Giving birth in Thailand - a dad's perspective

We had opted for a Thai maternity hospital over the farang-catering alternative, not especially for reasons of cost (although there is a significant difference). Like many things in Thailand, it sort of 'just happened'. Total cost around 150 euros, for three nights board, lodging, paracetemol (epidural analgesia not an option), and care. The more luxurious alternatives would cost 700 or 800 euros up. There is a cheaper version still, for the truly impoverished. I dread to think what that must be like...

(click on any of the images in this blog to see the full-size photos ...)

To properly compare the Thai version of the maternity hospital to its European equivalent requires more than sketchy memories of the latter, and mine are pretty hazy with respect to events long past. Three children born in both England and France before, and I was present during their births (the youngest is 13, the oldest 20). Vague recollections of sterile conditions and ultra-efficient, schoolmarmly nurses and midwives in England, removing all need of personal initiative, especially from the dad; whose role in events during childbirth and the next few days in hospital was pretty minimal from the little I can remember. Maybe things have changed since, but back then I seemed to be little more than a tolerated occasional spectator. Similar memories from France, except for more laid-back nurses, and perhaps a slightly less strict approach to the whole process. The father was definitely something of a spare part on both sides of the English Channel.

The cleaner strolls by on the balcony outside our 'VIP' room

Ploy (pronounced Poy) had decided at the last minute that although she wanted me very close by, she didn't really want me there watching. "We not do in Thailand" as she put it. One of those transparently vague LoS (Land Of Smiles) assertions where you never really get to the truth of the matter. If you've any sense, you just resignedly give in and let your Thai spouse have her way. Direct, potentially embarrassing questions asked of any Thai, male or female, are pointless and mostly lead you into red herring exchanges. They leave you totally confused and having forgotten what you wanted to know in the first place. Forcefully interrogating your Thai partner can have considerably worse repercussions. It will certainly result in the same confusion on your part, but with varying degrees of unspoken and enduring reproach at your crass farang lack of subtlety and respect added in. This can last for hours. Many hours. It isn't worth it. So I dutifully followed instructions and waited nervously nearby. Meanwhile a troop of a dozen student doctors and nurses filed in for the moment of truth, apparently with full permission to observe. It seems that they were all keen to witness the arrival of a sizeable, long-limbed half-farang baby girl, born of a relatively diminutive Thai mum. Oh well, there must be a logic to it somewhere. Just not a Western one...

There was one other farang father at the hospital

The Chiang Mai Maternity Hospital is housed in a smallish, rather delapidated building. When I first arrived, I quickly felt that there was something missing. Just couldn't put my finger on it. Then it dawned - this was a hospital, yet it didn't have the remotest 'clinical' smell - that powerful antiseptic odour that you can almost taste as soon as the sliding doors part, wherever you are in the West. People have different reactions to this smell. To some it is simply reassuring. To others it may evoke suppressed and painful memories of the suffering of those close to you. Despite recalling mainly the latter, I've clearly been programmed to find its absence rather worrying. I was worried.

The 'VIP' private room

When Natthaya had eventually entered the world under the curious eyes of multiple Thai strangers, she and I were introduced in a ward with very simple facilities, home to some twenty mums and recently arrived offspring. Soon after we were transferred to our 'VIP' private room. I wasn't exactly anticipating 5 star luxury, but was hardly reassured. I suppose it was just about adequate for the purpose (how hard it is for Westerners to overcome that niggling critical sense of somehow always expecting, as well as being entitled to better)...

Sink in kitchen next to WCs - also serving as baby bath

The 'VIP' room had no shower room or WC. The toilets and showers were at the end of the corridor. The sink in one corner was a transit point for a never-ending procession of tiny ants, which fortunately didn't seem to wish to deviate from their chosen route to explore bed or sofa during our three day stay. The cleaner was a young guy in battered trainers who called in two or three times daily at random times. He emptied the bins, then half-heartedly swept about a third of the floor area and followed up with a five second mopping of the floor that left no smell of cleaning agents whatsoever. On day one he noticed the ants. "Mód!" (ants), he said. (Day three and checking out now, and the ants are apparently under no threat of eviction at all).

