Friday, October 19, 2012

Perfect Teeth

I have always had perfect teeth.

No, seriously, I am not kidding*. No cavities. No braces—although it isn’t unheard of for people to assume that I have had braces. They’ve gotten a little less white than they used to be, after I became a coffee addict several years ago, but that’s only noticeable if you’re really looking for it. So, yeah, perfect teeth.

And then.

Then, it was Sunday evening, and I was eating leftover pad thai. Suddenly it felt like my teeth … slipped … for lack of a better word. And then there was a chunk of peanut in my mouth that didn’t crush like the other peanut bits did, so I spit it out into my napkin. A little lighter colored than usual, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

After we’d finished eating, I noticed something strange. Apparently a bit of food had gotten stuck onto one of my molars—a slightly sharp bit of food. Very weird, maybe some crazy bit of peanut? That’s the only hard thing in pad thai, or maybe one of the tiny shrimp. But I couldn’t pry it off my tooth with my tongue … or with my fingernail … I started getting a little concerned. As soon as I got Alexa down for the night, I brushed my teeth, hoping like crazy that the rough spot would go away.

It didn’t.

Instead, as I was brushing my teeth, I noticed something even worse: a tiny gap between the something-sharp-on-it tooth and the tooth behind it. I probed the other side of my mouth with my tongue—no gap there. I’ve never noticed a gap on this side either … and suddenly I remembered that slightly too white piece of really hard peanut. Apparently it wasn’t peanut at all.

I started feeling a little queasy. Now what? At home, I’d know exactly what to do: first thing in the morning, call the dentist, make an appointment, and get it fixed. Expensive? Probably. But simple. Here? I didn’t even know which dentist was health unit-approved.  And to make matters worse, we were on the eve of Pchum Ben, a 3-day holiday in which the spirits of the dead are thought to return and therefore must be honored and fed—a very big deal to Buddhist Cambodia. The medical unit at the embassy had sent an email the previous week letting us know that pretty much all medical facilities in Phnom Penh would be closed for everything but emergencies.

Can I just say now that I am so incredibly grateful to God that this break in my tooth did not affect the root, that it was just the enamel? There was no pain, just some anxiety. I was anxious about what foods to eat. I was anxious about the treatment for a broken tooth. I became very anxious when I read on one website that breaks that start at the bottom and go up, as this one seemed to because the top of the tooth was still intact, usually require the removal of the tooth, and then I’d need an implant and … I do NOT want to think about having a tooth pulled, or about having a metal screw inserted into my jaw, or about six months of recovery time before going back in for the next step of getting an implant … yeah, no, not thinking about that possibility. I much preferred the website that said for minor breaks, it usually is possible to use some kind of filling to repair the damage.

So, back to the story, my first thought was “find a dentist.” I have a friend who’s recently had dental work done locally, so I emailed her and asked for contact information. I also knew that the embassy and its health unit would re-open on Wednesday, and if it was an emergency, I could call our doctor, or the U. S. embassy doctor in Bangkok, but I didn’t really count this as an emergency, since there was no pain. Local dental facilities most likely would not re-open until Thursday, and I’d be surprised if I could get a non-emergency appointment before Friday. I had some time to figure things out, and Jeff preferred that I get a recommendation from the health unit. So I also sent an email to the health unit explaining the situation and asking for a referral.

I heard back from my friend on Monday and checked out the website for that dentist. I was impressed—I think it’s probably a top-of-the-line clinic. But on Wednesday, I heard back from the health unit. They had a list of two that they recommended—one that active duty military are required to use (we’re not military) and another that others often choose to use. But there’s a new British dentist at the first, SOS International, and our doctor would like some feedback on that new dentist. After a quick consultation with Jeff, the decision was made: I’d go to SOS.

