I’ve stayed in everything from a 5-star hotel in Singapore to a decrepit pension in Cairo resembling a building site, to a bed and breakfast in a high-rise in the backstreets of communist Budapest. I’ve slept in huts made of branches on the beach in the Sinai Peninsula, on a promenade in Monaco with the pavement for a pillow, bamboo huts in the Gulf of Thailand with no electricity in the hot season. I’ve paid for $3 a night rooms in Cambodia with a leaking roof in the wet and rats for neighbours. I spent a night in a room roughly partitioned into two with a couple “next door” getting it on all night in Florianopolis, Brazil, with all the sound effects. I stayed in a room in a 300-year-old villa in Peru at altitude to take your breath away with no running water during a cholera outbreak. And from those to all the way to the sweat boxes once found in Khao San Road in Bangkok and all together far too many other examples to list.
I’ve done them all just about and no matter where I’ve stayed there are, as far as I’m concerned three key features to look for when paying for accommodation. It needs to be quiet, it should be secure, and it must be clean. Pretty much everything else is secondary for after the lights go out who’s really going to notice anything else anyway.
My first experience of sleeping when I traveled overseas was a tent in parks and on roadsides while hitch-hiking up and down the east coast of Australia. Contrary to popular perception, Australia can be chilly in autumn and a sleeping bag was a must. The great thing about sleeping outside without the distraction of artificial light is you go to bed early and get up at the crack of dawn, full of expectation with an open highway and adventure ahead. To my mind there was nothing better being straight out of school than watching those white lines on the road flick past the car or truck window. The essence was to move.
My experience back then of a roof over my head were a collection of backpackers and youth hostels from Cairns to Melbourne, Sydney to Canberra, and some hideaways in small towns by the sea. I stayed in a Mars hotel (a kind of half-way house where some people go to die) within ear shot of Lang Park in central Brisbane, and a colonial mansion converted into a backpackers right on the beach in far-north tropical Queensland. I hitchhiked the whole way up the east coast. At one point I travelled 1800kms by road in 36 hours overnight without stopping going north, and another time I got one ride for 900kms heading south. I spent a night in a former forest ranger’s hut in Byron Bay, the furthermost easterly point on Australia’s mainland, with a bunch of squatters. When it rained everyone stripped off and went outside for a shower. I’ve also stayed in a variety of hotels and well, doss houses, from Adelaide to Perth with time in Kalgoorlie, some of which weren’t for the faint-hearted. They weren’t interesting, they didn’t have “character’ they were just dives. Despite the adventure and appeal of being on the road for me Australia just wasn’t different enough, so I looked further afield.
In Europe and the Middle East, I stayed in an array of places. These included youth hostels in Britain run under the original model, you got to do chores in return for your cheap digs and in a park in Dover with the hedgehogs for company. No tent, just a sleeping bag on the grass under what soldiers jokingly refer to as the “thousand-star hotel” and another time in Aberdeen in the grounds of what turned out to be an open lunatic asylum.
In Europe, youth hostels were more sophisticated, upmarket facilities, like actual hotels though with dorm rooms. Some had cafeterias but usually came segregated with curfews and not really for grown-ups but were cheaper than actual hotels. I slept outside the railway station in Siena in summer. Every morning a jackbooted motorcycle policeman woke me with a sharp kick to the ribs. During the Palio, I wound up at the victory party for the winning riders in a nightclub wearing a pair of shorts, a singlet, a pair of running shoes with my sleeping bag over my shoulder. I’ve slept by the roadside in Greece, alright in the summer but harsh in the winter. By a river in France where a man called Chef, I think because he was one, turned up Sunday evenings with baked potatoes for dinner and a kind of rum for all to drink.
