to the burgeoning world of dental
tourism where Aussie travelers hunt
down dazzling smiles at dirt-cheap
prices. MELENIE AMBROSE and LEISA
SCOTT report on what’s becoming
a booming business for Asian dentists
and Aussie tour operators.
through Kerrie Matthews’ family
photo albums and you’ll see a
lifetime of happy memories - just
not too many big toothy grins.
For most of her adult life, the
50-something, semi-retired mother-of-one
kept her teeth firmly hidden whenever
a Kodak moment arose. A lifetime
of dental mishaps, including broken
teeth from chewing her baby’s
fingernails, had left a sizeable
dent in her self-confidence.
the time she was running the 90-room
Overland Motel in Kalgoorlie and
being able to offer guests service
with a proud smile would have
been a nice feeling.
a Filipino housekeeper, nicknamed
“Babe”. “She worked for us and
had beautiful teeth- done in the
Philippines. So I surfed the net
and found Aussie Dental Tours
and Decided to go to Bangkok,
a place where I had been on holiday
before,” says Matthews. The toothy
tour cost about $7000 all up and
Matthews believes it saved her
$13,000 on Australian dental bills.
trip effectively crammed two year’s
of dental work into two weeks
as the American-trained staff
successfully mastered “two full
crowns, a bridge, a nasty extraction,
front veneers, eight fillings,
treatment for gum disease and
the replacement of 15 old amalgam
fillings with new white composites”
final laser-whitening step was
accompanied by a half-hour-long
soothing foot massage.
came back with the biggest recommendation,”
says Matthews, whose big reveal
at Kalgoorlie airport in December
2005 led to “lots of double takes”
from her partner John.
think I sold the trip to half
a dozen regulars at the motel,”
she says with a laugh. “They said
‘Oh gee, I might have that done
my self in the future’.”
course, Matthews is not alone
in her pursuit of pearly white
perfection while on an overseas
holiday in Asia. She join thousands
around the world now making the
pilgrimage in search of bargain-basement
dental deals, seduced by the noting
of getting a bit of work done
at a fraction of the cost back
Aussie Gary Flowers, 45, from
Brisbane, liked what he saw so
much that he wanted a part of
In 2001, working as a building
surveyor in Singapore, Flowers
would fly to the Philippines for
dir-cheap dental work. Some serious
research and a small business
course later, he had set up Aussie
Dental Tours with his Thai-born
wife, Chanphen, and accountant.
couple have escorted more than
100 Aussie tourists to one of
three Bangkok smile clinics run
by Dr. Sermsakul Wongtiraporn
or, as he’s now better known,
studied for his degree and graduate
diploma in Bangkok before picking
up his diploma in dental implants
from the University of California,
Flowers, the lure of so-called dental
tourism is obvious – it offers a
saving of up to 70 per cent on prices
at home, plus there’s a holiday
veneers which normally cost $1000
are just $330, $4000 implants go
for about $1350, crowns come in
at $350 instead of $1000, and fillings
mere $30 instead of $100
for visitors on anything from a
champagne to beer budget, Flowers
and his small team organize seven-day
to 14-day escorted tours to Bangkok
and Phuket. Seasoned travelers can
score an appointment and information
pack for less than AU$100.
doesn’t look different, just refreshed
and livelier,” says long-time friend
and Bangkok traveling companion
Vicki O’Neil who succumbed to her
own dental refresher – a tooth-whitening
session in between a nip-tuck makeover.
“She feels more confident and smiles
so much more.”
upstairs in one of Bangkok Smile’s
compact consulting rooms, hawker-wear
Queenslander Joan O’Neill is deep
in dental crisis talks. Armed with
X-rays that initially sent her into
a spin, and down on Australian dentists,
she discusses her options with the
specialist, Dr Sunisa Juengjitrak.
tourism is so needed because Australian
prices are far too high,” Flowers
says. “As a result, people can’t
afford to have their teeth fixed.
