Barefoot Dentistry: Not As Horrifying As it Sounds

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The sign outside the second-floor clinic instructs all visitors to remove their shoes before entering, and the staircase landing is littered with sandals. OK, apparently this is a thing. I briefly consider turning around and leaving, but I’m bolstered by the fact that I’m wearing my lucky Harry Potter underwear. Also, I just saw my first two sacred cows, which seems like a good omen. I’m about to have dental work in India, and I’m starting to think this was possibly a Very Bad Idea™.

I was totally serious about the cow thing, by the way. They're everywhere. I was also serious about the underwear thing but I'm not posting pictures so stop asking.
I was totally serious about the cow thing, by the way. They’re everywhere. I was also serious about the underwear thing but I’m not posting pictures so stop asking.

I feel better as soon as I step inside the clinic. Everything is clean and modern and sterile. I’m handed an iPad on which to check in. The receptionist has perfect hair and looks like he just stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, except he’s also barefoot.

As soon as I finish signing in and taking an extremely unflattering picture of myself with the office tablet, J. Crew leads me up another flight of stairs to the exam room, which is similarly spotless but full of Buddha statues and a small radio blaring Indian pop music.

Buddha statues = instant calm. Take note, Western dentists.
Buddha statues = instant calm. Take note, Western dentists.

Also, is it a bad sign when your dentist has the Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies on his office bookshelf? Asking for a friend.

Dr. Narayan cuts right to the chase, asking me what’s going on. I go into show and tell mode, and he only interrupts to ask a few questions. He can tell right away that I’ve been putting this off for some time, and that there was trauma to the tooth in question. He smirks when I tell him the story of being head-butted in the face by a rambunctious dog while drinking a beer.

“Well,” he says pushing back from his desk, “let’s have a look.” I pad along barefoot behind him into the treatment room. This is probably my last chance to bolt and I’m totally missing it.

The room is as bright and sterile as any Western dentist office, and he uses all the usual tools for the exam, but there is no forgetting where I am. He explains every step of what’s needed in distinctly Indian terms. The root of the tooth is like a sleeping tiger. Bacteria rise up like warriors. Etc. I try to close my eyes during the exam but he gently admonishes me to keep them open. “I know you are scared. Watching what goes on will remove the fear.”

Here's a lovely flower because I understand that absolutely no one wants to see a picture of me having dental work done.
Here’s a lovely flower because I understand that absolutely no one wants to see a picture of me having dental work done.

It only takes a few minutes for Dr. Narayan to decide I need a root canal and we should begin immediately. OK, hold up, I only psyched myself up for an exam. I was not prepared for this at all. “You’re already here,” he says, reading my mind again. “Best just to get it over with.” He’s right, of course, but I must not look entirely convinced. “I promise it won’t hurt a bit, and you won’t even need any anesthesia.” It’s not polite to call your doctor a big fat liar, so I tell him to go ahead.

As it turns out, he wasn’t a big fat liar at all. I would hereby like to insist that every dentist I’ve ever seen to go to India and take a few lessons from this guy. Especially Dr. Kmon, who was a really big jerk to me when I was six.

Fifteen minutes later, having experienced zero pain whatsoever, I was on my way. Who would have guessed that one Indian doctor could cure a decades old fear of the dentist’s chair?

I ended up going back for three additional visits for a follow-up, a temporary crown, and a permanent crown. My entire cost for four office visits, a root canal, and a porcelain crown was $230. I did a little bit of cost comparison with US averages, and it appears that a root canal on a front tooth can cost in the neighborhood of $900. If you need a crown, expect that to be over $1000. You might have insurance that minimizes your out of pocket cost, but if not, that’s a huge expense. I suddenly understand why so many of my American friends have chosen to have their dental work done overseas. For the cost of one root canal and crown in the US, you can fly to the dental tourism spot of your choice, stay in a nice hotel for a couple of weeks, enjoy a lovely vacation, and get some top quality dental work done while you’re there.

Worried about getting dental work overseas? I was, too (especially the whole barefoot thing, but I got over it) but I did a ton of research and got personal recommendations from other travelers, and I couldn’t be happier with the experience. The dentist I chose came highly recommended with over 18 years of experience and training in both India, Europe, and North America, and has trained dentists all over the world. I hope I don’t get too much hate mail from American dentists, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again and now I completely understand why so many people have chosen to travel for their medical and dental procedures instead of paying outrageous prices at home.

Have you ever traveled for a medical or dental procedure? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!

Burma in Photos

“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.”  – Aung San Suu Kyi

Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.

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Ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger

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Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.