So on Wednesday, I called SOS International, not really expecting an answer—I knew they were still closed for Pchum Ben. But there was an answer, so I asked for an appointment. Once I said for the third time that I needed a dentist and not a general practitioner (SOS is an all-fields-of-medicine clinic), the receptionist said that the dentist was all booked up for Thursday, could I wait until after Thursday? I said that I could, but I really wanted the earliest appointment available, as my tooth had broken. “Oh, let me call the dentist and see if you can come tomorrow.” I provided my phone number for a call-back. I received one, but it was just confirming what I’d already told them, and I was promised another call-back. That one never came.

On Thursday, I called back. I’m not sure if it was the same receptionist, but I don’t think it was—this one had better English and seemed more professional. We made an appointment for Friday morning at 9:30, the perfect time for me, as my housekeeper arrives at 9 and could care for Alexa while I was there. He even volunteered the fee amount. And then I told him that I didn’t need just a general consultation, my tooth was broken, and how would that affect the amount of money I should bring? “Oh, you need a dentist, not a general physician? I’m sorry, I was confused, let me check on the times available for that … we have tomorrow morning at 8:30. Can you come then?” I asked if there was a later time, but there wasn’t. That was the only time all day. I made a quick decision and hoped it would work out—yes, I’ll come at 8:30. Then I immediately went to my housekeeper and asked if she could come in at 8 instead of 9 on Friday. Yes. Sigh of relief.

I arrived at SOS International around 8:15 and followed the signs to the upper floor for the dental clinic. The receptionist, who spoke excellent English, gave me some forms to fill out—forms that would have been perfectly at home in any dental office in the States. After I completed and returned them, I looked around the waiting area, which was not particularly similar to the relatively plush waiting rooms in many American medical offices. It reminded me of the waiting room in the old hospital, since completely renovated, in my small hometown: very spartan and utilitarian, with white walls and floors, light colored furniture, a single television mounted on the wall, and medical posters for decoration.

I was called to the examining room maybe 10 minutes after my scheduled appointment time. It turns out that the new dentist from the UK is the only dentist currently on staff, and although I don’t recall her last name, her first name was easy enough for me to remember: Deborah. Dr. Deborah was friendly and professional. She examined my teeth, confirmed the one break, identified another tiny one that I still can’t find for myself, and asked if I grind my teeth—apparently my canines have a bit more wear than normal. She did x-rays to determine if there was an underlying decay problem that caused my tooth to break, but it turned out that there wasn’t. It just broke. The bad news: No real insight as to why it just broke. The good news: It could be repaired with a simple filling and should be good as new, or at least as close to it as it’s possible to get.

Dr. Deborah introduced me to some dental tools with which I’d never had reason to become acquainted: a blue mat to keep the saliva away from the tooth on which she was working, a brace to contain and shape the filling before it hardened. She tested out the brace for fit, then removed it before installing both it and the mat. It didn’t feel quite the same with the mat as it had without it, but I didn’t think too much of it … and then I swallowed. The brace flew across the room. Apparently that one didn’t fit right. Let’s try a smaller one.

The smaller brace didn’t work either. Apparently my teeth are too close together for it to fit properly with the mat. So we did it the less ideal way: without the mat, using a round something or another instead of the brace, and with lots of suction to keep the filling material as dry as possible until it could be hardened with ultraviolet radiation. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable 10 minutes or so as the filling was inserted, shaped, and hardened, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it could have been, either. After a little rinsing and polishing, I was good to go, with permission to eat and drink normally whenever I wanted.

As I waited at the receptionist’s desk to pay my $170 bill, I noticed something on Dr. Deborah’s biography. She had seemed particularly sensitive to cues that I was anxious, but I had attributed that to her personality or maybe her gender—she happens to be the first female dentist I’ve seen, and women stereotypically are more empathic than men. Her sensitivity to my anxiety may have had something to do with those things, but I’d be willing to bet it also had to do with her specialized training in treating phobic patients.

And on her own, without any prompting from me or any mention of my previous “perfect teeth” status, Dr. Deborah said: “And you can still say you have perfect teeth, since it wasn’t caused by decay.” I’m not sure I’d go that far … my teeth are no longer perfect, but they’re close enough for me.

