Life in an Embassy: ‘Please pay for my prostitute’
THE man came to the Australian Embassy with a hat in hand asking for taxpayer support to pay for a lady of the night - fortunately, the request was declined.
But it is just one of the many bizarre, and often serious requests our consular officials contend with every day.
Maybe you heard the one about the woman who contacted the Australian embassy in Thailand asking "do you know where Marjorie is?"
Or the family worried their Dad had gone missing but didn't have a contact for him in Bangkok, and helpfully suggested officials look in "any sports bar showing AFL".
Perhaps the story about the chap asking them to ring him a taxi? Or the bloke wondering if they could they pop down to the optometrist to see if his glasses were ready?
As First Secretary and Consul in the Australian Embassy in Thailand, Anita Downey has heard all these and many more.
In a speech to an Australian Society of Travel Writers conference in Bangkok last month, Ms Downey had the audience roaring with laughter as she reflected on life in the consular corp.
But it wasn't just jokes as she outlined the value of travel insurance.
At any one time, the embassy in Thailand is handling 110 consular cases - and the workload has been rising by about five per cent a year.
Ms Downey noted the Federal Government's smartraveller.gov.au website is a great resource and 400,000 people looked at the Thailand section last year.
But, wanderlusters only spent an average of two minutes at a time on the site.
"A lot of people don't understand what we do," Ms Downey said.
"Recent questions include the email from a woman asking 'can you check where Marjorie is' - that was it, Marjorie. The woman was worried because she had not heard from her.
"There was the prisoner who wanted Australian food because he didn't like Thai food.
"We had a guy the other day wanting us to call a taxi for him - he had lived in Thailand for six years.
"One said 'My hotel is noisy, can you please call them and complain'.
"There was the gentleman who had ordered glasses online and they had not arrived so could we pop out to the glasses shop and see how that was going for him."
But for Ms Downey, there was one story that stood above the rest.
"My personal favourite was a gentleman who came in to visit us and he had a lady friend with him and they had spent the previous night together but he had run out of money so could we pay her on his behalf? I'm sure as Australian taxpayers you will be pleased to learn the answer was 'no'. He had to make his own arrangements."
Anecdotes aside, Ms Downey outlined the serious work consular officials do, and how Australians can save themselves heartache with a bit of common sense.
As well as visiting the 16 Australian prisoners now in Thai jails, last year consular officials dealt with 200 hospitalisations, 74 missing persons cases, 100 arrests and 201 deaths.
She stressed proper travel insurance - which covers pre-existing conditions and is not voided by alcohol, drugs, or risky behaviour such as riding a motorbike without a helmet - is essential.
"We spend a lot of our time trying to help families, explaining to them they need to pay for hospital care if they don't have travel insurance - and a lot of our clients have no money," she said.
"Our main clientele is the 65 to 75 year olds. A typical client in that category would be an Australian man who has come over here, found a friend, decided to stay, as it is obviously a lot lower cost to live here.
"I'm sure it is a fantastic lifestyle except when you get sick. And don't have insurance and don't have money.
"So you ring up the Australian Embassy expecting that we will pay for it and we don't. We have never paid for someone's hospital bill because can you imagine if we did it for one …
"So we don't pay hospital bills and that becomes very difficult, so then we talk to the families and see if they will pay."
Ms Downey said it is common to track down a family back in Australia to tell them their father is sick, only to be told the kids have not spoken to him in decades - so he is on his own.
"If you can't pay you get basic care - if you have travel insurance you'll get a fantastic level of care. In the intensive care unit in some of these hospitals you are looking at close to $10,000 a night," she said.
Motorbike accidents where Australians ride without a licence and helmet are common, but this is a main reason - along with alcohol and drugs - travel insurance companies will not pay out on policies.
"We had a guy in Nepal on a bike hit by car, but he had a helmet and luckily had travel insurance - he was medevaced in Nepal by helicopter which cost $US5000 ($7000), had massive injuries so was medevaced to Bangkok which cost $US60,000, he spent three weeks in ICU in one of Bangkok's best hospitals which cost $US140,000 then was stable enough to be transferred to Australia which cost $US120,000," Ms Downey said.
"He is doing remarkably well but if he had not had travel insurance he would probably have stayed in hospital in Nepal.
"Imagine getting a call to say your daughter, son, brother, parent has been in an accident and needs to be medevaced and taken to a really good hospital and it is going to cost $30,000 and you need to pay it in the next 24 hours.
"If you don't have insurance that's what you are looking at - that's reality."
As insurers like to say, if you can't afford travel insurance you can't afford to travel - but make sure it is the right insurance and you don't make it void with risky behaviour.