The first of my many trips to Bangkok happened in 2004, rather late for a Singaporean man aged 30. But I had nothing to complain about on that first trip, for I was to review a trio of Asia’s most prominent hotels by the banks of the Chao Phraya, the river of kings in Thailand’s city of angels.
A shiny Mercedes was sent by the first hotel to pick me up at the old international airport. Thailand was never known for its speed or haste, so going through its customs was more or less a joyless affair. Even though these were the pre-Chinese arrival years, queues for the immigration counters snaked through the vast hall, and there really wasn’t anything to kill time while waiting in line, except hoping that the ordeal of tedium would soon be over.
From the airport, the ride to the first hotel took around 45 mins on a Sunday afternoon. The traffic wasn’t as horrid like it can be on weekdays, and there really wasn’t much of a scene until the car entered the aged precincts by the river. There were some old colonial buildings, all burnt out from the ravishes of time, and a few tall unfinished buildings that were the collateral damages of the last economic meltdown. This hotel was a huge establishment that had already maintained a presence for around 2 decades when I visited. As the car drove up the gentle slope leading to its entrance, I can’t help but wonder how such richness can co-exist with the poverty that is panning out right on the streets at its doorsteps.
Entering the lobby adorned with cyclopean chandeliers and commanding columns, I was gratified, to say the least, that I was to be sheltered in this gilded shell, however temporal, as opposed to the gritty realities outside. My journalistic scope is always on refinements and luxury. Some writers make it their duty to report on reality, I have elected on fantasies. Attainable fantasies and sometimes, the otherworldly types as per these accounts.
One of the first things after I was shown to my room was to perform a small salt throwing ritual in the room. Don’t ask me how I know these things, but when something wasn’t right, I knew it from the start. Maybe it was the karma of having lived through decades in 2 haunted apartments, and you subconsciously pick up these quirky habits. It may be common knowledge that when a hotel room doesn’t feel right, most people would demand a change of room. As a hosted journalist, asking for a change of room based on a hunch is terribly unprofessional. If you are direct about the chill factor, the management may send engineers to work on the aircon. To not give reasons, is to be most disagreeable, and somewhat of a jackass.
Anyway, the magazine’s hired photographer will be joining me in Bangkok the next day so I did not feel the need to be exceedingly alarmed. Also, it was just a hunch, and until an entity announces itself, I won’t make a move. What I did do however was to invite a Thai friend to stay for the night. Khun Pom was an exchange student I had known in university. We have kept in contact and he was most kind to take me out to dinner on that first night at a Chinese restaurant close to the hotel. I invited him over to the hotel for drinks after dinner, and suggested that he should stay the night to catch up on old times.
We chatted way past midnight, bolstered by beer. Before 2 am, we decided to hit the sack.
From the start of my traveling days from my early twenties, I have always slept in complete darkness until an experience in 2017 completely changed that. Khun Pom had asked if I could leave a side lamp on but I told him I wouldn’t be able to sleep with any light on. So my good Thai friend went to bed in darkness that night, something he said most Thai people wouldn’t do in hotel rooms.
Never a person to have issues dealing with new environments, I fell asleep very quickly.
Barely an hour after I drifted into slumberland, I was suddenly jolted awake by a flurry of actions. Bewilderingly, Khun Pom had jumped out of bed in a somewhat maniac state muttering a string of Thai incantations that was utterly incomprehensible to me. He got dressed in a flash, put on his shoes while hopping to the door, and shouted to me ‘ Khun Ced, please take care I am very sorry I can’t stay. Something happened. I told you not to sleep in this room without the lights on, so please take care and be careful.’
This was the exact moment that I managed to decipher what is passive aggressive Thai-style. I sat on my bed dazed and amazed at the extraordinary occurrence of the moment. My friend, just a normal, convivial chap hours before, had inexplicably abandoned me in a hotel room with a parting-shot that was part fearful, part begrudging but still softly considerate, as one would expect of a Thai boy with manners.
It wasn’t long before I began to contemplate on the effectiveness of my salt throwing rituals the afternoon before. I scanned the room, peering into the darkness of that tiny expanse that could harbour threats unseen. I saw nothing. I wasn’t afraid to be honest, but was shocked and perplexed by what might have happened to make a grown man dash out like that. I couldn’t have possibly offended him in my sleep!
As I lay myself down on the bed I began to feel drowsy again. Swift slumber was not possible, especially with the lights on as pleaded. I must have dozed off 2-3 times before I was awakened once more by Khun Pom, this time via a text message.
‘Khun C, you have to leave the room! I cannot say things to you when I was still in that room but something evil is in the room with us. There is now a mark on my leg that is burning, where something pulled me on the bed! When it happened I opened my eyes and there was an old woman’s face floating over my head with an evil look! I am sorry I couldn't say it when I was there! Please ask for a change of room now!’
I didn’t leave the room that night but the sms kept me awake for the rest of the night until 630am when I left the room for some breakfast to unscramble my thoughts. What did he see and where was it? I didn’t really enjoy breakfast that morning, the restaurant’s tempting buffet stations notwithstanding, and went back to the room after a sip of tea.
Where and what could it be? I scanned the room once more, aided by the strong morning sun bouncing off the Chao Phraya below. Then I saw it and immediately called the front office for a change of room. I told the hotel manager that I would simply like to experience a room in the new wing. The untold fact was that I finally saw what had eluded me all night because it was right over my head. On the headboard was a mural of a classical Thai painting depicting a bevy of court dancers. That mural was harbouring an unclean presence that went down hard on my friend who obviously was more susceptible than me to its malevolence.