Bangkok, Thailand. 22nd January 2019
After the x-ray at Luang Prabang hospital, and the decision of the doctor that I should go to Bangkok, I was put in a side ward for the night. I rang up my insurance company and they said they’d speak to the hospital about transferring me. Meanwhile another patient came into the room and was very carefully, and painfully, moved from a stretcher onto the other bed. Jackie, and her husband Andy, had travelled from Thailand by river and had then taken a tuk tuk to their hotel. En route it had crashed into a lamppost. They said the driver had been very erratic before the crash and that it was just as well the lamppost was there other wise it would have gone over the edge of the road and down into a busy restaurant. They think he was drunk. The tuk tuk was a van with an open back, which had seating along each side. Unfortunately Jackie had been at the end of the seat,by the cab, with three large guys next to her. The impact caused them to crush her against it. The initial diagnosis was of two hairline fractures in her pelvis and three broken ribs. I wasn’t surprised that she was in pain! I felt a bit of perspective arriving regarding my own injuries. They asked me about my arm and the conversation revealed that Andy used to ride motocross and one of his friends used to ride a CCM. He gave up riding long ago but, as most ex-riders are, he couldn’t help but be interested in what I was up to. It was nice to have someone to talk to. They were on a post retirement journey around SE Asia, now brought to a painful halt. Jackie wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
A relatively peaceful night was followed by a frustrating morning. Still no pain so I focussed on trying to work out what was happening. None of the staff knew what was going on and the doctor I’d seen wasn’t around. About 2pm a taxi turned up to take me to the airport. He didn’t know who’d arranged it so I got him to wait around while I tried to find out what was happening. I was worried about going on a journey about which I knew nothing and with no knowledge of who had arranged it or what my final destination was. Paranoia? A little maybe, but I didn’t like not being in control of my destiny. The taxi driver went away, saying he’d come back later. Eventually I found the original doctor who confirmed that I was going to Bangkok Hospital and that the insurance company had arranged everything. Good news! I said goodbye to Jackie and Andy and the taxi took me to the airport. I still had all my riding gear with me and I arranged for them to take it back to Tanoy guesthouse after dropping me off. The wonderful people there agreed to look after it until I could collect it at some unknown time in the future.
The flight was easy. I was met at Bangkok by a taxi which took me to the hospital. A woman was waiting for me in the foyer and she took me to A&E to begin the long process of feeding me and my injuries into the hungry machine of hospital bureaucracy. By the time I’d been booked in, checked over, x-rayed, pulled, pushed and prodded, it was 01.00 before I got to bed.
Next day was to be a very busy one. Because I’d had a motorcycle accident they decided to check all areas that might have been affected – head, neck, pelvis and abdomen. X-rays and CT scans on the bony areas, ultra sound on the soft parts. I was taken down for a full cardiogram and then an extremely comprehensive lung capacity test. There was nothing to worry about in any of those and I was pleased to have confirmed that my lungs work to full capacity given that I have mild asthma. The orthopaedic surgeon came to see me and explained how badly damaged my elbow was. The top of the ulna and the radius were both smashed up and the cup at the top of each bone, where they sit against the humerus, were partially broken off. He was confident he could effect repairs but didn’t know how things would be in the future. “Will I be able to ride my bike?”, was my immediate question. “Yes, but it’s likely to be painful. That’s because the cartilage in the joints has been damaged and some will be missing”, he explained. “But only time will tell.” He said they needed to operate straight away, otherwise inflammation quickly sets in and that makes operating more difficult. So at 2pm I was taken down for surgery. The anaesthetist explained what she was going to do, in went the needle and out went the lights.
I came round at about 21.15, after six and a half hours in surgery. I was in lots of pain and discomfort and spent the night drifting in and out of sleep, constantly asking for pain relief. By the morning the pain was worse! A doctor came round and adjusted the plaster splint, bringing immediate relief to my swollen arm and hand. They also set up a self managed morphine supply. That was nice! The surgeon came to talk me through what he’d done and he showed me the x-ray so I could see all the metalwork inside. He checked that I could move my hand and fingers satisfactorily, meaning that there was no nerve damage. I’d be stuck with the plaster splint for four weeks, then I’d get a light weight plastic and metal splint, enabling me to start moving the elbow. It would be around four to five months before I’d be able to ride my bike. He explained how some of the cartilage had been carried away by the broken bone and that because it had no blood supply, would not be able to repair itself. The operation wounds had been stapled together and he cleaned them up then put the splint back on. The x-rays will give you an idea of how bad the damage to the bones is.
