miles south of Chiang Mai. It was once its own kingdom, and has a moat and a reconstructed brick wall, with four gates at the four cardinal directions. We’re staying in a very nice hotel for $15 a night. It’s right across from the hospital in case I die during the night.
When we’re in Lamphun we like to go to the open-air night market which runs along part of the moat, near a park full of old-looking terra-cotta statues and brick structures that look like something from Ankor Wat. There is also a surprisingly sexy bronze statue of an ancient Thai queen. Evening approaches. Starlings swarm in the trees. Colored lights illuminate statues of elephants. People burn incense and pray in front of the statue of the sexy Queen.
We buy our evening meal at the market. It occurs to me that we don’t frequent supermarkets. They have them, mostly for foreigners and rich people, but we don’t use them, nor do most people. Most people buy produce, meat, fish, and prepared foods at local markets, which are everywhere.
As we climbed on the scooter to return to our hotel there was a grandmother standing nearby, holding a baby in diapers, and they were both watching the starlings swarm as night fell. I’ve seen this scene many times, grandparents holding babies in the evening simply watching people pass by, and I realized, we don’t see this kind of thing in America anymore. People are all indoors. They are sitting in air conditioning or in heated, carpeted rooms, watching television. If they are out of the house, they’re in their car, or in a mall.
But in the developing countries where I’ve spent the last seven years, Nicaragua, Paraguay and now Thailand, people are out and about, everywhere. Another person is only inches away. Women are more visible than men, because women tend to run the market stalls and do most of the family shopping. Sure, in America we have weekly farmer’s markets in our most enlightened communities, but only during the summer months, and there’s a precious awkwardness to them, as if everyone were painfully self-conscious about carrying a reusable bag and buying fruits and vegetables that were not yet encased in plastic. These farmer’s market events are organized and promoted by someone on the city payroll. Your property taxes at work.
The average American supermarket offers processed foods that are often worth less than the packaging that contains them. Take frozen pizza. The brightly printed box and the plastic sleeve inside are probably more expensive to create than the food they contain. Multiply that by most items in supermarkets and you can see why the American cost of living is so much higher than places like this.
Unlike their American counterparts, the Lamphun grandmother and baby who stood and watched dusk fall probably won’t be taking psychiatric medications anytime soon. As Thai citizens they can go to a clinic or be admitted to a government hospital for one dollar a day. It’s not VIP treatment. Long lines, no air-conditioning, but they’re not terrified of what might happen to them if they don’t have medical insurance. If I returned to America I would be partially covered by Medicare, but the deductibles would cost far more than paying out-of-pocket for care at a private hospital. Drugs and doctor’s fees here are about a twentieth of what they cost in the States.
I just bought a year’s refill of my blood pressure medicine for six dollars. You don’t need a prescription to buy most drugs at a pharmacy. Although they weren’t expensive, after reading a bunch of negative stuff about statin drugs I decided to stop taking them and simply eat garlic instead. Last time I had my cholesterol checked it was normal.
If I’m lucky, I’ll die here, in about thirty years, when I’m ninety-eight. My cremation will be handled by the neighboring temple. A pile of wood and in thirty minutes I’ll be smoke and ash.