“Why the hell are you still in Chiang Mai” was the question. That was a fair inquiry. I see travellers come and go here all the time, most of them stay hang around for a few weeks and when asked this question – I was approaching the four months mark after planning to see more of the Southeast Asian region.
Why aren’t you writing any posts? Where the hell are you? My online absence was bound to get friends and family wondering why. Why the silence? Why go on an epic, indefinite around the world journey, only to drop off the radar and not provide any content after my “I’m going to change my life; watch this space” war cry?
What did ‘happen’ proved to be one of the most emotionally draining and self-defining moments of my life to date. Sit tightly, go grab your favourite beverage and I’ll tell you the story of one man’s battle against himself, the odds…and a spontaneous boner!
Langkawi wasn’t what I expected, nor needed. I was losing money fast, surrounded by negative energy and advertisers for my blog seemed extinct over the Christmas period. Also, the internet connection on the island was frustratingly crap.
I had a lot of negative things on my mind and like most people from my country – I tried to drink my problems away. I was living on a duty-free island and I got hammered every night, forging shallow relationships that weren’t remembered in the morning. More importantly – I just wasn’t happy. Far from it – I was lost and didn’t like the person I was becoming.
One hungover morning, I decided to take ‘the mirror test’. I invented it a couple of months beforehand and it proved to be golden. Basically, I make piercing eye contact with myself in the mirror and honestly ask – the man staring back at me; do I like him? Would I like him as a friend? Is he a man of integrity, a man of his word? Do his actions meet his beliefs and values? Is there more he could be doing to make life better? Is he living the life he wants?
There’s no bullshit involved when you take the mirror test and the hypothesis was bleak; I hated the man staring back at me. He was throwing away his golden ticket that he’d worked so hard to get and even worse – he felt sorry for himself and was taking no action.
“Enough,” I thought. I looked back at the man in the mirror and I decided that this was my Rocky Balboa moment. My very own Phoenix from the flames. The twinkle in the eye returned, I meant business. And so, I announced from a duty-free island; Six Months of Abstinence from alcohol. I then concluded that I needed to get the hell out of Langkawi, move to a cheaper place and somehow (completely unknown to myself) find a way of making money.
After talking to Kirsty and Poi about a place in Thailand where you can pick up apartments for £120 per month – my mind was made up and before you knew it, I became a Chiang Mai resident. Fast forward to Christmas day and a weird lump started forming on the inside of my bottom lip. I ignored it – until New Years Eve – where the lump doubled in size.
I was SO self-conscious and concerned, so decided to go straight to the doctor in the morning. The Doctor took one look at it and then pulled out a scalpel. “you’re taking it off, now” I asked, trying not to sound too wimpy. “Yes,” he casually replied, “might hurt a bit.” Doc then hovered over me with a wet snot dangling out of his nose, I thought “I hope to God he wipes his nose” – nope! Snotted on my cheek while he cut off my ugly lump, blood squirting all over. I’ve never felt sexier.
As weird and painful as all that was, I felt incredibly relieved. That was until 10 days later when the lump returned even bigger than the last time. What the actual f**k? I didn’t waste any time and went to A and E – which turned out to be a good move. After keeping the Doctor up to date with the chronology of events, he sat me down and softly told me that the GP made an error and that I should have been referred to him, he was a plastic surgeon!
I asked a million neurotic questions, but he told me he couldn’t tell me anything until he’d removed my lump and studied it.
The one question he answered was about permanent damage. I asked if there could be any to my lip and he said the chances were probable. My heart sank.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I never envisaged that I’d ever need plastic surgery in my lifetime and didn’t know what to expect.
So there I was on the big day, in my hospital gown and cap and lying on the operating bed, desperately seeking a distraction to calm my nerves. The nurses’ uniforms proved the perfect tonic, hugging the body tight with buttons going up the side of the dress, nice. I felt like t I was in a real-life FHM magazine at one point. The doctor shot something cold into my veins and the last thing I remember is him asking me if I was related to the Princess (my surname is Middleton) and I drifted out of consciousness…
…I woke up, staring at the ceiling – feeling dopey, confused, in pain and extremely giggly. I sat up and the nurse asked me if I was ok. I asked her how long I’d been there, she told me I’d been sleeping three hours and I replied by bursting out laughing in her face. She kept asking me if I was ok and informing me that I really should lie down for one more hour.
I proceeded to ignore her, sit back up in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Not out of rudeness, but whatever they had given me to put me to sleep (or deal with the pain of my stitched up lip) was making me delirious.
