(From notes made 24th February, 2014, on my first visit to Thailand.)
I needed to buy an Air Asia ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai but after various attempts online that failed I decided to find a travel agent. Just up the road from my hotel near the Democracy Monument I saw an Air Asia sign outside grubby-looking travel agency, whose lowered blind and dark interior seemed to suggest it was closed. After a few moments of peering into the dimness, I saw a movement in the shadows. The door opened slightly to reveal a short lady wearing a black Happy Jacket with a big red smile over left breast. ‘Yes we are open, cool so I closed door,’ she said.
The premises had at some time been a café – still had electric cooking rings, pans and empty egg cartons – and possibly also a shop, its wire shelves displaying a couple of bottles of fish sauce lying on their sides, odd packets of rice and a few packets of spices. You suspect that anything you pick up will be well past its sell-by date. In two tall fridges by the door, Coca Cola and bottles of glaringly coloured soft drinks would probably be covered in dust had it not been that the fridge doors were hermetically sealed and last opened long ago. The silence suggests that you wouldn’t get the refreshment of a cool drink if you bought one. Cluttered shelves and a desk at front of the shop served as the lady’s office.
I explain what I need and she goes online to book a seat but I tell her it won’t work and that I’ll pay cash. She looks uncertain. ‘Will you pay my commission?’ I agree to the 330baht she would otherwise make if the AA system was working.
She brings up an earlier email booking and amends the info, removing a previous client’s details. I assume it’s a generic email to AA, although I would have thought they’d have an official booking form and she’d have an agency reference, but I keep quiet.
And so we wait, and I get an unofficial history of recent Thai politics.
With dramatic, theatrical gestures she tells me about people not being able to speak out. Throwing her arms about, she throws herself back into her chair, hand over heart, with deeply sad features, scrunched up forehead, and her head tilted to one side, like a Kabuki actor in Japanese theatre at the height of a serious scene, although she stops short of the crossed eyes that illustrate a scene of great importance.
After our chat I ask her name. ‘No’, she replies. It seems a polite way of telling me that she doesn’t want to give it, but when I ask again she repeats ‘no’, and I realise that No is actually her name.
I make an assumption, which is that we are waiting for a confirmation of the booking from Air Asia, complete with flight number, code etc. After fifteen minutes, there has been no reply. Apparently we’re waiting for a call from her nephew, whose credit card she’s using. We’re not talking Thomas Cook here.
We continue chatting for another ten minutes. I’m probably the only client she’s had in days. Using a well-oiled ploy, I look at a clock above her desk and say that I’ve got an appointment in 15 minutess and can we check on the booking please. She calls her nephew. All done, and checks out with AA. The booking will be sent to her email address and she’ll bring it along to my hotel.
When I ask for a receipt she reaches below her desk and brings out an already used folded one, rubs out the pencilled writing from a previous client and enters my details, but I can still make out that she booked a room for someone called Zynasta for one night at 1100 baht two weeks earlier.
I have a slight panic attack when I pick up the ticket at the hotel in the evening. The booking is under a different name, presumably that of her nephew, but a phone call to Air Asia assures me that the person actually sitting in 22D will be me.