Bangkok Hospital is a swank private hospital and I was in a very comfortable room, with cable TV, en suite bathroom and three meals a day. At first I didn’t eat much but that improved as the pain subsided. I only used the morphine for one day in the end. But I was running a temperature because the wound had become infected. They were drip feeding me antibiotics so I was tethered to the bed. I had a few days of fighting the fever, and generally feeling rough. Eventually my temperature came down. A tropical diseases doctor came to check me out, in case I’d caught something nasty. She took a swab and some blood to go for testing. When the results came back, all was clear so I was able to go onto antibiotic tablets. I was released from the drip and was free to wander at last. The surgeon came to check me daily and clean the wounds. He was happy with progress. I had twice daily visits from a physiotherapist, to walk me around and to do some gentle exercises on my arm. I was amused by how he insisted I wear a belt so that he could hold me, in case I fell over. The arm exercises where really about keeping my shoulder mobile and strong, and also my fingers and wrist. Far too early for any movement of the elbow. So time drifted by in a medically routine sort of way. Regular checks of my vitals; regular visits from the surgeon; occasional visits from the tropical diseases doctor; regular administration of antibiotics. Lots of TV to watch and internet surfing to be done. The one thing I didn’t do this time was to post about my injuries on Facebook. In the past I’ve been happy to post x-rays and pictures, along with some flippant comments. This time was different. With my other fractures I knew I’d heal up OK so could afford to be light hearted. But the damage to my elbow could be a game changer. I may end up with restricted movement and be in pain when I ride, especially off road. I did not feel in the least bit flippant about that. So my news was only shared with those close to me.
On the day after my operation I had a visitor. Andy called in to see me! Jackie was in a room on the same floor. They had been flown in by Lear jet as she had to be kept lying down. Her injuries were worse than initially thought. She had three pelvic fractures and six broken ribs, one of which had punctured the outer membrane of a lung. After a few days they pinned her pelvis and put in a drain to sort out her lung. When she was well enough she’d be flown back to England. But their presence gave me the chance to socialise and we had some great conversations about travelling, bikes and the world in general. They’d both been nurses but had managed to take early retirement in their fifties. They were on a three month round Asia trip when the accident happened, now postponed for the time being. But Jackie will fully recover and they’ll carry on with their other plans soon enough.
Moritz, my friend from Vietnam and Laos, lives in Bangkok so I contacted him to tell him my sad tale. He came round to see me, full of sympathy, and I enlisted his help with my laptop. He works with computers as a living so I hope he could help. Why did I need him? Well, a couple of days earlier I’d felt well enough to dig out my laptop only to find it was bent like a banana. I don’t know how it had got like that but when I powered it up I wasn’t too surprised to find that the screen didn’t work. I asked Moritz if he could plug it in to a monitor and copy off the small amount of data I needed. One of the first jobs on my release would be to replace it.
Talking of release, that particular occasion crept ever closer. I wasn’t looking forward to independent life as a one armed man, but the doctors were getting ever happier with my condition and were running out of reasons that could persuade my insurance company to pay for my hospital hospitality. The final total at time of discharge, which included some out patient treatment and the cost of my exo-skeleton type splint, ended up at just under £25,000. There would be much more to come as the months went by. A word of advice. DON’T travel without insurance! They had offered to repatriate me but I didn’t want that. Winter in England, unable to drive, compared with recovering in warm and sunny Thailand? No contest. I had friends down in Pattaya (about 100kms away) and my plan was to go there when I felt mobile enough. My friend Dave and I had already been drawing up plans to repatriate my bike from Laos back to Plodd Stop, his overlander base. I’d heard from Kai, the tourist guide from Laos who’d stopped to help me. He assured me the bike and luggage were safely stored and he sent me some photos of the damage, which wasn’t actually too bad. I could have gone to Pattaya almost straight away but the surgeon needed to see me regularly so I decided to stay in Bangkok. I found a hotel near the hospital and began the second phase of my recovery.
It was the 2nd February when I left the hospital, eleven days after I arrived, and I stayed in Bangkok for another month, in the end. I’d booked into the hotel for a week, in a nice room with a fridge and air con. But there was very little nearby to see or do. There were some food stalls and, of course, a few 7-11s, but not much else. This was a Muslim area, with a mosque just across the road, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 5am call to prayer seemed to be very muted. The odd thing was that some of the 7-11s didn’t sell alcohol. A bit of cultural sensitivity on the go I suspect, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I had a busy week, all things considered. Moritz came round to visit and gave me some suggestions as to where I could get a new laptop, number one on my list of priorities. You can manage with a phone for a while, but it’s very unsatisfactory. Like trying to cook a three course dinner on a camping stove. On Monday I went down to Printip Plaza, a place full of electronics stores – phones, computers, CCTV etc. At JIB Computers I found a Lenovo 520s laptop that suited my needs. It was bigger and therefore heavier, than my old one, but I got it at a good price, including some upgrades. This store was able to set up a VAT refund, meaning that provided I left Thailand via an airport within three months, customs would refund the sales tax. I felt much better now I was reconnected properly with the world and setting it up gave me something to do.
