We are hospitable people in Thailand, but we are highly commercial also. 30 years ago, when the bearded stranger arrived in Chiang Mai, I was jostling with 50 others at the railway station one early morning. We all carried cardboard signs with our guest house names on, hoping the foreigners getting off the train from Bangkok would choose to stay with us. It was a big competition – and important for me because we had only opened the guesthouse the previous month. The bearded stranger headed straight for me: he’d been recommended to us by someone he had met in Rangoon. My brother drove him, me and a German tourist back to the guest house, a small but comfortable two-storey house on a back-street.
I booked a 4-night trek for him, and the German, starting that very morning. He left me his laundry and I had that done and ready for when he would get back five days later. I kept his backpack secure and I bought him a bus ticket back to Bangkok.
On the fifth day he returned to town from deep down on highway 108, at Mae Hong Son near Burma. He arrived at 17.30, tired and filthy after two days on an elephant and four nights either sleeping rough or in the huts of the Lawa or Pao Karen tribesfolk he had gone to see. The German man booked a room in our guest house, and the stranger showered in that. He collected his laundry and his bus ticket from me and at 7pm the shuttle came to collect him for the bus station. I went with him to be sure the bus driver knew to drop him off at the airport, not take him into the city. I did a lot for him – and, though he paid us all that he owed, he didn’t even spend a night with us. But this service mentality we have is important: that’s why my brother and I are still in business over 30 years later, occupying a multi-storey steel and glass hotel on a main road.