*Well, there was that occasional sharp pain when biting down on something particularly difficult to chew. That happened so rarely and so briefly—the pain lasted about a nanosecond—that I never really paid attention to it. My later research told me that it was a symptom of a cracked tooth, and it should have motivated me to see a dentist as long ago as a year. My advice: If you ever experience pain in a tooth or in your jaw while chewing, see a dentist, and ask to have your teeth checked for cracks.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Caves, Mountains, and Monkeys: An Afternoon in Battambang

Monkeys at Phnom Sampeau

 We spent our last few sightseeing hours in Battambang on, in, and around a mountain: Phnom Sampeau, located around 11 miles from Battambang. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and the darkening skies were obscured by gray clouds and periodic rain. But we’re in Cambodia, and it’s the rainy season, so we counted ourselves lucky to have only periodic, light rain rather than the torrential downpours for which the season is famous. And the wet pavement definitely contributed to the excitement that was heading our way …

Our Adventure Jeep

Our tuk tuks could not take us up the mountain. At its base, amongst a bevy of food stalls, we transferred to motos for most and a Jeep for those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) brave the motos. There was one Jeep, with five empty seats, and it quickly filled with five small children and their mothers—yes, Alexa and I were among them, though it wasn’t long before I started wondering if we’d have been safer on a moto, with Alexa nestled on her father’s back in her carrier, like another girl her age made the journey. We were the last into the Jeep, so we slid onto one of the benches lining the back, taking our places on the seat beside the open rear, just in front of the Cambodian man who hopped onto the lowered tailgate. As we started up the mountain, I quickly realized that the way would be steep and bumpy, and my arms tightened around Alexa until she could barely breathe.  My overprotective instincts were vindicated when the little boy across from us bounced out of his mother’s arms and remained in the Jeep only due to her quick reaction, coupled with the quick reaction of the man behind us, who grabbed the boy before he bounced out of the Jeep and then changed his position so that he was crouching on the tailgate, holding to the top corners of the Jeep, providing as much of a back wall as he could. Just after this catastrophe was averted, one of the motos pulled up behind us. Before it passed, I saw the female passenger pumping her arms in exhilaration, then snapping a picture of us, unaware of what had just nearly happened—yes, the motos definitely would have been the way to go.

The Killing Cave*

We pulled up to a small wat and gratefully exited the vehicle. We spent a little time taking in the view from the wat before heading to the real reason we’d stopped there: the killing cave. Under the Khmer Rouge, mass murder occurred throughout the country, and the peaceful mountainside was no exception. Countless people were pushed down shafts into caves near the wat, with the fall itself, starvation, and dehydration as the murder weapons. Now, a path and a steep set of stairs lead visitors down into one of the caves, which now houses Buddhist prayer flags, a memorial stupa filled with victims’ bones, and a reclining Buddha. A side path leads to the shaft from which victims were thrown to their deaths.

Buddhist prayer flags outside the killing cave
After an appropriately solemn visit to the killing cave, we piled back into the Jeep for the trip to the top of the mountain. This part of the journey was more treacherous than the first. We almost made it. Halfway up the final hill, the Jeep came to a stop. I looked behind us at the precipitous hill, with a sharp turn at the bottom. The driver worked the clutch, with no success. We passengers offered to get out and walk the rest of the way. The driver ignored us and worked some more. The Jeep slid backward, halting several feet lower than it started. As a throng of men descended the hill to assist, women and children piled out of the Jeep and quickly vacated the area just behind it. A man grabbed Alexa, making it easier for me to exit (I’d snagged a seat near the front this time, so I was last out), and headed up the hill with her, toward a man who was handing out umbrellas. I rushed to catch up, but there were more men heading down than up, and it was difficult to move against the tide. When I eventually caught up with her, I expected her to be upset—she doesn’t like strangers—but she seemed unaware of anything but the fact that she was no longer in the Jeep, which was enough to make her happy. We rejoined Jeff at the top of the mountain to take in the views of and from the temple and the Golden Stupa.

