A room with a view
From airless studio apartments to dingy guest houses
I was thinking the other day about how many different styles of accommodation or housing I have lived in during my years in Bangkok - rented houses, tiny studio apartments, dodgy neighborhoods - I didn't realize there were so many. So in chronological order, here are the places that have provided a roof over my head at some stage.
When I first arrived in Bangkok over 20 years ago, the lower Sukhumwit Road area was all I knew. To me that stretch of road was Bangkok. I had spent a lot of time there while on a previous holiday and I suppose it was the familiarity that drew me in. However, I didn't fancy the idea of landing in the city and immediately searching for a long-term apartment so I hunted around for a cheap guest house to use as my Bangkok base. I had a relatively healthy bank balance at the time - so there was no need to start a job hunt either. I wanted a holiday first.
I was recommended a place called Uncle Rey's Guest House on Sukhumwit Soi 4. Uncle Rey's was located down a small sub-soi right next to the Nana Plaza entertainment complex. Surprisingly - given its close proximity to the fleshpots - the rooms were never used for short-time liaisons. In fact the owner (the man known as Uncle Rey) actively discouraged that kind of trade and I admired him for that. All the rooms were priced at 350 baht a night, which was terrific value for the location, and I ended up staying for three weeks.
The rooms were large and air-conditioned but also rather shabby and dark with a stained, musty-smelling mattress and cheap furniture that amounted to little more than a wardrobe and a wonky dressing table. But at least each room had a phone and the staff was super-friendly. Don't ask me for contact details. I'm not even sure if Uncle Rey's is still around.
I very rarely set foot in that lower Sukhumwit neighborhood now. I can't think of an area of Bangkok that I detest more with its obnoxious street-sellers, cluttered footpaths and slow-moving tourists. It's funny how your perception changes over a period of time.
Down to Hua Hin
Still with money in my pocket and in no great hurry to look for work, I then moved down south to the seaside resort of Hua Hin for a couple of months. My only experience of Hua Hin up to that point had been a rushed day trip from the capital, but I liked the slow pace of life and friendly townsfolk. I roomed at the All Nations Guest House on Soi Dechanuchit, which was run by the infamous Donny from New Zealand. Fan rooms cost 150 baht a night and a chalk-board outside advertised ‘the coldest beer in Thailand' Unfortunately New Zealand Donny was the best customer and he'd regularly empty his stocks before heading out for a ‘night on the town' His brawling in what few rival bars there were became the stuff of Hua Hin legend.
Hua Hin in the early 90s was nothing like the international resort it is now. Branches of Starbucks and Burger King were still a long way off. There were literally three or four beer bars along the main strip, a selection of Thai restaurants and for those on a budget, a handful of places to stay. But they were fantastic times and I look back on them with great fondness. There was a tight clique of about two dozen foreign expats and everyone was friendly towards each other. Some were there for the world-class golf courses, others were there for the beach and the ocean and the relaxed lifestyle. Others had no particular place to go and were there until the money ran out
After a couple of months of unashamed R&R, I started to get itchy feet. I was eager to start working but realized that there was little or no work for a teacher in Hua Hin. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made and moved back up to Bangkok, checked into Uncle Rey's Guest House on a pay-by-the-day basis and then started to do some serious apartment-hunting.
Back in Bangkok
Of course these were the days before the internet made our lives so much easier. The only ways for a foreigner to find an apartment was to walk up and down the sois and hope to get lucky or scour the accommodation section of The Bangkok Post classified. And there was always word of mouth.
Chatting to a local Thai woman, the conversation eventually turned to apartments and she recommended I check out a new building called the Somsong apartments on Sukhumwit 22 (near the Imperial Queen's Park Hotel) By this time my best pal from school had joined me in Bangkok for an extended holiday and we went to look at the Somsong together.