My lip ached every time I laughed, but I was in a perpetual state of giddy. “I’m fine” I announced and told her and her fellow nursing staff that I wanted to stand up and go home. I persisted and they finally agreed.
But I had…a problem. What happens to a (healthy) man when he first wakes up? Yup, I had morning glory – loud and proud and it wasn’t going anywhere, but up. A little embarrassed, but more for the staff members – I thought I’d spare the lady’s blushes and make excuses not show off my angry manhood. However, it was too late and one nurse pulled back my blanket and sat me up. She did a terrible job at hiding her awkwardness, opting to tell me after a nervous stutter; I should maybe lie down until I felt “better.”
Good skills and I’m grateful for her sparing my own blushes.
One hour later and my uninvited friend had calmed himself down and the Doc came to give me a briefing of the operation. First, he told me, with a smile on his face about my behaviour during the anaesthetic. Apparently, during surgery I:
- Hummed the Thai national anthem.
- Excitedly commentated on football and shouted “gooooooooooal” three times. Newcastle had thrashed Manchester United 3-0 the day before, so that made perfect sense.
- Told the two female nurses that they should fight to the death, for my phone number.
- Giggled as they cut into my mouth.
I have absolutely no recollection of any of this and of course, it makes me cringe. Doc then showed me my face in the mirror, my lip was pretty messed up and to say I was worried would be an understatement.
My anxiety grew even more when he told me he’ll see me next week for my second operation. Second? Huh? Things got a little lost in translation, but apparently, there was another lump beside the first lump and it would take a more complex operation to remove.
The hospital escort helped my wobbly self to the cashier and I had to pay a whopping £700! ($1100). It would have cost loads more in the UK for such an operation, but my hemorrhaging bank funds had me anxious. I couldn’t afford the second operation and so I discussed this with the very helpful staff, the outcome being if I wanted a cheaper operation the second time around – I’d have to go under the knife without being put to sleep.
I had no other option and paid for my 2nd operation of plastic surgery. Fast forward a week later and I’m lying on the same hospital bed, with a numb mouth and a mask over my face with a peep-hole. My mouth clamped open, watching the Doc and nurses cut into my mouth, fearing for my vanity. It was about as comfortable as it sounds. I thought of my beloved cousin who went through multiple brain cancer operations and staunchly kept telling myself to man the f**k up and suck it in.
But then, the mood of the room changed. I may not speak Thai, but I am intuitive enough and I noticed that the Doctor and his staff had found something in my mouth that made them concerned. Of course, I couldn’t ask anything as my gob was clamped open, so I had to wait until they were done – 90 minutes of agonising waiting.
When I got all cleaned up, the Doctor asked me to follow him into his room. Ever since I met him, he acted in a jovial and mischievous way – but he looked very serious and it worried me. He sat me down and said, “You have a tumour that has been growing in your mouth, we have to wait and see if it will grow back, or not.” Everything seemed to slow down around me and I couldn’t find anything intelligent enough to say, other than; “can I see it?”
*I even considered putting photos on here of the actual lump on my mouth that was removed, but figured it lacked class from an article that’s already on the line.*
Sounds insane, but I was so curious. Doc obliged and showed me – it was about half the size of a squash ball and I couldn’t believe it had been in my mouth for so long, no wonder I was in so much pain. I then asked, “what kind of tumour is it?” The Doctor told me that he wouldn’t know until the biopsy had taken place in nine days and told me to return then to; “see if I had the mouth cancer.” Not the greatest bedside manners, but I think it was just a translation thing.
I walked home trying to decipher all of the recent information while attempting to work out my emotions. Was I sad? Scared? Not at all, but I think I was in a complete state of shock.
The following nights I didn’t sleep at all and it all crept upon me out of nowhere. Something I thought that I never was and have been proud of not being – needy. Mr independent, I’m the king of my own world was stripped down to the bare bones of humanity – and all I wanted was a hug.
This was the first time I felt lonely on the road, outside of feeling alone in a crowd.
There’s something to be said about a proper hug. Dogs need affection, to know they are loved and supported – humans are no different.
I told a select few friends in Chaing Mai about the situation but refrained from telling any loved ones back home, at first. I carried on outside of my place with my best poker face, I made people laugh in groups, I made out everything was fine and that my life was a beautiful musical and every time I returned to my bedroom, I dropped the mask and felt completely miserable, drained and broken.
