As I serenely perused the newspaper over tea and toast in Bangkok last week, it came as a shock to read that trendy folks in the West are now getting Khmer lettering tattooed on their bodies.
Arnold Baldwin, an American chemistry teacher and high-school water polo coach, got an 82-centimetre Cambodian proverb incised down his spine. It reportedly means: “Rejoice, the hairy-chested master lives within.”
Baldwin was quoted as saying, presumably with tongue in cheek, that it might help him snag an obedient spouse, “hopefully an Asian babe”.
A compatriot, Julianna Stoltz, 27, was reported as having been to a tattoo parlour in Deshler, Nebraska, where she chose an ancient Khmer-language item.
“It means ‘blessed with pale beauty’,” she said. “At least, that’s what they told me.”
Stoltz, who has never visited Asia, but wants “to see Singapore”, was described as a phlebotomist from Lincoln, the state capital.
Not only did this disquieting news rattle the tranquillity of my early-morning repast, but the word “phlebotomist” recalled another odd medical term my Thai doctor had recently mentioned.
During a routine check-up, he had just asked me to drop my trousers, and had noted approvingly the absence of varicose veins, when he suggested it was time that I had a sigmoidoscopy.
Freud immediately came to mind, especially as the genial GP was now cradling my cojones for the standard “cough now” test for incipient hernias.
But, no, it had nothing to do with the discoverer of penis envy. Sigmoidoscopy involves threading a long rubber tube up your bottom.
The rest is history - as, indeed, may be the crescent-shaped eel and the spotted dugong. Neither has been seen since...
Sensitive readers may want to turn the page now; others, please persevere, for the Southeast Asian connection will soon be apparent.
It has been reported in scientific journals that the sigmoidoscopic procedure was developed following discoveries by a little-known Burmese zoologist, Professor Sandar Myint.
Born in Moulmein, Myint spent much of her adult life studying the crescent-mooned deep-water eel, an endangered species that inhabits the nearby waters of the Gulf of Martaban.
This eel is known for its unique feeding habit of entering the anal cavity of the spotted dugong, an even more endangered species, and wriggling up inside to absorb nutritional material.
If the dugong has any abnormalities in the extremities of its digestive tract, the eel will nibble on them, causing excruciating pain and resulting in the death of the dugong. The eel then dies with it.
Daw Sandar wrote about this phenomenon in her seminal work Eels of the East.
A couple of years later, the media-shy but amorous Singapore proctologist Dr Sigmoid Wong noticed that his current paramour, a marine biologist, was reading Eels of the East.
Intrigued, he happened to open it at the section dealing with the deepwater eel and quickly realised its behaviour might lead to a breakthrough in preventative measures against colonic ailments.
The rest is history – as, indeed, may be the crescent-shaped eel and the spotted dugong. Neither have been sighted since a symbiotic pair washed up a year ago near Dawei.
So what’s the regional connection? Well, shortly after recognising the potential of Daw Sandar’s pioneering work, Dr Wong invented the eel-shaped sigmoidoscope.
This stunning medical advance has saved untold numbers of lives and made the doctor’s Bukit Timah clinic famous in the colonoscopic world.
At home, however, Wong prefers to maintain a low profile and recently declined nomination for Singapore’s Presidential Medal of Honour.
That said, his fame has spread far beyond Southeast Asia and he is regularly invited to speak at medical conventions.
At one recent symposium in Nebraska, Wong took time out to listen to a talk on phlebotomy, and there he met the lovely Ms Stoltz.
She now has a crescent-shaped eel tattooed on her left buttock, to accompany the “Blessed with pale beauty” on the other cheek.
As you can see, it’s a funny old world, and this region’s influence is spreading from top to bottom.