On Tuesday I went to the hospital and the surgeon removed the staples from the operation wounds. I had expected this to hurt. I mean, pulling bits of metal out of your skin must be painful. Not so. He used a tool that seemed to crimp them a bit then pull them out, and the discomfort was no greater that pulling out a hair. He wanted to see me again on Friday to check the wounds and also gave me the good news that he would take off the heavy plaster splint in two weeks time. That date was circled on my calender in red! I went up to see Jackie and Andy for a long chat. She was getting better and would soon be ready to fly. I’d taken a taxi to the hospital but I walked back having decided I needed the exercise. At my Friday visit to the hospital the surgeon said he was pleased with how the wounds were healing and also with the movement in my elbow. He got me to move the elbow back and forth and to push against his hand. Some discomfort but no actual pain. He told me I could lose the plaster splint on the 18th February. I was pleased about both of those things. I made my last visit to Jackie and Andy. She’d been hobbling around on crutches and would be going home in a few days. I was very pleased for her. I’d now decided to move further into the city, determined to be in a busier place, with more things to do. I was getting really bored.
My new hotel was the same price but had a smaller room, reflecting its location closer to the centre of things. It lay within an area that seemed to be nothing but shopping malls. The hotel was inside a wholesale clothes market and most of the clientèle seemed to be there for the purpose of stocking up, judging by the number of boxes, bags and enormous suitcases they all seemed to have. The alleyway to the hotel entrance had a constant flow of young guys who had their backs or trolleys laden with bundles of clothes, and I often had to dodge scooters similarly burdened. The narrow road outside, just wide enough for two cars to pass, had plenty of small shops and cafés, great places for a cheap meal. Most of the plazas were fashion malls and they invariably had a food court. Also great places for cheap meals, as well as people watching. I became a regular at the one just across the road, as I did at a breakfast café just down from the hotel. The aforementioned Printip Plaza was nearby, as were a couple of others that I managed to buy some essentials at. The days slipped by much more quickly now I had things to do and see, and places to go.
One day I felt the need to do something touristy so I went to find a place that Jackie and Andy had recommended, the Jim Thompson House and Museum. Jim (AKA The Thai Silk King) was an American who fought in Europe in WW2 and was then posted to Bangkok. He fell in love with Thailand. He discovered the craft of hand woven silk and decided it needed to be better known in the wider world. He was highly gifted as a designer and textile colourist and contributed hugely to the industry’s growth and to the world wide recognition it has today. As an architect, his other love was old Thai buildings. He had a compound next to one of the canals and he chose, and had moved there, six traditional teak buildings from various parts of the country. Most of them were at least two centuries old and were restored using traditional materials.
He honoured the old Thai ways by setting them out according to religious teachings and moved in to the finished compound in 1959, on a day decreed as auspicious by astrologers. He filled them with Thai art, eventually opening them to the public, with the proceeds donated to projects relating to the preservation of Thai culture and heritage. Unfortunately he disappeared one day in 1967 while on holiday in the Cameron Highlands, down in Malaysia. There is no clue as to what happened and his body was never found. Conspiracy theorists talk about kidnapping, murder and possible CIA involvement but nobody really knows. Fortunately the foundation set up in his name continues his work. More info here.
One Friday I went for a walk down to Siam Paragon Plaza, a very upmarket shopping centre. The attraction was the supermarket within, where I was hoping to find some decent teabags. I managed to do that alright, but at £3 for a box of twenty five I decided that the local Liptons Yellow Label would continue to suffice. But apart from the shock of those prices, I had confirmed for me just how much money there is in Thailand’s capital city. Up on the second floor, in the Mens’ Section, I found a BMW and a Bently dealer. Next door was a shop selling Ferrari clothing etc. Part of the display inside included a very bright red F1 race car. Probably not for sale though. There was a huge section dedicated to golf and other sports and pastimes, all with a male orientation. The prices were comparable to top level European stores, so maybe those tea bags fitted right in with the target audience for this very upmarket place. I beat a retreat, feeling decidedly down market in my traveller’s attire.