 

 

24 Things I Loved About Burma

Sometimes I feel guilty about writing the negative aspects of my posts. Even though honesty demands that the negative be included along with the positive, I tend to feel like an ugly, entitled American when another country doesn’t live up to my expectations. To help combat that feeling, here is a list of 24 things I absolutely loved about Burma.

  1. The people are so nice, and genuinely try to be helpful to lost foreigners.
  2. Tiny monks everywhere.
  3. Gorgeous temples everywhere.
  4. The food is pretty good.
  5. I felt completely safe nearly everywhere as a solo female traveler. Being a Buddhist country, there is very little crime, especially against tourists.
  6. Many people have learned a little bit of English, either in school or free classes taught in the monasteries, and are very eager to try out what they know. Especially cute are the shy little kids who will run up to you and yell, “Hello-goodbye!” before running back to their parents.
  7. Women and children wearing thick yellow thanaka paste on their faces as sunscreen.
  8. People here have a charming affinity for western cartoon characters. Even grown men will travel with a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy duffel bag.
  9. The hot air balloon ride in Bagan. Pure magic.
  10. Children are remarkably well behaved here.
  11. The Islamic community in Mandalay. My hotel was right next to a large mosque and I loved to sit in the window and list to their calls to worship.
  12. Chapatis and Nepali food in Mandalay.
  13. Horse carts in Bagan.
  14. Going barefoot in all the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Somehow the act of removing your shoes makes the experience so much more reverent.
  15. My first day in Yangon, a toothless old woman approached me on the street and handed me  a beautiful white flower. Thinking she was selling them, I shook my head ‘no’ but she pressed it into my hands anyway and said, “Gift!”
  16. The way people worship their Buddhas, lovingly covering them with gold and flowers, washing them and making offerings of rice and incense. Misdirection of time and resources that it might be, I think almost all forms of worship are beautiful to witness.
  17. Little nat (earth spirit) shrines hidden in tress and other surprising places.
  18. Even though so many people here are going hungry or lacking basic necessities, there is virtually no theft. I watched a homeless man sitting on the dirty street pick up money and go chasing after the German tourist who had dropped it.
  19. The pervasive smell of jasmine.
  20. Making a wish at Shwedagon Paya in the ‘wish fulfilling place’.
  21. Nylon Ice Cream Bar, Mandalay.
  22. The beautiful, if chilly, boat ride across Inle Lake.
  23. The smell of incense.
  24. People who speak some English eagerly try to communicate with foreigners. Those who don’t just smile and laugh a lot.

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Government Spies and a Monk With Crazy Ear Hair

Next on the itinerary is a trip to 2000 year old golden temple Sule Paya, said to contain one of the hairs of the Buddha. My driver parks in a lot about a block away and tells me to “just cross street!” Easier said than done- this is the busiest intersection in Yangon and crossing the street looks about as easy as running with the bulls. I duck into the road behind a group of nuns and hope people will at least swerve to avoid them. 

At 9:00 a.m. it’s already boiling hot and the marble pavilion burns the soles of my bare feet. I’ve made my customary counter-clockwise loop around the jumble of golden Buddhas, neon lights, and praying, chanting Buddhists and am about to leave when a shriveled old monk calls out to me from a tiny alcove. “Hello! Where do you come from?”

“The United States,” I answer, somewhat hesitantly.

“Ah!” He throws his hands up with obvious glee. “Barack Obama!” He motions me closer and I notice he has more ear hair than anyone I’ve ever seen. He scoots into the shade and offers me a seat. He holds up a small transistor radio in a pink plastic bag. “I love Americans. An American gave me this radio.”

My new friend immediately wants to know anything I can tell him about the outside world, American politics, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, JFK, and, oddly, whether Pirates of the Caribbean was based on a true story. Within minutes I realize that this elderly monk from a third world country knows as much about American political history as anyone I know. I ask him where he learned so much and he points to his radio. It’s contraband, and there are no real radio stations in Burma anyway, but he says sometimes at night he can pick up BBC broadcasts out of Singapore. He also talks to every white tourist he sees and asks them for their old newspapers and magazines. The conversation turns to why I have come to Myanmar. “Are you a journalist?” he asks hopefully. He seems disappointed when I say no.

