More Thais go under the knife for the perfect look

THAILAND - With her slinky blue top and coiffed hair dyed bronze, Ms Inchuon Meechai cuts a self-assured figure as she strides down the street in Bangkok.

Speak to her nicely, and the 39-year-old mother of two will tell you why she is beaming more than ever these days: Her new breasts. And nose. And eyelids.

Over the past five years, she has gone under the knife three times to reshape her nose, carve out double eyelids, as well as insert silicon bags into her erstwhile sagging breasts.

"If your eyes are bigger, your smile is sweeter," she says. "And if your breasts are bigger, you feel more confident."

The hairdresser is among tens of thousands of Thais who are increasingly heading to the country's clinics and hospitals - long a destination for regional medical tourists - for cosmetic surgery in a bid to look their best.

Not only that, they are more open to operating on several parts of their bodies at one go.

Yanhee Hospital, which specialises in cosmetic surgery, has seen its patient list grow by about 20 per cent year on year over the past decade. Last year, it conducted 53,000 such procedures, out of which about 37,000 were done on Thai nationals.

The Bangkok Hospital Group which operates from 13 locations countrywide has seen an average 10 per cent growth in revenue from cosmetic surgery year on year, says assistant hospital director Pramoth Nilprem. More than half of this increase is attributed to locals, he adds.

According to a report in The Nation newspaper last year, the industry was worth 20 billion baht (S$797 million) in 2011.

Meanwhile, an Economist article this year, using figures from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, found that there were about two plastic surgery procedures for every 1,000 of Thailand's population in 2011.

In China, the equivalent figure is below one, while in Taiwan, it is almost eight.

While more than half of the procedures in Thailand that year involved non-invasive surgery related to skin and hair, operations to enhance breasts and improve facial features were also popular.

At Yanhee, which is a mass market leader as far as cosmetic plastic surgery is concerned, local patients - almost all women - usually make a beeline for nose implants, double eyelid jobs as well as breast enlargements.

About half of its patients are aged 18 to 25, chief executive officer Supot Sumritvanitcha tells The Sunday Times.

And each age group has its own preferences: Women between 18 and 25 go for nose jobs and eyelid surgery; those aged 26 to 35 enlarge their breasts.

Patients older than that prefer "vaginal rejuvenation", a procedure where women have their birth canal tightened to enhance sexual pleasure.

The patients span the whole range of backgrounds, from factory to office workers, as well as housewives, he discloses.

The vast majority have no problem paying in cash for the procedures - 20,000 baht for a nose implant, or about 100,000 baht upwards for a breast implant with a one-night stay - even though they can opt for an interest-free instalment arrangement with a bank.

The average monthly household income was 23,236 baht in 2011.

The picture is similar in Bangkok Hospital, where most will settle the bill at one go.

Teacher Pavinee Phinaipisat, 49, who recently spent about 15,000 baht - or about one quarter of her income then - on double eyelids and smoothing out wrinkles, says: "If you are pleased with the results, the price is all right."

Chulalongkorn University anthropologist Chulanee Thianthai attributes the rise of cosmetic surgery to the influence of Western and Korean pop culture.

In South Korea, which tops the global cosmetic surgery league tables, pop stars openly talk about their surgical enhancements while mothers take their daughters shopping for eye jobs.

Says Associate Professor Chulanee of the quest to look better and more youthful: "It is getting more common everywhere, especially in Asia."

Those who used to go for surgery in secret are now turning up with families and friends in tow.

Another factor driving people to go under the knife is technological advancements.

The president of the Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Plastic Surgeons of Thailand, Dr Apirag Chuangsuwanich, notes that surgery is safer than before, and patients can be more assured of results.

The increasing demand for cosmetic surgery is in turn spurring more doctors to enter the trade.

Thailand now has about 320 plastic surgeons.

According to Dr Apirag, there are up to three candidates vying for each available plastic surgery training slot each year. An average of 17 new plastic surgeons are trained each year, up from 10 five years ago.

Doctors note that unlike in South Korea, Thai women who go for plastic surgery are still conservative.

Dr Supot observes: "If they have a flat nose, they just do implants. They try to look natural, not look like movie stars."

Still, many will not rest until they achieve their own idea of perfection.

It has been just three months since Ms Inchuon has had her breast surgery, and she is thinking of fixing another part of her body: Her square jaw.

"I want a V-shaped face," she says with a laugh.

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