What Aussie Dental Tours offers
is very basic – assisting people
to save money and the clinics we
use are very good and very modern.”
the streets of Bangkok, 51-year-old
real estate agent Joan O’Neill,
from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast,
is getting a first-hand feel around
the Thai streets as she awaits her
turn in Dr Bob’s dentist chair.
fact the Australia is in the grip
of a major dental dilemma is also
a hot topic. The nation is now rated
second-worst among OECD countries
for adult decay and there is a chronic
shortage of dentists nationally.
A grim prediction shows we could
still be down 1500 dentists in another
reasonable conclusion for many is
that the basic law of supply and
demand is factored into the pricing
policies of Australia’s private
clinics, overwhelmed by patients.
a theory denied, however, by the
Australian Dental Association’s
CEO, lawyer Robert Boyd-Boland.
He argues that prices have risen
only in accordance with the cost
of health provisions.
Coates, who chairs the Australian
Dental Foundation’s Infection Control
Committee, concedes many people
believe Australian dentists overcharge
but, like Boyd-Boland, she maintains
that prices are reasonable, especially
given dentists’ length of study
and the type of service.
Smile, meanwhile, is keen to point
out it has a strict system guarding
against cross-infection. It uses
the “Autoclave system” of sterilization
which includes de-bugging hand pieces
at 135C – important hygienic factor,
according to Coates.
concedes there are excellent dentists
in Asia and that even at home there
are some not-so good practitioners.
would just be very selective about
who I went to in Asia whereas in
Australia, 90 per cent of the time,
I could be a lot less selective,”
toothy tourists like Shirley Lawrence,
49, from Morley, are overjoyed to
jump the long waiting queues on
home soil and pocket the extra cash
saved from cheap dental holidays.
A surgical nurse at a top Perth
hospital for more than 20 years,
Lawrence had seen her fair share
of medical disasters from problems
including staff shortages and dodgy
AU$3600, the dental overhaul included
eight veneers (normally costing
AU$1000 EACH in Australia), new
white fillings and teeth whitening.
an agonizing six years, O’Neill
has suffered teeth problems and
had desperately sought out Queensland
dentists trying to find relief.
Before deciding to check out Thailand,
she had spent a total of $12,000
on extractions, root canal, crowns
over by her new-found dentist’s
“thorough and caring” manner, she
makes the leap and decides on five
dental implants, including two in
the place of bridges she will have
hates how food gets stuck underneath
a bridge, another name for a false
tooth that is attached to teeth
on either side but no embedded into
are a more aggressive form of tooth
replacement but leave adjoining
teeth untouched. A dental surgeon
implants a titanium fixture resembling
a screw into the jawbone to act
like the root of a tooth.
Joan O’Neill laughs at lame jokes
suggesting she’ll look like him
when she’s finished her appointments
at Bangkok Smile.
“They are brilliant. They just listen
and they’re so quick and efficient
and gentle,” she says.
she loved the complimentary foot
message she received during the
teeth whitening. The other drawcard
– that the clinics stay open into
the night and on weekends to satisfy
her new T-shirt emblazoned with
the slogan “Care-U-Teeth”, the medi-tourist
sits with her traveling buddy, her
sister – quieter yin to O’Neill’s
pair reminisce about their adventures
so far in the Land of Smiles. They’re
chuffed with mastering the Bangkok
Sky Train and love it every time
Nana station is announced because
it cracks them up and makes them
giggle like schoolgirls.
with bags full of treasures, O’Neill
is an all singing, all-dancing advertisement
for medical tourism. She can’t stop
smiling and is so excited at the
prospect of finally reaching her
for Aussie Dental Tours’ other client,
former Kalgoorlie motel owner Kerrie
Matthews, she’s now use to being
constantly quizzed by acquaintances
over “where she’s been” as they
try to fathom the source of her
former smoker (she kicked the habit
after 25 years) has only one task
left to complete.
to smile again with confidence,”
she says with a grin.
like she’s already halfway there.