Readers' Submissions

Delightful Chiang Mai – My Four Hotels There



1) Chiang Mai Plaza

I check into the plush Chiang Mai Plaza Hotel, where rooms start at 2000 baht (cheaper online). The unfriendly and arrogant reception lady wants to see my credit card. First thing I discover in my wallet is a useless key card from Windsor Hotel in Bangkok. Upon copying my MasterCard, she says: "Just for information, sir, if you bring someone else to your room, we charge you 400 baht for that." – I give her a big grin. – She remains dead-serious: "No, just for information."

Ten minutes later, I inspect my room's bathroom very decent facilities, when a very noisy RRRRINNNG!!!!! makes me jump to the ceiling – heck, I did not expect a hotel phone in the hawng nam! – "You mister Pothole?" – Of course. – "Here is reception; sir, you forgot your wallet here!" – It is the same unfriendly gal like before. – "You remember me?" – Oh yes. – "I keep wallet for you."

Two minutes later, at the reception. Now she is all smiles and playfully holds the wallet away from me. Then she gracefully hands it out, I make "Khop khun MAAAAK khrap" and waddle off. Did she expect a tip? She was so arrogant before that it felt difficult to tip her. Later I actually want to give her 200 baht, but I can't remember her face. The three to ten receptionist ladies in their folkloristic-humoristic silk attires and identical Disneyland (or Lanna style?) hair-do all look same-same; I simply don't remember my special receptionist.

The breakfast room at the Chiang Mai Plaza is a dark grotto with half blind windows and green tinted light from above. There seem to be no morning newspapers. This can't be true! Only when I start to fill my plate with fried rice, eggs and vegetables, I see another door and realize you can also sit outside.

There it is cool, but still fine with T-shirt only – just perfect. And great, I get the service to bring me hot coffee with *hot* fresh milk.

So I happily settle on my outdoor table with a book and my mixed hot food, milk coffee, a fruit plate with lemon juice sprinkled over it and the option to continue with hot croissants and honey-roasted muesli – when a chain saw next door starts to scream and never stops. Welcome to Thailand.

River View Lodge

The pompous Chiang Mai Plaza is actually not my style, plus they have put me on a floor where lots of Thai customers keep me awake all night with talking, walking, bonking, snoring and TV. And I don't fancy all the pale German and US tour group troopers around breakfast time either (even though they would make for quieter floormates).

I discover the hidden River View Lodge right on Mae Nam Ping – it is more like a guesthouse, and they have a pleasant shady wonderland garden with pool: the perfect setting for reading and writing in the hot hours. It is also handily close to a few eateries and live music pubs on the other side of the river, especially the "Cottage" with its brass section band. I need to see this lodge for only one second to grab the next best room. At 1800 baht, a balcony room at the River View Lodge costs almost as much as a Chiang Mai Plaza standard room, and their arrogance is very comparable; but in room quality, River View Lodge is several stars below the Plaza: you pay for the location and the charming garden – it is much more atmospheric than most of the resort gardens or royal flower gardens I see later around northern Thailand, and there are only very few hotels right on the river.

Breakfast is open air. I see mostly middle-aged westerners, not attached to tour groups, including short-cut ladies in hippie dress with solemn face; I guess they all take part in meditation courses, or yoga at least. In the afternoons you can meet them again in the airy pseudo-colonial Siam Celedon tea house on Thapae road.

River View Lodge is so much geared towards Europeans that they don't even supply TVs. And you need a laundry bag? You have to ask the arrogant receptionist. But not on Sundays!

After check-in, I happily settle in the fanciful garden sala with books and tourist information – when a compressor on the other side of slim Ping river starts to thunder and never stops. Welcome to Thailand. Then Mae Nam Ping brings intense sewage smell. Welcome to Thailand. In the night, the thumping rhythm from the "Cottage" pub on the opposite side of the river stops me from sleeping. Welcome to Thailand.

