Around the world in 80 days – Part 5: Thailand

10 May 2013

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project. In the latest of his diary entries, Barry finds himself in Thailand.

The distance between Vietnam and Thailand is more appropriately measured in time than kilometres. Arriving in Bangkok at night, it’s difficult to shake off images from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The city appears to have come from the future, reminiscent of London but bigger, brighter, shinier. Gone were the bikes and mopeds of Vietnam; here, we have cars – luxurious cars (albeit with a lack of seatbelts). The scale of everything in Bangkok was so much bigger than what I’d experienced a few hours earlier in Vietnam, including the ‘hotel’. The place was like a small city; hundreds of rooms, several bars and restaurants.

The next day I had to hit the ground running. Not only would I be meeting several of B-Floor theatre company – the artists who were working closely with the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) at Mahidol University on the Art in Global Health Project – but we would immediately be leaving by plane for Ubon Ratchathani in the far east of Thailand, home to one of MORU’s research units. Experiencing something close to travel fatigue, I was desperate not to carry all my luggage yet again and crammed the minimum luggage necessary into the camera bag.

Nana Dakin, part of the core team of B-Floor, escorted me to the airport to meet the other members who were joining us on the trip, Teerawat Mulvilai, a.k.a. Kage (pronounced a bit like kang-ye) and Jarunun Phantachat, known as Jaa. This was a feisty trio. Curious, lively and dynamic, they wanted to know everything about what I was about and why I was here. In a reversal of roles, Kage filmed most of our conversations on his new pride and joy, a DSLR camera, while we chatted over tea.

On the flight to Ubon Ratchathani, Nana gave a potted history of Thailand in fluent English (one of her many languages), explaining the origins of the Yellow Shirts, the Red Shirts and all about the recent political crisis before seamlessly moving onto melioidosis, a disease widespread in Thailand and the current interest for herself and the B-Floor team. Melioidosis is a nasty disease. Largely infecting barefoot farmers through wounds in their feet, it is caused by a soil-based bacterium and can either manifest itself within days or lie dormant in its host for decades. When it presents, the disease hits every facet of the body, from bones to internal organs and external abscesses. Even with access to good medical care, the mortality rate is around 50 per cent.

At 4pm we checked-in to our small hotel in Ubon Ratchathani and the team suggested this may be the best opportunity to grab my main interview with them. I was hesitant. The sun was going to set in 2 hours and we had no idea where we could do the interview. But we all agreed outdoors, in natural light, would be best. The hotelier said there was a river nearby and that was enough encouragement for us to dive in a taxi to the location.

What the hotelier didn’t mention was the fact that this river, as beautiful as it was, was right next to a main road. And a slew of karaoke bars. Diminishing light not being enough to contend with, audio was also going to be an issue. Thank goodness I wasn’t also shooting into the sun. In order to get the right composition with Nana and Kage seated on the riverbank we needed seats, which the nearest karaoke bar was kind enough to provide. Next, having travelled light, I had no tripod, so a chair joined us too, affording me some serious stability over the course of the next hour. Things were looking up…

…until I took the camera out of my bag. The sudden change in temperature caused a flood of condensation on the lens – it was literally dripping with water. Doing my best to maintain professional composure, the moisture was removed, my interviewees mic’d up and then we were, at last, ready to go. It was less than an hour until sunset. Pausing only to silence an enthusiastically early karaoke bar’s music system, we managed to capture a great interview, ending just as the sun started to dip and no amount of boosting the camera’s signal would be useful.

At last, we were able to relax and start to get to know each other over beer and real, authentic Thai food. Before ordering, Nana asked how spicy I liked my food. In the UK, I told them, I love all manner of Thai, Mexican and Indian food. Addressing the others, she noted that they’d better get me mild food. She was not wrong; Thai food is remarkably hot to a western palette, a fusion of aromatics and spices that burn and excite, raging inside the mouth.

Over dinner, Kage revealed that he often appears in movies as an actor who, despite his wide smile and gentle character, is often favoured as the ‘bad guy’. I also discovered Jaa’s incredible curiosity about proteins, resulting in my explaining how DNA is converted into proteins with a range of hand movements and small drawings.

Early next day, with the temperature still in the low 20s (degrees C), we set off for the Ubon Ratchathani research centre. This was a key opportunity for B-Floor to meet and question, first-hand, doctors, scientists and possibly even a patient about the perils of living and working in an area with melioidosis. The purpose of the day was research and over the course of an entire day they grilled a procession of people about the many facets of the condition. Like Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki in Kenya, an integral part of B-Floor’s process is extensive research, to really get to grips with a subject, to know it so well that an artistic idea can begin to emerge.

The best moment of the day was when B-Floor were brought into a laboratory. As someone who’s spent more than a decade working in various labs, it’s easy to forget how odd they can look to a non-scientist, how alien the equipment and procedures are. The team were mesmerised. A scientist prepared a specimen of melioidosis bacteria for the group to look at down a microscope, triggering a sense of awe and the idea of representing this sense of scale in a theatrical endeavour.

With most of my ‘art’ filming achieved, it was time to get into ‘science’ mode. Arriving at Mahidol University, I immediately met MORU Director, Nick Day, and a group of his core team. The afternoon passed quickly in the company of enthusiastic scientists with fascinating stories; melioidosis and its impact on those affected, malaria and its frustrating capacity to adapt and resist… In one lab, yellow boxes sat neatly stacked from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, all full of slides coated with blood containing malaria; an uncomfortable visual reminder of the scale of the problem.

Leaving MORU, it was time to finally see B-Floor in action as they rehearsed for an upcoming show. It was exhausting just watching them – they’re a very physical theatre group, pushing their own bodies as much as artistic boundaries. After an evening of laughing, contorting and generally being taken through an emotional joy ride, it was time to switch the camera off and go home. Again, I was saying goodbye to thoroughly lovely people just as I was getting to know them. But any sense of being maudlin was rapidly ejected by the memory that I’d be going home in less than 24 hours. I had the luxury of an entire week at home to look forward to before heading off to the Berlin studio of Katie Paterson, the artist-in-residence of the UK based Sanger Institute. Prior to leaving for the airport next morning, I decided a treat was in order and did what any self-respecting tourist should do in Thailand – I had the best massage of my life.

Barry J Gibb

Barry J Gibb is a Science Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.