From roadsides across southern Europe there was a kerbside outside the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco with the lights of the Stade Louis II stadium illuminating the background, curiously one of the most comfortable night’s sleep I’ve had. I stayed in a family home in a tenement block in the back streets of Budapest. It was quiet, clean and homely. I spoke no Hungarian and they no English. Of note all the household items were manufactured in the former communist bloc and the father, though I never saw him, had played for Honved with the great Puskas, the “Galloping Major”. At lunchtimes you had to register at the local police station, a prerequisite for visitors back in the day.
There was Kitty’s Pension near the zoo in Amsterdam on more than one visit, a climb up a steep stairway. You could take the tram from the central station or walk. Amsterdam to me as a visitor seemed much a city of caricatures, waifs and strays, all a cartoonist delight with a wealth of material for the satirist. Friends were squatters in an immigrant neighbourhood. The local tailor said most business came from razor cuts to leather jackets caused by street fights. The police took no prisoners. The bathroom was a closet, standing room only. The mirror was on the back of the door and no room to swing the proverbial. There was also that wonderful night on the outskirts of Civitavecchia on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the man in the restaurant on hearing my request for somewhere to sleep pointed just over the way, which I found out after bedding down, was the local rubbish dump. But the next morning under a clear blue sky made up for it.
In Cairo I stayed in a pension downtown on the fifth floor with holes in the walls complete with piles of rubble. It was inhabited by various long-term residents, one of whom was a forger including of passports, of which he had stacks lying about waiting for their new owners. The place looked like a Beirut bombsite, the Lebanese capital had a few back then after much inter-sectarian bloodshed and foreign military intervention. At night the room was invaded by cockroaches that wouldn’t leave, so I had to. Later I moved to somewhere more amenable on the recommendation of George, a local with his very own reference in Fodors or some other such guidebook. A suave spiv-like character but with charm who’d belong in an Alan Furst novel. He dressed well in a suit, liked a drink in a Muslim country, and the ladies. As a sign of affluence, cosmopolitanism, or just plain indifference, he smoked Marlboros not the local ubiquitous Cleopatra brand. He bought me whiskey from a well-stocked upmarket hotel bar with a bottled blond prostitute on his arm.
I’ve slept deck class (fourth class) on a Cypriot ferry plying the Mediterranean. To clean the toilets, the crew had poured ammonia down them in such quantities they were unusable for the entire three-day voyage due to the lingering smell. It was a trip I did four times, there and back, twice. I’ve done the fabled trifecta: the Red, the Dead and the Med. I’ve slept on the shores of the Dead Sea, and in a tent in the Sinai Desert, and in huts, actually more like shelters, in a Bedouin village. On a Mediterranean beach I got attacked by mosquitoes, while the side streets of the local market after dark were alive with thousands of rats. I once spent three days on a bus across Europe but don’t think I slept at all. One firm was called the Miracle Bus, the joke being it was a miracle it ever got there.
I’ve been on sleeper trains in Thailand and slept quite well. There’s something about the rolling motion, and the fact you get a proper bed, as opposed to being upright in a seat like on a bus or a plane. The carriages had a well-worn industrial feel and the toilets were best avoided unless you just had to go. Efforts to sleep on night buses are hopeless and given the accident rates in Southeast Asia after dark, probably shouldn’t be used at all. Air-conditioning on Thai buses in any case could chill beer, so getting off at rest stops was a thawing relief.
The famous Khao San Road then was just that road and not the surrounding area, with guest rooms packed into shophouses above grotty bars come restaurants. Walls were hardboard partitioned. Rooms were barely big enough for the bed, sound proofing non-existent, fans noisy, the showers unhygienic and toilets well dodgy as were some of the staff. The owners’ pets, various collections of motley hounds and mutant cats, probably helped keep the rodent population down but carried fleas and scratched themselves raw. Others kept various reptiles on the premises for show while demonstrating some obvious animal welfare issues. People still looked at maps, and talked to each other. There were no smart phones and the internet had yet to be invented. All this meant you learned stuff and had to figure things out for yourself. More of an adventure and not like today.