With the live music from "The Cottage", I do not have a quiet balcony in my supposedly romantic riverside retreat. I can even hear the music when lying in bed. Worst is, I vaguely know most of their play list and keep guessing: Now this is Santana, right? The song isn't called "Maria, Maria", is it, but then what? And which album, was it "Supernatural" or "Milagro"?

It is impossible to stop guessing. Only solution: Go to bed AFTER 1 a.m. And that's what I came for anyway.

Like all the hotels that follow, it isn't easy to stay at the River View Lodge for several days on end in the high season. Because of all their bookings, I have to change rooms every two days or so.

Diamond Riverside Hotel

Three weeks later, after returning from fantastic pothole research by jeep around northern Thailand, I don't want to go back to the River View Lodge – while the garden is pleasant, even unique for central Chiang Mai, I still feel strongly overcharged and don't like the unwelcoming receptionists. Almost next door, also on Charoen Phratet road, towers the Diamond Riverside, about 18 storeys high. I get a room for 1070 baht including breakfast in the 12th floor, overlooking their dirty pool, the "Riverside" bar, Ping river with Saphan Lek (the small iron bridge), and a whole lot of unspectacular buildings on Chiang Mai's eastern half.

The Lonely Planet describes this hotel as "decaying". My room is medium-sized and clean; the carpet has a few stains, and there is a slightly unpleasant smell, which quickly disappears through the open window; the minibar contains only free water. The bathroom has a tub with a shower head coming out from the wall. Some light switches are within the bedside table and have been dismounted; so for my bedside lamp I have to press onto the plastic and metallic stuff that was once hidden – and for good reason, I guess – by the switch. Still I survive without a stroke. They have the usual big-hotel central air conditioner which is noisy and cannot be remote-controlled.

The all-female reception staff is never friendly or cooperative – the third Chiang Mai hotel with arrogant front desk in a row. They actually try to avoid any contact at all. They take my credit card without explaining the least bit for what (they create a blanco slip, which is cancelled upon check-out). I think the receptionist does not speak English, or she despises me, as she wouldn't answer my Thai either. The only informative thing I learn from another lady is that I can only stay two nights – well, why being friendly when they are fully booked anyway. I get no hotel card with my room number, so basically anybody can turn up and demand my room key; I discover these cards on their desk, they are just too lazy to use them.

Upon breakfast time I see that mostly Asian guests use the Diamond Riverside; I slept well anyway (I had problems with partying Asians in several other hotels). The buffet contains dominantly cooked Asian food; the only western option is boring white toast, and the toaster is beleaguered by five people; there are no cereals, the fruit plates appear to be almost empty whenever I try my luck. The milk for the coffee is cold and some kind of condensed. Thus, it is almost impossible to create a non-oily breakfast, if you don't want to feast on plain toast only. The tables are arranged in a very boring canteen style – and they pushed several small square tables together to squeeze as many customers as possible into the lobby's breakfast area; this brings you into good contact with your loudly munching and spattering hotel mates.

Thanks to the huge tinted windows, breakfast area as well as the rest of the lobby have bright daylight in the morning, one of the rare pluses there. The couches in the lobby are arranged in long even rows, exuding the charm of a suburban furniture hyperstore. This "lobby" does not at all invite you to settle down with a book, with a city map or with a newspaper. And why: Whenever I check the newspaper rack, I see exactly two dailies – in Thai script.

Chiang Mai is all about fanciful hanging lamps, and the Diamond Riverside has its own contribution – in the lifts. The lamps there do not sit inside the ceiling, but are mounted onto rails. Some of those lamps harbour such clusters of greasy filth, they haven't been cleaned for years. In the other lift, the lamp has left its rail – it dangles loosely above my head, still beaming, with the wire disappearing somewhere above.

Desperately Seeking

At first, I don't regret that I have to leave the Diamond Riverside after two nights. But then I get into a bit of trouble: nobody else wants me. I phone around hotels in the 1000+ baht range between old town and riverside, but for the weekend they are all full – Royal Lanna, Royal Princess and Pornping as well as the huge new Duangtawan. I also visit a few smaller hotels between 500 and 1000 baht; according to me, places in that category can boast impressive lobbies, while the rooms may be anything from grotty to perfectly decent, so I better check personally. I talk to several receptionists – everything full, and I walk off as a loser.

