Get­ting stranger by the minute

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SEAN CON­DON

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.’’

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