The building was spotlessly clean and seemed to be well-run. We liked what we saw and decided to share an air-conditioned studio apartment for 4,500 baht a month. It felt like a significant amount of money at the time but we stumped up the deposit and the first month's rent and moved in. We then went shopping for fans and blankets and teapots and all manner of stuff to make the apartment feel more like home.
And so we moved into the Somsong Apartments together and I slept on one side of the enormous double bed and my pal slept on the other. At night I'd lie there dozing off thinking about my family on the other side of the world and Alan would roll over and fart and I'd know it was going to be a long night. Then I'd wake up in the morning, open my eyes and see him lying next to me with a finger up his nose and a wigwam in the bed. Our shared accommodation adventure lasted a tempestuous nine months and Alan went from being my best friend to someone I wanted to kill and make sure died a slow painful death. It taught me one great lesson in life - never share accommodation with another guy. Ever.
In the famous words of Marlene Dietrich - I wanted to be alone. I was desperate to move out of the Somsong and took the first accommodation I could find. It turned out to be a huge mistake.
Living the high life
I rented a studio apartment on the top floor of a four-storey house (also on Sukhumwit 22) The room was so small there was barely space to walk around the bed and the landlady really saw me coming. She ripped me off for an outrageous 4,000 baht a month. The room wasn't worth half that amount. It didn't have air-conditioning or a phone and because the house was constructed largely from dark wood, it seemed to hold the heat. The room had one of those large oscillating ceiling fans, which don't so much cool down the room as just distribute the hot air. In the afternoons especially, the temperature became unbearable.
By now I had also secured my first Thailand teaching job and needed to look my best. But I was in a constant battle with that awful room. In the morning I would get up, shower in cold water and get dressed as fast as possible before the sweat started to soak into my clean clothes.
So I was the man rooming in the attic but the first two floors were seemingly occupied by only Thai females. The fact they did nothing all day except sit around in the front yard and gossip led me to believe that they started work when the sun went down. I don't think there were many bank clerks among them.
Generally we kept ourselves to ourselves. They would nod and smile whenever our paths crossed and I did the same. There was never ever more than a brief exchange of words even when the communal phone rang and one of the girls would have to climb three flights of stairs in bra and panties to knock on my door. Don't envy me - it was nowhere near as raunchy and erotic as it sounds and the two months I spent there were wretched. I became desperate to get out.
I don't quite know where the desire came from, but I suddenly had the urge to be around other foreigners. I wanted people to chat with over a beer and be able to order dishes from an international menu. However I didn't want the stigma of living in the Khao San Road area - the notorious backpacker ghetto. The only other choice at that time - in terms of a place where you were guaranteed to meet other foreigners - was the Soi Ngam Duphli, Sri Bamphaen area, a stones throw from Lumpini Park.
I wandered down there one morning for a mooch around. I checked out the filthy hovel then known as The Sri Bamphaen apartments and reluctantly said yes to one of their air-conditioned studios for 2,500 baht a month. I say reluctantly because I noticed the rubbish piled up in the corridors and listened to the noise coming from bare-arsed kids running around in the car-park and knew it was never going to be a place I could call home.
I moved all my worldly possessions in a single tuk-tuk journey and then spent a couple of days walking around the area and getting my face known in a few local bars. Mostly I just got chatted up by the local queens or I'd sit alone and gawp at the never ending parade of bargain basement hookers and long term farangs with arms like pin cushions. I seriously wondered if I could make it to the end of the first month.
It was about this time that my parents came to see me in Thailand on the first of what has amounted to eight visits. My mother made several requests to see my apartment but each time I quickly changed the subject. I was far too ashamed to show my folks where and how I was living.
I wasn't looking to save money but the 2,500 a baht month rent was certainly attractive. The air conditioning hardly ever worked so the monthly utilities bill was never more than a few hundred baht on top. Most of what I was earning as a teacher went straight into my pocket.