I also wander through several quiet sois, off Thapae road near night bazaar and off Ratchadamnoern road in the old town, to see a few guest houses. These roads are still half-residential; in Java's Solo-Surakarta, which is a bit comparable to Chiang Mai, I would stay in small off-off-neighbourhoods, and in no time I had been part of the "Kampung": receiving smiles – and credit – from every cold drink vendor and laundry service on the block. But the guest houses around Chiang Mai's Thapae sois have no real windows, only opaque blinds – keeping out the view, but letting in the noise. Plus, some of the customers there I might not want to see before breakfast.

Better look the guesthouses off Ratchadamnoern, where air-con rooms with attached bathroom go for 400 baht. The "White House" seems quiet and inviting, so I inquire about vacancies for tomorrow. – "You come back and check tomorrow." – I ask for a card, so I can call ahead. – "Sorry, cards finished." – They don't like me.

Suriwong Hotel

Finally, two hours before I have to leave the Diamond Riverside, I get the Suriwong Hotel on the line. It is in the night market area, and they accept me. I say "I can check-in one hour later, and I would like a quiet room high up on the back side". – "OK sir, the room service will make up the room right now."

So I check out of Diamond Riverside – again without any words, smiles or wais from the cold bored receptionists. After a short tuktuk ride to the Suriwong hotel, the receptionist there asks "Would you like to pay now?" Her face and voice say "You better WOULD like to pay now!" Dutifully I give her 2800 baht for two nights, and she wants to keep 200 baht as a deposit for the minibar. I take the lift, and just as ordered, I have a high room on the back side; but for Suriwong, that's just a fifth floor, and "back side" here means I look straight into a very close and half-rotten high-rise; so the room has not much daylight.

The cleaning lady is still wiping through the room and in no mood to stop for me. I tell her "mai pen rai" (would you say "khrap" here?) <nah, no needStick> and lift back down to the lobby; there I hand my voucher for the welcome drink to a bar keeper. According to the voucher, the drink will "enhance my northern experience" or so; it is a very small glass with a very sweet fruit juice. Very different from the Diamond Riverside, the distinguished, if pretentious Old World lobby here invites you to sit down, to browse the papers or to meet friends before hitting town.

By now it is 11 a.m. Because of my limited days in the Diamond Riverside, I couldn't do laundry there. So back in my finally cleaned Suriwong room, I stuff dirty shirts and trousers into one of the two cotton bags with room number provided, then I call laundry service. According to the laundry slip, any washing after 9 a.m. won't be finished before next day. A cleaning lady shows up, takes my bag and says in clear English: "Finished this evening". And yes, at night I find my well-done cottons plus a small welcome fruit plate in my room. Some days later I have again trousers and shirts for the cleaning lady; only ten minutes later she knocks on my door – she found the motorcycle key in one pocket.

The attitude in the Suriwong couldn't differ more from the Diamond Riverside. While in the Riverside receptionists tried to ignore me and wore this intense bored-uninterested smell, all receptionists at Suriwong have a welcoming attitude: Whenever I approach, I get anything from a questioning smile to an enthusiastic "Good afterNOOOON, sir, what can I do for YOUUUU?" Maybe this readiness and friendliness is just part of their hospitality training, still it is a nice change from all the other cold receptionists I had in Chiang Mai, and at least I know I am noticed. The cleaning ladies in Suriwong are also ready to exchange a "Sawasdee" and a smile.

In my room I find a "No smoking" sign. That's perfect for me, but I hadn't asked for it. What if I am a chain-smoker, just arriving nicotine-starved from 28 hours of intercontinental non-smoking flights? The room has quite a clean carpet and no smell at all. It is pseudo-feudal and spacious, the window wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. The bathroom has a very low bathtub, high enough just for your poodle, the shower head sits on a hose. On Sunday night after 1 a.m., there is hefty construction noise from the nearby high-rise; welcome to Thailand.

