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A Subjective Guide to the Budget Hotels of the Orient
In Asia, most luxury hotels have been fine-tuned to eliminate the prospect of unpredictability. Specific amenities aside, a given Ritz-Carlton or Shangri-La property is designed to feel the same from city to city. This ensures a consistent level of comfort for clients, but it rarely makes for distinctive travel memories.
The budget hotels of Asia, on the other hand, are charming precisely because you can't predict what kind of experiences await from destination to destination. Guidebooks might offer general information about prices and services, but it isn't until you encounter them first-hand (in the context of your own personal idiosyncrasies) that you get a sense for how these budget hotels can enhance your travel experience.
This in mind, here's my subjective guide to some of the cheapest, frumpiest hotels in the Orient:
Ngoc Linh Hotel, Kontum, Vietnam
$12 for a private room; $5 for a dorm room (tel: 84-60-864560)
The owner's daughter, a cute, almond-eyed child, is scared of you. Whenever you walk through the lobby, she bursts into tears. Though you have enough money for a private room, you elect to stay in the dorm. The only other occupant is a Japanese backpacker. He ties a beer can to the end of a shoelace and bangs it on the floor because he thinks there are rats under the beds. When you return for a second night, you notice that the maids have turned off the ceiling fan and stolen your bananas, but they did not bother to actually clean the room. That evening you notice that the owner's daughter is no longer scared of you. You also notice that she is eating a banana.
$10 a night (tel: 91-761-323412)
Manoj, a Brahmin-caste pharmaceutical salesman you met in the lobby, has taken you under his wing. One day he invites you to a colorful Hindu wedding. You take lots of photographs there, because this is the kind of thing you imagined you'd photograph before you started traveling. Manoj dresses in American fashions, so it never occurs to you to take his picture. Each night, back in your room, you call the front desk and a watery-eyed Sikh brings butter chicken to your room for 100 rupees. On the fourth night the Sikh tells you the price has gone up to 105 rupees. The difference is little more than a dime, but you never order butter chicken from the Sikh again.
Santyphab Hotel, Savannakhet, Laos
$1.50 a night, (tel: 856-41-2122777)
The owners have obviously stopped caring about the upkeep of the facilities, and this makes your room more interesting. A previous traveler has drawn a rough map of the world onto the wall over the bed, and many people have penciled in comments about the places they've been. Under the map, in big letters, someone has written: "FREE TIBET (inquire at front desk)." You dig out your ballpoint pen, but can't think of anything clever to write. You notice that the small window in the bathroom is broken, and a bird has made a nest in the empty frame. Later, while you're taking a shower, the bird flies in and sits in the nest. Taking great pains not to scare the bird, you creep back into the room, fetch your camera, and take a photo. When this photo comes back from the developer dim and blurry, you can't recall why you found it so important to take the picture in the first place.
Momo's Hostel, Tel Aviv, Israel
$8 a night, (tel: 972-3-5287471)
The kid from Los Angeles shows you a Star of David tattooed on his thigh. He tells you that his father is Mexican and his mother is Jewish. When you mention you were in Syria last week, he says that Arabs are putos, and that he would visit Syria only if he were driving an Israeli army tank. Your other dorm-mate is Charley, a middle-aged man from England. Charley keeps talking about how he quit drinking five days ago, so you congratulate him and wish him good luck. A blonde South African girl tends the bar downstairs. She is traveling with her mother. They are both beautiful, and this makes Charley the Englishman sad. You start talking to a group of Italian travelers, and when you turn to Charley again, you see that he is quietly downing a glass of whiskey. Unlike other hostels in Tel Aviv, Momo's has no curfew, so you leave with the Italians to go nightclubbing.
Crystal Inn, Phuket, Thailand
$10 a night, (tel: 65-7621-88702)
The bellboy makes you nervous, because he insists on pointing out how everything in the room works -- the lights, the water, the windows. You already know how these things work, but you give him a tip anyway. When you leave the next day, you steal one of the towels to make up for the towel you misplaced two days before, on Phi Phi Island. When the bellboy chases you down the alley to ask for the towel back, you pretend you don't know what he's talking about. You are obviously in the wrong, but you keep thinking back to how he really didn't deserve that tip.
Camel Caravan Guesthouse, Dahab, Egypt
$6 a night, (tel: 20-69-5794004)
Your minivan arrives late, and you choose the Camel Caravan because it is the nearest hotel to your drop-off point. When you awaken the following morning and order tea in the courtyard, you recognize several people you met the week before in Cairo. Of these four people, Paul and Dan will go on to become your good friends; you will later hang out together in San Diego. A third person, Nele, tells you how she lost her little toe in a go-kart accident when she was a child in Belgium. Her friend, Stefie, will give you a haircut on the roof of the hotel. You and Stefie will later become lovers, and she will invite you to spend Christmas with her in Brussels. You will accept, but the affair will turn sour because in Belgium you are not the same person for her that you were for her in Egypt.
Smiley's Guesthouse, Siem Reap, Cambodia
$6 a night, (tel: 855-63-852955)
A Canadian traveler in the courtyard is headed for the Thai border, and he is trying to give his marijuana away. The marijuana sits in a small pile on a crumpled piece of brown paper. He cups the paper with two hands, as if it were a small and fragile animal. You tell him no thanks, because you don't smoke marijuana; other travelers tell him that they already have more marijuana than they can smoke. Finally, the Canadian traveler gently places the marijuana onto the communal dining table and walks off. Everyone who sees this smirks in amusement. Later, when your friends ask you what Cambodia is like, you will tell them this story.
[flickr image via katclay]