Amazingly I ended up staying at the Sri Bamphaen Apartments for three years. I 'befriended' one of the other residents, who lived in the 8,000 baht a month penthouse suite. It was actually a room that the building owner's daughter had used when she was working late and couldn't be bothered to drive home. She had knocked two rooms into one, modernized the bathroom and by the appallingly low standards of that area, turned the room into a mini palace. It had hot water, a big TV and a state-of-the-art video player. It was the only reason I stuck around so long.
After three years in the Ngam Duphli / Sri Bamphaen area, I decided it was time to move up in the world. I was making more money at work and felt I deserved something better. The long teaching hours were killing me and I wanted somewhere a little more luxurious to come home to at the end of a hard working day. At a squeeze, I figured out I could stretch to a budget of 6-7,000 baht a month and I had set my heart on a one-bedroom apartment. I was tired of guests sitting on the bed and watching me as I moved around the room rearranging and tidying things in the way that fastidious people do.
The perfect apartment
After checking out the Bangkok Post classified, I found myself on the other side of town (at least it felt like the other side of town) on Petchburi Road and The Petchsiam Mansion Apartments, directly opposite the Dara Cafe (which is no longer there) I asked the lady at reception to show me a room and I fell in love with room 307 the moment she opened the door. The apartment was perfect!
While it wasn't exactly what you'd call a one-bedroom apartment, the owners had installed a clever partition to create a separate bedroom and living room. The whole apartment was only 38 square meters but after what I'd lived in up to that point, it felt like Hampton Court. As for the building itself, the corridors were spotlessly clean, there was a cheery little restaurant and laundry and there was a minimart on the corner of the private soi. The reception staff all wore uniforms and greeted you each morning with a ‘good morning Khun Phil'. And best of all - the place had cable TV! Tell me about it. Although my maximum budget was 7,000 baht a month, I didn't flinch at the 8,000 baht a month asking price. I simply had to have it. I would worry about the economics later.
Life then took on a whole new meaning. I bought myself a Sony Play-station and would spend hours and hours at home either playing games or watching cable TV. I started accumulating stuff. I bought my own refrigerator and TV and a few bits of furniture. I had no urge to venture outside and started to unintentionally lose contact with friends. My whole world existed within those four apartment walls. I've always been something of a loner anyway but I was so happy. I ended up staying there for five years.
The owners were genuinely shocked when eventually I plucked up the courage to tell them I was checking out. They couldn't believe I had found somewhere where I would be happier. But I had. Actually I had two reasons for moving on again. Firstly, I fancied the idea of renting a house and having a little more space - perhaps even a garden as well. And I wanted a place with a spare bedroom that I could turn into a classroom in order to take on private students and make some extra pocket money.
The second reason for waving goodbye to Petchsiam Mansion was the sudden influx of noisy neighbors. Bad neighbors ruin the best of apartment locations eventually. On one side I had an African guy who would beat the shit out of his girlfriend every Sunday morning when they returned from wherever they'd been drinking heavily. On the other side I had four young Bangladeshi lads sharing a room. I'm guessing that they all had the same hearing problem as well judging from how loud the volume on the TV set was. And opposite was a single mother with a babe-in-arms who did nothing but cry all day. The peace had been shattered. My little haven had been invaded. It was definitely time to move on.
So I turned my back on apartment living for good. I turned house-hunting into a full-time job. Every weekend, for several months, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I would drive up and down the sois of what felt like every housing estate (moobarn) in Bangkok, looking for houses for rent. Because I had this plan to teach private students at home, I thought being on the doorstep of a university full of students with rich parents would be a very wise idea - so we started to focus our search on the moobarns around Assumption University in the Hua Mark area.
My first house for rent
We spent hours just driving around, writing down phone numbers from adverts on lamp-posts and making appointments with landlords and house-owners to show us around their properties. Then early one Sunday morning - just as we had given up hope of ever finding the ideal place - we struck gold.