After reluctantly coming clean to my Mother on Skype, I checked my bank account and saw that I had only $229 left in the bank and I also hadn’t made any money in months (I also have no return ticket). I looked in the mirror at my mangled lips and sorry eyes and decided I fancied another Rocky Balboa moment.
I had an idea that I had flirted with in my head for a few weeks, with regards to how to make a lot of cash and decided that I would move mountains and stay up for 2-3 days solid until the ball was rolling. I went downstairs and handed my landlady $200 for one more months rent; leaving only $29 to my name.
I stayed up for the next 72 hours, hustling and emailing the living hell out of people with my new idea . Every time I stopped – I felt needy and sad. So I just ploughed into my work for a distraction and by the end of the week – I made $5k! I had never even cracked a grand in a month of online income before that. A Rocky Balboa moment indeed! But I still wasn’t completely happy. What’s the point in having money, if you don’t have health and happiness?
Judgement day came and I sat in the Doctors waiting room, waiting for the results of the biopsy. My name got called out and my hands were sweating. I had an awful feeling in my stomach which was probably acid, as I had barely eaten since my negative state of mind. Also, it hurt to open my mouth, I just lived on chocolate and sipped tea from a straw!
As I entered, Doc was smiling and joking which I knew was a great sign. He told me that everything was ok, I did not have “the mouth cancer” and that my freakish tumour was the biggest he’d seen in a mouth in 25 years of practicing medicine. I could have kissed him. The relief was so beautiful that I felt like crying, but I didn’t want to make it weird. It could have happened anywhere in the world at any time, but I just so happened to get a tumour when I left home to start all over again.
Me and Doc exchanged emails as he told me he wants a photo of me doing the world’s biggest bungee jump in Macau. However, I was put under strict orders to stay in Chiang Mai until he is happy with my healing, which is now 100%. You can’t even tell I’ve had an operation on my lip – those guys at Chiang Mai RAM Hospital are amazing, the hospital is clean and of course the Thai smiles come as part of the package.
My appetite returned instantly and I stopped by the hospital restaurant for a celebratory meal. Life seemed a lot more colourful and I started noticing the charms that I had ignored in my misery. As I stood up, a girl chose the seat opposite me. Her eyes were grey with a hint of green, which suited her fair complexion perfectly. She was obviously hurting on an emotional level as ehs struck up small talk with me.
“Are you ok” I asked, as I conformed she spoke English, with a strong Australian accent. She went on to tell me that she is travelling with her Father who has heart problems and he’d had a heart attack today. He was stable but still not compos mentis, and she was worried, rightly so.
A tear ran down her cheek as she explained how she couldn’t get in touch with her Mam back home and what was supposed to be a Father/Daughter bonding, had turned into a complete nightmare. There’s nothing I could say to make her worries lessen and without thinking, I asked; would you like a hug?”
Without even a hint of delay, she replied “yes, I would love one actually. Thank you” And there it was – the almighty hug in all of its glory. You can read all of the positive quotes in the world, but nothing says “you are not alone” like a proper embrace. Humans thrive on touch and often suffer without it. A hug can break down barriers that no words can.
I just wanted to share this crazy moment in my life. One that I felt stripped me from all of the bulls**t and asked me to reveal myself as the person I am and asked me to grow against the odds. I’m leaving here in one week and onto the next chapter. Chiang Mai will always be special to me – for the weirdest of reasons.
Ten years later and this is still crazy to read back on. In all honesty, I have been on a cringe exodus on my blog – deleting posts that make me feel uncomfortable, cringe a little, offer no value, or if I recognise my ego speaking as opposed to the real me.
This remains one of the most popular posts on my blog, but that’s not really the deciding factor for me deleting it or not. I’ve trashed many popular posts in the last few months.
There are some parts that make me wince a bit still, but this is one of the realest articles I’ve ever written and there is no embellishments within it; everything that I said happened and it still blows my mind that it did.
It’s a cult classic, at least for me and my personal life. 10 years later and I ask myelf if it’s kind of inappropriate to ask a vulnerable stranger for a hug, especially when it seems like it wasn’t totally altruistic. Would I do the same now? I’m not sure, and I also don’t know if that’s the right way to be. I just went with it at the time and it worked out as we seemed to have a good connection.
Thankfully, the lump never came back but what did retun after a decade on the road was my love for Chiang Mai, with me opting to buy an apartment (all of it being online income). Ten years after this post was writtwn, I now live in Chiang Mai long-term and I always feel a sweet burst of nostalgia when I am in the old town or by the hospital.
This story might be a little imperfect in parts, but it was the making of me. And for that reason, it remains published.