He tells me that many people come to Sule Paya to worship because it contains a hair of the Buddha, but the hair is sealed up inside the golden zedi. “Botataung is better. You can see the Buddha’s hair.” I nod. Maybe I will go there later, I tell him. He stands up and motions for me to follow him back out into the heat. A woman is chanting as she pours small cups of water over the head of a Buddha with a tiger in front of him. I ask my new friend what she’s doing and he tells me she was probably born on Monday. “People born on Monday are ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger.” I tell him I was also born on a Monday, and he says I must always pray at the Monday area when I am at a temple. The woman finishes, and he motions for me to approach the statue. A small girl with a bucket darts in front of us and the monk explains, “Many people in the city have no running water, so they send their children here to take some, for drinking and bathing.” The tiny girl finishes filling her bucket, flashes us a big smile, and ambles off with her water.

The monk tells me, “You take the cup, fill with water, and pour over the Buddha’s head once for every year of your life, to acknowledge all of the blessings you have received, plus one more time for a long life. While you do this, you pray silently for peace and prosperity.” As I pour my 30 cups over tiger-Buddha’s head, the monk chants quietly beside me. Peace and prosperity sound great, but I think the cold water splashing down on my feet is the best part. When I finish, the monk nods his approval and says, “I would have guessed you were born on Monday. You look like a tiger!”

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He starts out of the Paya onto the sidewalk where little girls are selling caged sparrows and he motions over his shoulder for me to follow him. I do, and it never occurs to me to ask him where we’re going. He immediately turns down an alley filled with huge piles of garbage and that open-sewer smell I’ve come to associate with Yangon. I see motion behind one of the trash piles and realize people live here. As my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I realize a lot of people live here. A man with vacant eyes rubs the legs of his sick, moaning child as she lies on a towel in the street. Nearby a dirty, naked baby picks up bits of trash from the gutter and puts them in his mouth.

I look at the monk and he says, “Every alley in Yangon you will see this same thing. Many of these people were forced into slavery by our government, and when they became injured from building roads and such, they were sent back here to starve, unable to work.”

We leave the alley and continue to walk as he tells me his thoughts on Barack Obama (“I liked him very much at first, now I still like him but I’m not sure about Joe Biden.”) and the United Nations (not doing enough for the people of Myanmar) to NASA (“Very impressive that they can send things into space like that. It hardly seems possible that one nation can be so advanced when others cannot even feed their children.”) He is very vocal about the way the Burmese government abuses and mistreats the people, and, like July, asks me if I am aware of The Lady and her struggle for democracy. I tell him I am, and he says many of his friends and brothers were among the 4000 monks slaughtered in the streets in 1988 during a peaceful protest. He only survived by covering himself with the bodies of his dead brethren and lying motionless for hours until it was safe to flee. Thousands more were arrested and taken to Insein Prison, but have never been seen or heard from again. “This is why we need the United States and United Nations to speak for us. We speak for ourselves and we are killed.”

I ask why he is so comfortable speaking about these matters in the street with so many people around, and he shrugs. “Let them arrest me or kill me. At least I won’t die sitting around like a sheep, as so many of these people who have no hope left. I am a very old man and will die one day soon anyway.”

I finally think to ask where we are walking, and he says, “Botataung Paya. So you can see the Buddha hair.” And then we arrive at the small temple, surrounded by the usual throng of vendors and taxi drivers and small kids hoping for candy to materialize from foreign pockets.

Inside the star-shaped pagoda is a maze of mirrors with the faithful hunched down and praying in corners, chanting and counting their mala beads. The monk, whose name I never learned, points me toward an excited mob of people gathered around a tiny window. “Buddha hair. Go look. I’ll wait.” It takes me ten minutes to work my way to the front of the crowd, and when I finally stand on tiptoes to peer into the window, all I see are dusty flowers, gold and ivory carvings. It’s so hot I’m getting dizzy, and someone is grinding their elbow into my ribs. I’m happy to take their word that there’s a sacred hair in there somewhere if it means getting out of this mob.

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My self appointed tour guide then leads the way into the mirrored maze and finds a cool place for us to sit. I tell him my driver is still waiting back at Sule Paya, and he asks why we walked if I had a driver.

 

As he continues to talk politics, I ask him if I can take his picture. This attracts the attention of two young monks who immediately charge over and ask my name. I tell them, and they want to know where I am from. One walks away immediately, but the other stares at me suspiciously before stepping away and continuing to watch us out of the corner of his eye.

The old monk leans over and says quietly, “Don’t tell them anything else. Those are not monks.” He gets up and motions for me to follow him outside, where he continues, “Did you notice how forcefully they spoke, and with such loud voices in a temple? Also that they did not greet me even though I am their elder? Because they are not monks, but spies for the government.” I look at him in surprise and he laughs. “Oh yes, they are in every temple and tea shop. Who would watch what they say around a monk? But they are watching and listening all the time.”