We saw a 'house for rent' sign on a rather impressive looking ornate gate. It looked far too expensive for a poor English teacher but I rang the doorbell anyway. The gate was opened by an elderly Thai-Chinese man and his chatty wife. This was our introduction to Loong and Mem. Little did I know what an important part they were going to play in my life or what good friends they would eventually become.
Loong showed us around the house with its four bathrooms and four bedrooms (who needs four bathrooms for pete's sake?). It was a fine property and you could have done so much with it. Never mind private students, there was room to open a small school. But at 18,000 baht a month, it was way out of my league. Sensing my disappointment, Loong said 'hop in the car, I've got a couple more properties on the moobarn. I'll show them to you"
We drove towards the university and pulled up in front of a house in the most depressing soi in Bangkok. Kids ran around screaming and Sunday mechanics tinkered under the bonnet of old cars. It was bedlam. And this was Sunday. I walked around the house out of sheer politeness. "I'll only charge you 6,000 baht a month" Loong said. He could have given it me for free. There was no way I could live there. "I've got one more place to show you" he said.
We drove back towards Loong's own house but just before we got there, he turned into one of the most beautiful sois I've ever seen. Fully-grown trees lined both sides of the street and all the properties looked well cared for and homely. Because the soi wasn't a short-cut to anywhere, virtually no traffic went down it. When we pulled up in front of one of the houses, Loong pointed and said "this house belongs to me as well"
I didn't even need to get out of the car. I knew I'd found my next home.
The house itself was not in the greatest of condition. There was obvious water damage in places and it needed a bit of TLC but Loong, being a retired handyman by profession, said he would take care of things. 8,000 baht a month. Done! We shook hands on the deal and I arranged to move in within the next three days.
I remember literally trembling with excitement. It wasn't just the house - it was the soi that did it for me. I returned late that night on a reconnaissance and the neighborhood was so quiet you could hear the crickets chirping. It was like being in the middle of the countryside.
Three days later, I moved in. I gradually got to know some of the neighbors (one guy was a professor at the university) I also befriended a couple of dogs from a few doors down who spent more time at my place than they did their own (but only because I always had treats for them)
Working from home
I kitted out one of the spare bedrooms as a private study with a quality table and comfortable swivel chairs and started teaching from home. And for a while it was successful. But most of all I will never forget those Sunday mornings, standing in the soi with a cup of tea and looking out over open fields and thinking "how lucky was I to find this place?"
I lived there for five very happy years. But all good things come to an end. When I told Loong and Mem that I was getting married and Tun and I were building a house far away, there was a stunned silence. Loong said it was like losing part of his family.
As a goodwill gesture I found Loong another foreigner to take over the house - "I always love renting to farangs" he told me. "Thais just don't take care of your property". I handed him the keys, collected my deposit and we drove away for the last time. And I must confess to wiping away a tear but we've been back to see them several times since we left. So it was never really goodbye.
And the final step of my 'accommodation journey' has been to our small two-bedroom house in Samut Prakarn and we've been here six years and counting. As far as interior design is concerned, the house is like my ‘little piece of England. We spent a considerable amount furnishing the place and landscaping the garden and making it homely. I'm not a drinker or a clubber. I would much rather plow money into my home. A nice home has become more important to me as I've got older.
It's just a pity that the neighborhood is so awful. There's very little to commend it. It's congested. It's dusty. It can be very noisy at times. And worst of all, there's nowhere to go in the immediate vicinity. There are no nice restaurants. There are no movie theatres or shopping malls. I guess building our own house has been a trade off of sorts. The land belonged to my wife's mother. All we had to pay for was the house construction costs. And everyone knows it's the land that costs the money. But as my wife and I have said many times, if only we could move the house to that wonderful soi in Hua Mark - now that would be the perfect combination.
I hope you enjoyed the journey. If I ever need to update this blog, I'm hoping that it will be from a house, a condo, an apartment - I really don't care - as long as it's in Chiang Mai.