South America offered a range of budget hotels including from a converted monastery off Avenida O’Higgins, the main drag known as La Alameda in Santiago, to houses in Arica by the sea, complete with a cathedral by Gustav Eiffel, and porta cabins in the desert outside San Pedro de Atacama. In Peru there were grand houses in Arequipa in the shadow of El Misti, and bricked rooms opening onto a courtyard in Nazca where it never rained but did when I was there – the cars having no wiper blades, why would they. There was a basement in Cusco and a tent on the Inca Trail back when you almost didn’t have to stand in a queue. After wind and rain on the trail at 4,000m, plus a room in Aqua Calientes was welcome except for the bedbugs. The town’s main road is the railway track and the train out of town was always late. The best entertainment on the rail journey were the brazen activities of the bag-snatchers. There was a stone block homestay with no electricity on Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. Warm and cosy but hard to find in the dark with absolutely no lighting to be seen. One guest wandered off and it took two hours to find her.
I got stuck in Potosi in Bolivia for four days during a national election in a hotel with all internal windows. There were no buses running and the sale of alcohol was banned, at least to the locals. Sucre (Sugar) was wonderful but like most travel in Bolivia in those days, the roads outside town were unsealed. The city airport was lined with plane wrecks. A night in a Bolivian bus saw a dawn arrival at the border with Argentina at the same time one of the rear tyres blew out following a lifetime of punishment. There was a great hotel in Gloria in Rio De Janeiro. Attempts at swimming at Rio beaches were curtailed by the black water which produced skin boils on any foreigner game enough to try. The locals didn’t seem to mind and were seemingly unaffected.
A hotel in Asuncion doubled as an escape for young Paraguayan couples renting rooms by the hour. So did my hotel in Daegu, a so-called “love hotel”. The hallway lights were so dim you could barely find your way around and any lighting was usually coloured red. Koreans also stay in multi-storied saunas with baths of every description, and where you sleep on the floor. It was clean, far too warm and none too private.
Hotels in Singapore aim at the upper end of the market and are almost universally bland, but clean and safe, much like the island-state itself. Lower end places can be hard to find unless through word-of-mouth. If you’re just stopping over you may as well take a room in 6-hourly lots at Changi Airport. There’s more variety in Malaysia but generally countries where the majority of people move on two wheels are more interesting and better value than those where they travel on four.
The best value for money by far is mainland Southeast Asia in the Mekong countries especially Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Thailand less so I think because the tourist market there has been around longer. These days it is now geared more towards the package holiday crowd and priced accordingly unless you stay away from the resorts. But be it beach, city or highlands, hotels and guesthouses in these countries just about have it all. Over the years I’ve seen: the weird, the wacky, the curious, the peculiar, the surreal, they come noisy, quiet, clean, tacky, dysfunctional, claustrophobic, spacious, with outlook, with none, hot, cool, fan, air-conditioned, a leaky roof, secure, unsecure, private, creepy (viewing holes drilled in doors), comfortable, uncomfortable, with electricity, no electricity, intermittent electricity, made of concrete, bamboo, wood, Perspex and combinations thereof, with hot water, cold water, no running water, ensuite, a communal hole in the ground, nightlife next door or none, rodents and other livestock, karaoke, neon lights, broken fixtures and fittings and others that are quite simply amazing value for money, doubtless charming and I’d think about staying on a while.
One of my early trips to Southeast Asia was to Indonesia. I stayed in a dorm room in Jalan Jaksa in Jakarta. It was mosquito-infested. I got eaten alive. It took me half the length of Java to recover. I didn’t know any better and thought that was all there was. I had not much to compare, and the sad news is budget rooms in Java haven’t improved much. This was followed by the whole range of hotels and guesthouses across the region, these terms being largely interchangeable. They were cheap and they were dives. Back in 2007 rooms by the lake in Phnom Penh could be had for as little as US$2 a night. It was where the downbeat and desperate stayed and there were a few of them, people and the rooms. You could stay in Banglamphu in Bangkok for US$3-4 a night and some had charm and a river view but they were basic, and not places you’d want to spend time, which at least served to get you out and about.