On the way back I passed by yet another big mall called Centre World. There was clearly something going on outside, with stalls, a stage and ….. motorbikes! Lots of motorbikes. By luck I’d come across the Bangkok Motorcycle Festival, a three day event running over the weekend. In this day and age these shows tend to be about custom bikes. Once upon a time that would have meant big engines, most often Harley Davidson, with raked forks, ape hanger bars and peanut tanks. Fortunately those boring days are long gone and owners now let their imaginations run riot. Airhead BMWs seem to be very popular and I saw some really nicely designed examples of this German classic. One bike I was intrigued by seemed to be based on a Honda 110cc Postie Bike, with an extremely low frame. The wheels were the most unusual feature. They had a solid centre disc with the rims running on roller bearings that ran around the edge of the disc. On the rear wheel the sprocket was mounted on the edge of the rim and was massive. Sadly this one didn’t appear in the custom competition so I didn’t get to see how it coped with moving. It would have been fascinating.
Walking round the parking area I saw lots of bikes parked in ‘gangs’. Lots of KTMs, all in a row. Or Yamaha scooters, parked in clusters, with Triumphs lined up nearby. South East Asians are big on forming owners’ clubs and seem to enjoy ride outs to events like this. Perhaps the most surprising was a group of Honda Monkey Bikes, most of them orange. Google reveals that the collective noun for monkeys can be a troop, a barrel, a carload or a cartload. They looked like a troop to me, all neatly parked up in a row. I got the impression the organisers are well prepared for these groups and make sure there’s enough space for their collectivist approach to showing off their particular allegiance.
Walking among the stalls, which were mostly selling the usual biker goodies, I came across Nathan and his lovely wife Jar. They had met while working at the British Embassy but Nathan has designed, and sells, a comfort seat which he calls Comfi Cheeks. It’s based around the idea of having a cushion made with small air pockets inside, which can be blown up, by mouth, to suit the road and the rider. Very similar to the Airhawk seat I already have. But his design is much more secure on the bike’s seat because the base is strapped firmly on and then the cushion is attached by Velcro. To prove the point I’d already discovered that my Airhawk seat had been ripped off from its securing straps during the crash. I was so impressed with Nathan’s design I bought one! In the stall next door was Gavin, another Brit who came here twenty six years ago, as an engineer, to help set up a GM car factory. He spotted a gap in the market for quality parts and tools so he filled it. I enjoyed a beer with these guys (from Nathan’s secret supply) and a great chat. I got the impression they enjoyed meeting a travelling, biking Brit.
On Monday I was back to the hospital for the absolute pleasure of having the plaster splint finally removed, to be replaced by the much lighter plastic and metal one. The greatest thing about this was that I could finally wash my arm and start to remove some of the dead skin. The surgeon was pleased with the movement I had, about thirty degrees back and forth. He gave me some exercises to do, with strict instructions not to overdo things. There was still a risk of the screws coming loose if I did. My next appointment would be in two weeks time and I headed back to my hotel with a lighter arm and a lighter heart.
The next two weeks slipped by, with me spending the time loafing around, walking around and catching up on some one handed typing. At the next hospital appointment the surgeon told me the joint wasn’t quite aligned correctly and I would get some problems, which worried me a bit. Early onset of arthritis and I would feel pain at times, but he assured me I will still be able to ride. That’s all that matters to me. He gave me some new exercises to do. I still had to be careful. He was worried about the screws coming loose if I overdid things.
Moving day came once more. Not merely ten kilometres to another hotel but one hundred, to another city, in this case Pattaya. I was going to stay at my friend Dave’s overlander base just outside Pattaya City. I was going to be to be among familiar faces and in a more relaxed and less polluted place. Bangkok suffers from very poor air quality. Being there would also enable me to work on the conundrum of repatriating my bike from Luang Prabang, which Dave was keen to help me with. Plodd Stop, so named because Dave and Lesley’s camper van was built around a former police prisoner transport bus, has rooms of various standard and Dave settled me in one of the single rooms, and at a very good price. He sorted out some extra facilities to help make my long stay more comfortable and I was soon feeling very much at home. My social life took an immediate turn for the better. Dave has plenty of friends in the area. In particular he plays pool in the team from the Old Bill Bar, a place it won’t surprise you to hear is run by a former policeman, named Glenn. I wasn’t quite up to playing pool yet but I was happy to go along and watch. There were plenty of shops nearby and some good places to eat too. The third phase of my recovery had begun.