*This is the 3rd part of a 5-part mini series on my experience of completing a Summer Project for an MSc in Public Health at the LSHTM (General Stream).
Braving Bangkok’s Bad Side
Gracious thanks go out to the LSHTM Travel Grant – which helped fund the flight to Thailand and back. The fund became available in April for students travelling who met the criteria, and I was lucky enough to receive the award. After spending an expensive year living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, any sort of help was welcomed with open arms.
I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to travel extensively in my life; and I only realized, with one of those, “duh” moments, just as the plane was coming down into Bangkok International Airport, that I was arriving in a city I’ve never been before, at night, by myself and completely lost. I’ve been robbed twice now in developing countries and both situations started with the same sort of ominous rookie mistakes.
I’ll never learn, I thought, as I quickly made friends during landing and grilled my neighbour on the plane about safety in the city, and how I can get to my place… when I can’t even read Thai.
He looked me straight in the eye and with no emotion in his voice, “It’s called a Taxi. Just get in a Taxi.” Hmph, that’s…. obviously simple.
The first thing I noticed when I landed, was that Thailand is not a low income country. Actually, the World Bank just upgraded the 67 million strong country to being an upper-middle income country, with an average GDP growth of 5-6% over the last decade. Poverty levels have decreased from 42% in 2000 to it’s current rate around 13%, which is a remarkable transformation in one decade.
When I landed, I met The School’s counterparts at the LSHTM Bangkok office in order to discuss a plan of action. My Thailand Ethical Approval had yet to clear, so for the first two weeks of my stay, I spent it scouting for locations to due to the study. I ended up deciding on four distinct neighbourhoods in the city:
1) Bangkok North: Known for the grand Thailand Cultural Centre and it’s bumpin’ night-life.
2) Bangkok Central: High Class Shopping Malls that span for blocks are intermingled with local street markets and low cost shopping outlets.
3) Bangkok South: The heart of Bangkok’s seedy Sex Tourism industry, with the infamous Pat Pong district and night markets. Many, many tourists.
4) Bangkok East: A highly ethnic part of the city, with an influx of Pakistani and East African stores, places of worship and residential.
My study was initially proposed to study whether a Tuberculosis medication was available in private pharmacies without a prescription, and in the end, the Thailand Ethics Committee required me to include informed consent into the study. After taking 3 days to translate informed consents and questionnaires into Thai, and briefing my translator, we headed onto the street to begin.
Data collection was efficient and, for the most part, smoothly done – we spent about 4 hours in each neighbourhood, visiting as many pharmacies as we could before boarding the train to another area and starting over again. In total, we visited 111 pharmacies in 2 days.
Thai people are incredibly polite and generous and a loving people. Sometimes, when you are asking if they are doing something illegal, such as selling a prescription drug over the counter, they are not..
The following is an excerpt from my field notes:
Those who refused to participate in the study usually provided no explanation as to why they would not participate; however, some refusals were accompanied with verbal threats, yelling and requests to immediately exit the store. At all times, both the researcher and translator showed respect and manners, even in the face of threatening staff, and at no point did engage or provoke aggressive discourse.
If a request to leave was made, we complied and counted the pharmacy as a refusal. During post data collection, in a debrief session, neither researcher or translator felt as if they were in life threatening danger, though at times believed if we stayed in certain stores, safety could have been compromised. Should a situation have escalated into violence, our contingency plan goal was to exit the store, and if separated, meet at the nearest police station (which we mapped previously) or call the police immediately.
A safe word, “banana,” was decided on and would have been used by either of us if either of us felt the situation was threatening. The word served as an indicator that we would be immediately activating our contingency plan. Out of all the study areas, the East African and Pakistani neighborhoods in the Bangkok East provided the most consistently aggressive verbal intimidation.
*As a caveat, I hold nothing against anyone who threatened or yelled at us; Thai people treated me with nothing but kindness the rest of my trip and I was grateful to be a visitor in their wonderful country. I loved it immensely and will be back.
My first foray into the world of research was complete, and I had 7 weeks left to write up the paper and send it in. I bid farewell to Bangkok and headed North, to begin writing up the project in an Elephant Camp near Chaing Mai.