In Hoi An I stayed in one of the best value places ever for just US$8. In Hanoi there was a room that looked like the inside of a casino with furniture to match. Some rooms were tiny and others surprisingly large. Some came with breakfast and some didn’t. Having a pre-determined place to stay in Vietnam’s capital is little guarantee you’ll get there as the taxi drivers have their own ideas on where you can stay, and you can wind up somewhere completely different, which may be an improvement in lodgings but sometimes isn’t.
At Khong Island in Laos I stayed in one of the best places ever. They only had two rooms upstairs but if you were lucky enough to get one you could watch the mighty Mekong roll by and drink Laos beer, a brew so good the Thais banned it across the border least it wiped out their local competition. Luang Prabang manages to remain low key despite being the jewel in the Laos tourist crown. I once arrived by plane on an internal flight from Pakse. Immigration asked if I needed a visa as I strolled by quite happy to let me keep on walking.
Bungalows on Thai islands come and go, much like bars and their owners. They change all the time. All the original establishments on Koh Samed came and went from 1990 and again from mid-2006 and probably in-between as well. The same happened on Koh Chang, which was no bad thing given how basic they all were. In the same period the replacements had enough traffic through to become jaded again all on their own.
The good thing about hotels and guesthouses in Southeast Asia is you can stay there for varied amounts of time; everything being negotiable. Rooms are rented by the hour, night, week or month. If you’re renting longer term you can acquire the better furniture from other rooms in the hotel or buy your own. Bamboo, rattan furniture in Cambodia can be had for just a few dollars and delivered within a half-hour on the back of a motorbike. Within a short space of time you can have an average room ‘customized’. When you leave you just take it with you or leave it with someone for safekeeping and pick it up again later. You’ll find others in the same establishment doing the same thing so you can wind up in a little community of some quite interesting characters.
You can find some real gems in places not usually on the tourist trail. One hotel in Kompong Thom in Cambodia, half-way between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, was about the best value I’ve seen in quite some time. The buses stop right outside so you almost fell into reception. For US$15 you got a room that wouldn’t been out of place in a three or four-star hotel. It was so good I took a photo of the bathroom. Battambang is another place where you can find similar style and value, the town is more becoming on each visit; gentrified, charming and with enough visitors to make it interesting without killing what makes it attractive in the first place.
I’m always amazed what comes with a pool. They have backpackers in Cambodia and Vietnam with these features. Rooftop bars have been all the rage in Phnom Penh. Great places to get away from the street level heat as elevation gives you a breeze, natural air-conditioning and a vista. Soon I’ll see another twist, the next trend. I like all the little quirks, even what doesn’t work. I stayed in a brand-new hotel in Thailand once only to discover many of the fittings in the bathroom were upside down! At one hotel in Sihanoukville, the doors wouldn’t open. I couldn’t get in and the guy next door couldn’t get out. I was stuck in the hallway and he in his room, shouting for help. At another guesthouse in Phnom Penh, a long-term favourite but not anymore, the TV channels in each room were all different, despite cable being from the same provider.
A few years ago, I changed my preference for accommodation partly as I was getting older but more because I wanted some indication I’d progressed socio-economically in life and wanted more comfort. No more sweat boxes, though I’ve still stayed in a few. My preferences became more pronounced. I like air-con, I like watching football on TV, I like hot water and a fridge. I like to relax in peace and quiet. I like security and I particularly prefer cleanliness. I choose where I want to go rather than be guided by where I stay, which comes after.
There’s an old adage that tourists stay in the Hilton, whereas travellers are prepared to try other things and go elsewhere. You don’t need to spend much money to find somewhere to stay with everything you need, and in the end you don’t really need a lot. In Western countries you get what you pay for and they’re expensive by comparison with places in Southeast Asia where the range of options are great and varied and generally really good value for money. You can find some really great places without having to look very hard and not so occasionally, there are some real gems.