Like many other places in Chiang Mai, this hotel does get a few mosquitoes, actually a sign suggests to keep the windows closed at all times. One time in the corridor I see a service guy playfully killing mosquitoes with something like an electric tennis rack – nice idea to avoid the smell of mosquito spray. When I moved in, one dead mosquito stuck on the bathroom mirror. When shaving or brushing teeth, I would see it in my reflected face, around my left cheek or on the nose tip. This dead animal stays with me for all my five days at Suriwong. Reader, drop me a line if you still see the poor lad sticking around its mirror site.

One night I get asked two times if I need more nights, and receptionist 2 doesn't know that I have already paid my extension to receptionist 1. Another night I am told I have to check-out the next morning, so with a sigh I make up my mind for hotel number 5 in Chiang Mai. I ask Suriwong's morning shift again about my room, and voilà, I can stay as many more nights as I like.

Breakfast is in the attached Fuah Fang restaurant. They do what Thai hotels do with tea: They hang a bunch of tea bags into a pot of hot water and keep it boiling there ad infinitum. So much for tea, and hot milk for coffee is not provided. They have corn flakes, but no muesli. The fruit bar only offers two kinds of fruit, on most days for example papaya and pineapple, but no watermelon, I wonder why.

One breakfast time, a slick oily Thai man sits right down at my table. Very unusual! He claims to have relatives in my country, then asks if I am married and where I want to go. I am trained to ignore guys like him on the street, but here in the breakfast room I am unsure and don't want to be impolite. But I lie to him that my wife is upstairs, and we have already been everywhere – he disappears immediately. Touts inside the hotel should be required to wear a flaming red uniform.

The restaurant has little daylight only, anyway I get a window place every morning; all the mostly farang customers prefer to eat under a bulb. From my window seat I can watch shut-up night market stalls, tourists in shorts leafing through guide books, tour buses and tuktuk drivers. Occasionally a Thai lady with arms full of baskets or textiles offers her wares right through the glass window while I munch on fried rice and fried eggs.

This night market location is not ideal for me. Suriwong hotel sits on a junction of one-way roads; with my rented motorcycle, I have to go long detours just to reach the hotel on legal routes (and Chiang Mai police have educated me to stick to the law 101 per cent, see the submission about police later). From 3 to 10 p.m., the roads around Suriwong are crammed to a degree that not even a Honda Dream slips through – but actually, all of downtown Chiang Mai can be jammed up.

Worse, Suriwong hotel has almost no parking; I have to squeeze the motorbike between the hotel's ghost house, an ATM, two other motorbikes and the two or three cars they can accommodate. I had pondered to rent motosai and bicycle at the same time, but this wouldn't fit into the minimal space they have. (All the previous hotels had decent parking, the parking lot at the Chiang Mai Plaza dwarfs the local airport.)

When I walk out, tuktuk drivers descend on me. One evening, a tuk-tuk guy on the other side of the street does imaginative gestures and barks: "Hey mister, body-to-body, huh!?" – Twenty Thais and tourists await my reply interestedly. – "Body-to-body? With YOU??"

The cashiers at the Suriwong differ a lot from the receptionists. In the bill they forget that I paid 200 baht deposit. When I quietly inform them of that, they get a bit annoyed.

Next time

Room- and breakfast wise, Suriwong is only slightly below the Plaza, which costs at least 600 baht more. Plaza, though, has much more space, which they use for an impressive lobby, a huge parking lot, generous pool surroundings and an outdoor breakfast area; in these fields, Suriwong can't compete.

What I need next time is a lovely garden like in the River View Lodge plus friendliness as in Suriwong's reception, with al fresco breakfast and easy parking like in the Chiang Mai Plaza.

See you there.

Stickman's thoughts:

Wow, your adventure seems to go on forever. We're envious!