IMAGINE yourself in Bangkok, eager for directions to the Pratunam clothing markets but lost in a language you can neither read nor pronounce.
a) Shout at the nearest policeman until he becomes proficient in English?
b) thumb through an outdated guidebook and hope for the best?
c) wander the streets until bedraggled, sniffling orphans take pity on you?
d) phone a friend?
Assuming you survive the challenge, the first three will generate exciting stories for your return home, but a fledgling service for mobile phones - your new best travelling friend - may solve your troubles.
Introducing Wikitude, which merges the navigational help of Google maps with the informational depth of Wikipedia. Type a local destination into your phone and it will deliver a map with a red pin marking your selection, estimate the distance from your current location and display Wikipedia's entry on the topic. You will learn, for example, that Pratunam means "water gate"; so if your name is Richard Nixon, it may be best avoided.
Alternatively, you can put in a general search term for, say, museums, and see a list of nearby choices. You can even point your phone at a landmark as if you were photographing it and Wikitude will identify the mystery site.
Given Wikitude's ability to be updated around the clock, its arrival does not bode well for the weighty tomes of Lonely Planet, Let's Go, Fodor's or any of their countless competitors. And if you're going to travel with a mobile phone anyway, a heavy guide book is in danger of looking like excess baggage.
Wikitude has been under development for five years by an Austrian named Philipp Breuss. So far the system is restricted to 350,000 points of interest around the world, which is hardly small but far from comprehensive. Without question, though, that will increase.
A search for "Sydney" delivers more than 1200 entries, ranging from the Harbour Bridge to Harry's Cafe de Wheels. However, Wikitude does seem to have difficulty finding the Sydney Opera House - perhaps because patrons there are asked to turn their mobiles off during performances.
Depending on how far you zoom out of a map, the screen can look like a useless mass of red pins. And all this information comes at a cost in the form of download charges to a phone.
Of course, many people who can afford a mobile advanced enough to use Wikitude are already on a payment plan that allows generous online usage. But if you have lost your shirt buying the phone and paying the call costs, Pratunam market is famed for selling inexpensive clothes 24 hours a day. At least that is what it says on Wikitude.