The Golden Stupa**

The temple perches on the very top of the mountain and has a couple of elevated platforms that provide amazing views of the surrounding farmland. The nearby stupa houses the remains of a former governor of Battambang Province, but I didn’t go explore it. A few steps on the slippery-when-wet tiled courtyard were enough to convince me that the less I walked around, the better. Instead I appreciated the beauty of the area from near the entrance. Jeff and a few others took the plunge to visit the nearby Beautiful Cave, although most declined after being told that the stairs were steep, long, and treacherous in the wet weather. I stood around chatting with a few other women while we waited. Then we hopped back into the Jeep for a less adventuresome trip down the mountain to an area where macaques gather in hopes of snagging bananas from tourists.

One of the many monkeys that posed for us
The monkey viewing definitely was my favorite part of Phnom Sampeau. Dozens of macaques congregated in the trees (and ropes strung in them) near vendors selling bunches of bananas. When a tourist purchased a bunch, he or she immediately became the monkeys’ new best friend, at least until all the bananas had been distributed. The macaques fearlessly wandered through the crowd of tourists, most of whom were wise enough to give the monkeys a little more space than the monkeys seemed to want. Alexa was in heaven, pointing and announcing “Uh Oh!” to anyone who would listen. (“Uh Oh” is her name for Curious George and has become her favored word for “monkey.”) We allowed her to toss a couple of bananas to monkeys from a distance, but Jeff wisely refrained from letting her walk around or get as close to the “uh ohs” as she would have preferred. We decided it was time to go when a new macaque joined the group, and the local vendors became visibly tense and started warning people to “Stay away from that one! He’s mean.”

Bats exiting the bat cave

After an uneventful ride back down the mountain, we switched motos and the Jeep for our trusty tuk tuks. We had one more stop to make—a roadside location from which we could see a cave that is home to tens of thousands of bats. If you arrive just before sunset, as we did, you get to see the long, uninterrupted flow of bats out of the cave to begin their nighttime adventures. We didn’t stick around for all of it, but it was more impressive than it sounds. Alexa enjoyed it. After a brief explanation, she took to repeating “Those bats wake up! Those bats hungry! Those bats go eat!” while pointing at the sky. The tuk tuk drivers also demonstrated how a loud noise will disrupt the bats’ flying patterns, much to the amusement of the children.

Bats--lots of bats

After several minutes of viewing the stream of bats, it was time to head back to the resort. The next morning was devoted to relaxing and making last minute purchases from the resort’s gift shop before our late morning departure for Phnom Penh. All in all, it was a very nice weekend. Battambang is not one of Cambodia’s tourist hot spots, for good reason, as it has very few must-see sights, but it’s a great place for a relaxing weekend away from the city, with just enough to do to keep you occupied when you want to get out and about.

Another monkey ... just because he's cute

*The picture of the killing cave shows only that part that is visible from the top of the stairs. The shaft down which people were thrown is off to the left, and the Buddha and memorial stupa are off to the right.

**I was unable to get a picture of the stupa without any embassy-affiliated personnel in the picture, so I went with the best picture I had and obscured the face of the person posing on the steps.

Battambang series:

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Morning in Battambang

Giant Buddha at Wat ek Phnom

We only had one full day in Battambang, so it was a busy one! We spent the day on a tuk tuk tour of the sights around Battambang. Our schedule involved two tour sessions—one in the morning, the other in the late afternoon/early evening, with a break at the hotel for lunch in between. Here’s a whirlwind account of our whirlwind morning.

Sifting rice*

Our first stop was a traditional Cambodian house. The current owner, the granddaughter of the original owner, showed us around and explained some of the features of the house and the items inside it. First she showed us the area under the house, where a simple rice sifting machine was set up. The machine consisted of a large basket, through which the rice could fall as it was separated from the husk. The basket was agitated using a two-person handle attached to a long stick. Sifting the rice is a long and tedious project, as the handle is quite heavy to manipulate.

