Five-star service at this Thai budget bolthole
Thailand's small guest houses offer an affordable, authentic and stylish taste of this southeast Asian country, says Andrew Spooner
Sunday 01 March 2009
Mozart is weaving musical magic; orchids are blooming all around me and an Italian in a panama hat is bringing me breakfast. "Incredible," says Paolo Bigolli, owner of the Orchid Hibiscus Guest House, as he places before me a small branch from a tree covered in a thick waxy honeycomb and dripping the stickiest wild honey. Prior to this epicurean delight Paolo had left me a prettily crafted, folded and sealed banana leaf. Inside was a delicious coconut pudding. "You need to pour the honey all over it," says Paolo. "Incredible."
Located just outside the ancient ruined city of Sukhothai in central Thailand, Orchid Hibiscus Guest House is one of the best places to lay your hat in this part of the kingdom. Sure, there are a couple of reasonable four- and five-star hotels nearby which the travel agents and UK-based tour operators will be desperate to shoehorn you into as you visit Sukhothai's popular historical park, but they don't really compare.
And there's the rub: as UK tourists are being forced to look at their outgoings, the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of a country such as Thailand can reveal places that easily compete with top-end establishments. If you factor in the price, then the guest houses tend to come out on top – Orchid Hibiscus weighs in at a ridiculous 900 Thai baht (£18) per night for a double room, including breakfast and transfers from the bus station.
"After you've had a dip in the pool we can get one of the masseurs from the local health centre to visit and give you a massage," says Paolo. "It costs about 300 Thai baht [£6] an hour." I decline, preferring to lounge beside Orchid Hibiscus's dinky pool, taking in the sun and getting the odd cold drink from the nearby fridge. "We operate an honesty system here," says Paolo. "Just write in the book what you drink and you can pay when you leave. We even have a good selection of wine. Take a look."
Later that afternoon, as the lowering sun loosened the extremities of the day's heat, I decide it's time to do some sightseeing. "The main historical park is always worth a visit," says Paolo. "But the smaller, less well-kept ruins have far more atmosphere. You just need to explore. There are bicycles here – just take one and head left down the main road."
With only 15 neatly proportioned bungalows – all with air con, hot showers, four-poster beds and understated contemporary Asian decor – one of the best things about such small-scale accommodation is the location. A diminutive family-run guest house can blend into the surroundings and reach much more exotic locations than any five-star luxury resort can ever hope to sustain. At Orchid Hibiscus I'm only a five-minute cycle ride away from some of Thailand's most stunning ruins. The nearest reasonable hotel is almost 15 miles away.
"Did you go to Wat Chetuphon temple?" asks Paolo as I arrive back at Orchid Hibiscus. "The sunset there is very very beautiful." I tell Paolo that the bike ride has made me peckish – "There are many great places to eat in the market," he says, and then proceeds to go through the list of noodles, curries and other goodies famous in the local area. Having lived in old Sukhothai for more than 10 years, Paolo is a mine of information – all his picks are spot-on.
The morning brings Mozart again and another tasty breakfast. The atmosphere, the welcome, the surroundings, the chance to get to understand one of Thailand's most ancient locations and, above all, not to feel that my every waking moment comes with a price tag, have been a revelation.
Further reading Andrew Spooner is a co-author of Footprint's guide to Thailand (£14.99)
HOW TO GET THERE
Lastminute.com is offering return flights to Bangkok from £445. Orchid Hibiscus (00 66 55 633 284; orchid_hibiscus_guest_house@ hotmail.com) offers bungalows from 900 Thai baht (£18) per night including breakfast.
Tourist Authority of Thailand (0870 900 2007; tourismthailand.co.uk).
Four more cheap and welcoming places to stay
Established more than 20 years ago, Cave Lodge, above, is one of the longest running guest houses in northern Thailand. The basic but spotless rooms are brilliantly located in woodlands near the town of Soppong, halfway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, next to a stream and an ethnic Red Lisu village. From 100 baht (£2) per night (00 66 53 617203; cavelodge.com).
Super-friendly Mr Somboon and family run this cute place high up in the northern hills surrounding Chiang Rai in the mountain village of Mae Salong. Sweet bungalows and great Yunnanese food. From 200 baht (£4) per night (00 66 53 765389; maesalonglittlehome.com).
Nong Khai, in Thailand's northeast, is the last stop before Laos. It's here you'll find the very popular Mutmee guest house on the banks of the Mekong River. Relaxing gardens, wide selection of rooms and decent food. From 100 baht (£2) per night (00 66 42 460717; mutmee.com).
Krabi town is a gateway to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand and also home to the Chanchalay guest house, owned by a Thai lesbian couple. You'll find pretty, designer rooms (the best ones at the back have balconies) and authentic Thai grub. From 200 baht (£4) per night (00 66 75 620 952; chanchalay.com).
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