Getting stranger by the minute
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
ON the hot, hot morning of our first day in Bangkok, the hotel’s teakwood shuttle boat drops my wife, young daughter and me at the nearby BTS Skytrain station.
We try to find somewhere to buy tickets amid the concrete pillars and tiny, empty booths. Our open map, open mouths and openly confused expressions give us away as tourists so it’s not long before ‘‘security man Joe’’ sidles up. He is a stocky chap who looks to be in his late 40s and has an air of efficiency and authority.
‘ ‘ I saw you at my hotel,’’ he says before asking where we are headed. I explain that we want to take the Skytrain to Siam Station and visit the many highly air-conditioned malls around there.
Joe looks genuinely pained as he tells us that, unfortunately, that won’t be possible as the whole area is cordoned off because the much-revered Thai royal family will be passing through this morning. He then takes our map, circling a police station and drawing a big rectangle around half of Bangkok, an area he insists will be inaccessible until at least midday.
Joe further explains he is on his way to a hospital around the corner where his wife has just given birth to twin boys. We congratulate him on his good news. On our map he helpfully shows us destinations outside the forbidden zone, insisting that we head to those places for ‘‘typical Thai souvenirs’’.
It is around this point in the conversation that I notice a long, thick scar across Joe’s throat that is not quite covered by the collar of his crisp white shirt. Also, he has begun to sweat alarmingly. My daughter is sitting on a upturned bucket among cigarette butts and rotting vegetables near a filthy canal where two half-naked men are fishing. I find the whole scene fantastically exotic and intriguing but I can see how mywife and daughter might differ.
It’s safe to say that things have gone somewhat awry. Our plans foiled, we don’t know what to do, where to go, or how to get to we-don’t-know-where. After a short walk I hail a taxi and point to one of the areas Joe has circled. But my wife Sally overrides me and 15 minutes later we are at the Siam Paragon mall, which is in no way cordoned off or even slightly inaccessible, unless you count a bit of typical Bangkok traffic.
I begin to have doubts about Joe’s story ( especially about the twins) and wonder if he’s receiving kickbacks from ‘‘typical Thai souvenir’’ makers. Back at our hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, nobody’s heard of security man Joe and it seems pretty clear we have been semi-duped by a ‘‘typical Thai scam’’, albeit one that’s quite harmless and even a little charming in its clumsiness.
Sitting beside the Chao Phraya River, the hotel’s stunning original building dates from 1876 and has hosted many renowned writers, including Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams. I am particularly fond of the lounge on the ground floor of the historic Authors’ Wing. I love its colonial ambience and style, the rattan furniture and the potted palms on either side of a double staircase that leads up to the guest suites.
It’s a great place to sit with a drink and wonder what Tennessee Williams might have made of this Joe from hotel security. Perhaps, if he were to tweak A Streetcar Named Desire, ‘ ‘ I have never depended on the kindness of strangers.’’