Demonstrating a traditional instrument

After we’d seen and tried the sifter, we went upstairs to see the inside of the house. It was surprisingly large and airy, with beautifully polished hardwood floors and exposed rafters. The owner showed us a traditional instrument, similar to a guitar, then demonstrated a traditional pastime of Cambodian women—chewing   betel nuts (actually areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves). Older Cambodians often have a basket filled with the specific tools needed to prepare and chew the betel nuts, which are thought to protect the chewer from tooth decay. Unfortunately, modern medicine has revealed a link between betel nut chewing and cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, so I tend to agree with the younger Cambodians, who mostly have abandoned this practice.

The Bamboo Train

Upon leaving the house, we took a trip on the Bamboo Train, which was created as an inexpensive, relatively fast way for rural Cambodians to travel between villages. The “train” is a simple platform, made of bamboo, that rests on two axles. It’s powered by a moto (or motorcycle) engine and travels along the regular train tracks. The whole contraption can be disassembled quickly and moved off the track to make way for real trains or for bamboo trains that are going the other direction. It reaches speeds of up to around 10 miles per hour, which made for a comfortable breeze on a hot day. 

The view ahead
The journey that we took is geared toward tourists—the operation is overseen by the tourist police, and the destination is a small village that seemed to consist exclusively of a brick factory and a couple of huts selling cold drinks and t-shirts. We enjoyed some cold drinks, took a short tour of the brick factory, and then reboarded the train for the trip back to where our tuks tuks awaited us.

Machine for shaping bricks at the factory

The ride itself was nice. Alexa had been tired and fussy all morning due to the late night before, but she fell asleep almost immediately, despite the noise of the engine, and got a pretty good nap in. Jeff and I were able to enjoy the breeze, ignore the jolts and bumps, and see a little of the countryside—not too much of it, because of the overgrown trees and grasses along the tracks, but some. It was a unique way to travel, one that I’m glad I experienced, and I found myself impressed with the ingenuity of those who first thought to create this system.

Making rice paper

After our ride on the Bamboo Train, we stopped by another house whose occupants earn a living by making and sglling rice paper. We didn’t spend much time there, but we watched as one woman created the sheets from a boiling rice mixture and another set them out to cool and dry. They worked in the shade under the house, but it still was a hot and tedious process. The first woman used a small bowl to dip the rice liquid out of the pot, pour it onto a plate, and then spread it into a consistent circle. She let it cool for just a moment while she prepared the next circle, then used a spatula to transfer the thin, wet “paper” onto a wooden rod mounted on a turnstile. The second woman then removed the rod and used it to roll the rice paper onto a wooden screen before replacing the now-empty rod for reuse. When the screen was full, it was propped up against a tree or post so that the rice paper could cool.

The giant Buddha at Wat Ek Phnom

 Finally, we visited our last site of the morning—Wat Ek Phnom. This wat was constructed in the 11th century and is in a state of ruin. After seeing Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, it wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was worth a visit since we were in the area. The ruins are at the back of the complex, and a newer pagoda is in front of them. The most impressive part of the site, however, is the giant Buddha statue located next to the new pagoda. The statue towered over the trees and dwarfed the bigger-than-life-size statues of monks that flank it.

The modern pagoda at Wat Ek Phnom

After a morning of sightseeing, we were ready to get back to the resort for lunch. Our afternoon tours needed to wait until close to sunset, so we had a couple of hours in which to eat, relax by the pool, or take a nap. Then we were off again—but I’ll save that for the next installment.

An inviting path in the ruins of Wat Ek Phnom

* We do not show pictures of ourselves or of anyone who is affiliated with us or with the embassy on this blog due to security concerns. Because the child in this image is the daughter of an embassy employee, I obscured her face.

Battambang series: