Royal treatment Floating medical clinic reminds people in the Central Region of a bygone era and King's devotion to his people
It was a busy day at Wat Manao in Suphan Buri. There was no special religious activity, but still people made their way to the temple to receive a free health check-up provided by the support of the Relief and Community Health Bureau under the Thai Red Cross Society.
People converged at the temple hall. But the day's highlight was something else. The docking of the royal boat Vejapah at the temple's pier along the Tha Chin River. People, mostly in sombre-toned mourning clothes, gathered at the pier to look at the Vejapah.
The double-decker boat was an initiative of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In 1955, the boat was built specifically for the purpose of offering healthcare services to people who resided along the riverbank in isolated rural areas in the Central Region. The floating clinic was the first of its kind and has remained in service since.
"There weren't many hospitals in the past, and most of them were just small health units. They were also far away from villages," said Suphan Buri's public health worker Jariya Lamaiked, adding that the main transportation in the Central Region was by water.
Boonshu Jan-khum, 81, who was at the temple for his health check-up, said when he was young, seeking medical care was a major feat that required walking many kilometres on unpaved roads.
The launch of the Vejapah fulfilled the need of the people who lived so close to the water.
Today each district has its own hospital, roads are everywhere, and travelling to see a doctor is no longer an ordeal. The public healthcare system has become more accessible for all through various programmes, such as universal healthcare coverage, social security insurance and the civil servant medical benefit scheme.
However, Vejapah's mission hasn't been put on hold. The project continues to remind people of His Majesty's benevolence, since the King privately commissioned a company to build the boat to be used by the Thai Red Cross as a mobile floating clinic.
The boat's upper deck is an open space while the lower deck has an examination room equipped for minor surgery and a separate room for dental work. Along the walkway, cabinets for medicine and medical supplies are installed as the area functions as the dispensary.
In the beginning, services took place on board. But due to limited space, an increasing number of patients and inconvenience for patients to board the boat, examinations and treatment were relocated on shore, mostly in temples or schools with a pier. However, the boat still delivers medical equipment and is used as a dispensary.
Today, the annual operation takes place only five days a year, with one stop in different districts of the same province each day. Suphan Buri was the route earlier this month. Despite being in service less than a week, the boat still provides a great deal of healthcare services. The number of patients served this year rose to 1,759, which is higher than recent previous years. The King's passing may be another reason making the service popular.
"We change the route each year," said Dr Amornrat Prasertcharoensuk, a physician for the Relief and Community Health Bureau who has worked on the Vejapah for five years. "In its first year of operation, the boat went out during the flood season. The duration lasted for 84 days. And the boat was in service twice in some years."
Vejapah has visited 19 provinces in total, all in the Central Plains, such as Nonthaburi, Nakhon Pathom, Chainat and Suphan Buri.
The boat, under the care of the Royal Motorboat Section of the Royal Conveyance Division of the Bureau of the Royal Household, usually begins its journey from the Vasukri Royal Landing in Bangkok, depending on the distance of its scheduled trip.
Before leaving for Suphan Buri, the crew conducted a three-day advance trip. Medical staff from the Relief and Community Health Bureau also met up with the boat at the location.
"Every time we're out on the field, it's impossible for us to work on our own," said Dr Amornrat, who provides acupuncture services.
"We usually co-ordinate with local staff. They support us with district and provincial doctors," the doctor said, adding that this helps the medical team provide rapid care if a serious illness is diagnosed, with patients transferred to a local hospital.
Services provided include a health examination, acupuncture and dental care.
Most patients are elderly. The most common symptoms found in the Suphan Buri trip were osteopathic, upper respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments. For many, the boat is more than just a mobile clinic. It's a way to remember the King.
"The community leader announced that the boat would come today so I'm here. I really want to come because I love the King," said Rabeab Yammak, her eyes brimming with tears.
Rabeab, 82, was recovering from a broken bone resulting from a bicycle fall. "I just received medication from the doctor. I'm happy and I do believe I'll get well soon."
For many patients, even though they have other choices for treatment, the free service from Vejapah is very beneficial to them, and no appointment is needed.
"I'm here mainly to get my teeth scaled. It was done well and free. Now I'm about to queue up for acupuncture for my pains and aches," said Bencharat Tumvichit, 55. "My house is very close by. I heard about the boat a very long time ago but this was the first chance I had to see it."
Apart from the medical check-up, staff also handed out survival kits, that consisted of clothing, toiletries, a blanket and a dietary supplement. This year, an exhibition chronicling the King's various projects and the boat's history also were on display.
"I learned about today's activity from the village head so I came to pick up the survival kit," said Sateun Tuampong, 78.
Sateun was unable to travel to Bangkok to pay her respects to His Majesty. "But I believe that coming to see his boat was one way for me to get closer to him.
"I didn't need a check-up today as I regularly go to the hospital, but I'm very happy to celebrate His Majesty's project."
For 81-year-old Boonshu, the arrival of the Vejapah is one of the few chances he has to receive modern medical treatment.
"I usually don't go to see the doctor. Even if I'm sick, I always take traditional medicine," he said. "But my kids told me that the service here is great so I decided to come. I'm also very confident that it's good because it came from the King."
Writer: Pattramon Sukprasert