By Andrew Biggs
There was a time when, upon returning to Thailand after a trip home to Australia, I would dole out small assorted gifts and souvenirs to my staff.
This is an established tradition in Thailand and one any expat working here, legally or illegally, should abide by. Gifts do not have to be expensive unless the recipient is especially endearing … or willing to continue to ensure your dark secrets remain safe. Other than those key staff, a little token of appreciation from your homeland is enough.
That’s why my Australian journeys finished with a return suitcase full of koala bear key rings and kangaroo-shaped ashtrays. “Who buys this rubbish?” I remember asking myself back in the 1980s as I passed such souvenir shops on the streets of Brisbane, way before I ventured overseas. The answer, it turned out, was myself.
But these are new times.
Almost all my staff have given up cigarettes, and one can only dole out koala bear key rings for so long. In this modern era there is only one thing I need to bring back, according to my female staff.
Sheep Placenta Cream.
I should be more horrified, but I have already survived myriad cream phases in this country, beginning with the David Jones craze of the 1990s and noughties.
David Jones, an Australian upmarket department store chain, has a perfumery on the ground floor where one can purchase vials of assorted scents and creams at a cost that would feed a Rohingya family of seven for six months. For those less endowed in the pocket, there is the David Jones generic brand range of face cream.
It was the generic stuff that won a loyal following in Thai women, resulting in many a trip where I had to cart back boxes of the stuff.
We are now in 2016, the internet era, and the fad of the day is sheep placenta.
“Please bring us back some sheep placenta cream,” my senior sales staff requested, after unexpectedly making me a cup of coffee.
“You mean lamb placenta?” I asked and she frowned.
“I only know sheep placenta.”
I argued that shouldn’t it be lamb placenta, since it belonged to the lamb? I was told the placenta belonged to the mother, not the baby. They nodded between themselves, then back at me, signaling that this was something I, as a man, would not know. The pedantic side of me wanted to argue there would be no placenta without the lamb, and thus surely it claimed ownership, but my staff, faced with the choice of arguing word definition or gifts from abroad, went for the jugular.
“You really want sheep placenta cream?” I asked.
“Kha,” chimed my female, and, sadly, male staff, in perfect unison.
“It makes our skin krachub.”
“You should try it. Your face will look krachub just like a baby!”
After answering that the train had well left the station in that regard, I excused myself and consulted my dictionary. Krachub: adjective: Tightened. Compact. Fastened firmly.
I have to admit I was a little nervous when I found myself in Queen Street, Brisbane city, not long after that.
On my list of things to buy I had scrawled “sheep placenta cream” and, gathering all the courage I could muster, wandered into a chemist. I slunk around the men’s cosmetic section for a while, fingering Gillette shaving gel and caressing tubes of Durex Play, but nobody came over to ask if I needed any help.
Finally I took a deep breath and walked over to the single staffer at the cashier. I could feel my face redden as I asked: “I know it’s weird but, do you, like, have any cream that’s got lamb placenta in it?”
I may as well have asked for toothpaste.
“You mean sheep placenta? Oh yes, follow me please.”
I was guided to a shelf with more sheep placentas than I could poke a stick at; four different brands! There was a whole industry out there employing manual labor to scrape up sheep placenta. What do they call such people — placentists?
That was early last year, and I am now far more educated about life. I know that in Australia they are wise to the sheep placenta fad. Boxes are displayed prominently out the front of drug stores, for it appears Thailand isn’t the only Asian country where it is popular.
Does it work? I googled “sheep placenta’s effect on skin.” Google returned with: Did you mean “placenta” as opposed to “placenta’s”? No, Google, I did not, my grammar was perfectly correct and for crying out loud find me the effects of sheep placenta on skin godammit!
Google retaliated with pages of websites with vested interests, namely, companies that sell sheep placenta cream. When exactly was it that Google turned into the Yellow Pages? There was one single page that claimed there was no scientific basis to the claims, but since when did science dictate the cosmetic and beauty industry?
It is ironic that sheep end up on the faces of my Thai staff. The same staff would turn up their noses at any dish of roast lamb, a meat considered by Thais to “smell bad”.
Yet no matter how popular sheep may be, the animal does not hold a candle to the little crustacean captivating and intoxicating the burgeoning Thai beauty industry — the humble snail.
I can just barely get my head around wanting to smear sheep placenta on your face. But when it comes to smearing snails I have to put my foot down, and hopefully not crushing a snail as I do so.
The ads are everywhere. Snail Cream. Snail Gel. Snail White.
Have you ever seen a white snail, dear reader? Where I come from they are brownish things with scales. Their color is more like phlegm. In whose world is that white?
Crazily, my “phlegm” description is not that far off. The cosmetic industry has extracted the mucus slime off snails and put it into a cream. Ewwwww …. but it allegedly stimulates the formation of collagen and elastins.
I needed to test this hypothesis. I told two of my female staff (recipients of the sheep placenta) to find me a few snails outside. My aim was rip off the shells, crush them into a pulp in the office blender and put it into a bottle.
“So cruel!” my staff replied. I suggested that cruelty was never distant from the cosmetic industry; indeed, vivisection is its middle name. And how did they think they got the mucus out of the snail — by coaxing it out gently?
This story does not end with just sheep and snails.
This week the older sister of a sales staff is coming home from study abroad. In her suitcase is an exciting new product she is desperate to try out. It’s Botox Cream from Europe. You don’t have to inject cow poison into the face any longer; you can just rub it into your skin in a cream. And at around 600 Baht a container, it’s a lot more affordable than a trip to the clinic.
My staff is having kittens as they wait.
If you ever happen to meet any of my sales staff, take a close look at her face. My sales executives are of varying ages, and they are all wonderful people. I would like to put this down to my policy of employing only pleasant people with good attitudes, good education, good smiles and a willingness to work with others.
Dream on. Put it down to all the lambs, snails and cows that went onto their faces.