The emergency button conveniently located on the wall by the window

The emergency button was up on the wall in an inaccessible area nowhere near the bed. Mothers who can only move with considerable difficulty, especially shortly after childbirth, had to lift themselves out of bed, walk across the room, lean over the sofa and stretch up to reach it - or so I thought at the time. The TV remote only worked at less than 5 cms from the TV. The volume control on the TV itself only had an 'up' button. There was the option of an ancient and deafening air conditioning unit, or a single-speed ceiling-mounted rotating fan that produced wind speeds of hurricane force.

Soon after the birth an animated professional conference was held in our room of which I understood nothing. Those concerned expressed surprise when I asked to know what was happening. Hardly any nurses spoke English in a hospital that sees rare farang fathers and no farang mothers, so the few answers bore no relation to my questions. A passing doctor eventually proved helpful in that internationally familiar, hard-pressed, doctorly manner. Apparently Ploy had to go for a minor follow-up operation the following morning, and I was required to sign some documents. In Thai of course - I could have signed my life savings over to the hospital, I had no idea what it was about.

Fortunately with the aid of pictures I was able to bath baby during mum's three hour absence...

I asked about the position of the alarm button, and how mothers could call the nurse if they weren't able to get out of bed. Bemused looks were directed at the stupid farang, and one replied "You press". "But in the middle of the night", I insisted, "what then?" "You press", came the answer. It was slowly sinking in. Thai maternity hospitals, once the birth proper is over, are pretty much D.I.Y. affairs. A nurse might pop by at random to take the baby's temperature or a blood sample, but everything else is down to the family. I discovered that a mother is not allowed to stay alone in a 'VIP' room, which meant that I was to stay overnight. I looked around. Thais will sleep happily on a plank of wood, so I could hardly complain at the prospect of bedding down on a hard sofa that was a good 12 inches too short for an average-sized farang. Sleepless night number one ensued. At least the ants left me alone.

Day two dawned, and while I was still in an early morning sleep-deprived daze, Ploy was whisked off for the op. There I was with 15 hour old baby, some hurriedly extracted breast milk in a container with no teat, and several completely disinterested, non English-speaking Thai nurses allegedly on the end of an intercom. Help. HELP!

Prayers to Buddha helped little in my predicament

I survived three hours of absent mum, improvising with boiling water-sterilised teaspoon. Natthaya was not impressed. Got through two more days and sleepless nights, and with huge relief am now back at home. It was a reminder of how we in the West are losing our sense of personal responsibility and initiative. Back in so-called civilisation, we seem to have reached the point where we expect someone from the state to be there to hold our hands at all times. We must appear to be pretty feeble and helpless to people raised in tougher circumstances...

So the jury is still out. Do I admit to being a pampered, soft Westerner, and say that had I known in advance what to expect, I would definitely have gone for the farang-catering McCormick hospital in town? Or do I pretend to have benefited from the experience and having improvised my way through some difficult moments? Well, if I were to be really honest...

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david mcmahon said...

Sounds like you really faced the test there. Hope all is well now.

JJ said...

Frogblogger, First of all congratulations - not just on the birth of a the gorgeous baby, but also surviving the whole experience.

I know... you didn't do the giving birth bit... Sometimes the standing and watching bit is just as hard.

So much of what you say about the experience in the west is true but this takes me back to my own experiences, nearly 13 and 15 years ago. Were I in that kind of environment, I might well have died.

This is a really fascinating post. Thanks. I wish you both all the best.

Camille Lemmens said...


We had our two children at the Government hospital in Nathon on Koh Samui. The best option on Samui in case a child is on it's way, despite the many Western style, commercial hospital s(4 of them) on Samui, since the govnmt hospital is the only one that can deal with emergencies.

The first born I witnessed but for the 2nd one I had to stay outside, since there was another person giving birth. A real intense experience!

I had no problems whatsoever with the hospital, everything went smooth and very professional.

Congratulations by the way!

Nicole said...

First off, congratulations to the three of you :D

Then,..., I don't know, shall I say scary, wow, or what?

I guess I am one of the pampered ones too, even though I usually don't see myself that way.
But in this case, I guess I would sure have chickened out :D

Glad all went well and you are richer with one great blog post and a great(?) experience ;)

Cairo Typ0 said...

Congratulations! I have to say that i'm into being pampered - especially at a hospital!

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

that will be quite the experience to share with her when she is older ... congrats!