I’d been in Bangkok a week, staying at a mid-range hotel in Banglampho district which many tour groups used. It was Muslim-owned, and the bar sold soft drinks only; at breakfast large blonde girls in shorts queued next to veiled Thai women to receive their ration of toast. It was a popular place with Middle Eastern businessmen – when I arrived four Egyptians were getting out of a taxi, and the doorman greeted each with a “Salaam Aleikum” before spotting me and smoothly switching to English.
One morning I left the restaurant at roughly the same time as an Arab and his family. We stood in reception waiting for the lift as a tour bus disgorged a platoon of young Europeans in backpacks outside. The Arab was wearing jeans, Hawaiian shirt, sandals and stubble, his wife in a long robe and veil which showed only her eyes. Their young son, who must have been about three, chattered away to himself in Arabic.
As the lift arrived, the doors opened to reveal a solitary suitcase – a large blue one with a luggage label I couldn’t make out. I stepped round it and held the doors for the Arab and his family. In companionable silence we stood there as the lift whisked us smoothly upwards, and I started reading a poster on the wall advertising a Thai boxing match. The child stared at me and whispered something to his mother, who shushed him, tutting in feigned annoyance. After a moment the Arab turned to me, and with exquisite formality, said “Excuse me please sir, but my baby wishes to bid you good morning.” I greeted the child solemnly, who broke into a gappy grin, then, astonished at his own audacity, buried his face in his mother’s dress. The Arab beamed and then his gaze wandered to the solitary suitcase in the corner. “You?” he asked, pointing at it. “Not mine,” I replied, shaking my head. “Ah,” he said. “Boom!” We both laughed loudly, avoiding each other’s eyes. “Boom” sang the child happily as we ascended. “Boom, boom, boom.”