At this point I am more than ready to go back to my driver before the pseudomonks come chasing after us with one of the armed soldiers who stand on every corner. I tell the monk that it will be faster if we take a taxi back to Sule, and that I will pay for it. “No, no,” he protests. “This is far too expensive. It will cost a thousand kyat!” (Approximately one US dollar.) I tell him that is OK, but he persists. “The bus will only cost 100 kyat!” Again I tell him that I can pay the 1000 kyat and he marvels at my apparent wealth. “And I can ride with you? I have never been in a taxi before.” I marvel right back at him. I assure him that he can come along for the ride and ask him if he will get us a taxi from the row of cars and drivers waiting in front of us.

I watch, puzzled, as he moves from taxi to taxi, speaking in rapid Burmese to the drivers, who simply look away and shake their heads ‘no’.

“Don’t try to negotiate with them- I’ll pay the 1000 kyat!” I call.

He shakes his head. “You don’t understand. No one will take a monk and a western woman together in the same car.”

Just as I am about to apologize for leaving him behind and getting my own cab, a man runs up and says he’s found a driver to take us. He turns to the monk and tells him in Burmese that there will be an additional 500 kyat fee for the unseemliness of the situation. I’m already in the back seat before my monk can  protest.

On the way back to Sule Paya, I ask why monks were the ones who protested against the military rulers, rather than ordinary citizens. The old man smiles. “Many people just think of us as scholars, and very religious, but they forget. When I was a young man, we were trained as warriors.”

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A Reclining Buddha and a Monk Named July

Not being keen on trying to navigate my way around Yangon on my own, I had arranged in advance to have a driver pick me up at my hotel and ferry me around to the places I most wanted to see. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, because Burmese traffic is absolutely terrifying. Our first stop is Chauktatgyi Paya, home of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country. Leaving my sandals (and driver) in the car, I enter a building that is little more than a metal roofed shack over the enormous golden statue. This is not a tourist destination, so all of the signs are in Burmese and all heads turn to stare at me when I enter. (Soon I will get used to this.) Hundreds of Burmese are kneeling on mats in front of the Buddha, and when a bell chimes 8:00, they all begin to bow and chant in unison.

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“Hello!” comes a cheerful voice from my left. “Hello, you speak English?” This is July, a young Burmese former monk, looking very western in Levi jeans and a shaggy haircut. Anxious to practice his English, July spends a lot of time at the Paya and other religious sites, looking for the rare American visitor to interact with. He tells me he was a monk in the monastery behind Chauktatgyi for seven years, but left because he wanted to be part of the modern world, dress in western clothes, and, maybe, one day visit the United States. He knows all about California, Brooklyn, and Miami, and is very impressed that I live in Florida, near Mickey Mouse.

When he left the monastery, July could not find a job (there aren’t many jobs to be had) or afford to live on his own. Returning to his parents was out of the question- they were so ashamed of his having left the monastic life that they would not allow him to return home. I asked him how old he had been when he joined the monastery. “Fourteen,” he tells me. I am shocked that his parents sent their fourteen year old son off to live with strangers and wouldn’t take him back when he wanted to come home, and tell him so. He shrugs, clearly unbothered. “I knew they would probably not take me back, but I had to try. It is such an honor for a family to have a son become a monk, I shamed them by leaving. But I had to try to be myself.”

July had returned to the monastery and asked if he might continue to live there until he could find a way to support himself. The monks agreed, but said he must keep to their schedule: rise at 4:00 a.m., pray for one hour, eat at 5:00, no food after 12:00 noon, in bed at sunset. He had been keeping to this arrangement for two years. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the monastic complex behind the paya. There are many different  monasteries jumbled together- the different races of Burmese people all have their own buildings within the complex and they do not mix. He shows me two monasteries that sit empty. “The monks who lived here were part of the group who supported The Lady.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, democratically elected political leader who had been under house arrest for 20 years.)

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“200 of them disappeared and now their monastery is closed.” He asks me if I know about The Lady, and I tell him yes- I have read her books and am familiar with Burma’s political upheaval. He is happy that I refer to the country as Burma, not Myanmar, and that I am better informed than most English-speaking tourists he has met. July tells me that apart from practicing his English, he also likes to talk to American tourists to spread the word about what is happening in his country. “I wish more Americans would come here. You are the only people who can help us. We cannot help ourselves.” This is a theme I will encounter throughout my trip.

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Back inside the Paya, a line has formed of women and girls passing buckets of water from a well. These are dumped on the floor in front of the giant Buddha and more women push the water around the dirty floor with long-handled mops. July says they do this all day, every day, as a way to obtain merit for their next life.

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