‘Nah, I’m a home-bod, me.’
What was that?
‘A nice cup of tea in front of the telly.’
Match of the Day?
‘That’s the sort of thing.’
They say travel broadens the mind.
‘I like that David Attenborough. A national treasure.’
It’s true, Mrs Pobaan and I do a lot of travelling, much of it around Thailand. We go on immense journeys up and down and from side to side of this huge country, which is nearly three times as big as Uruguay. Two overnight stops don’t faze us at all. We drive all day, aiming to get to some suitable town by early evening so we can find the local hotel, dump our things and locate the night market and a decent place to eat and have a beer.
When I say ‘the local hotel’, in every provincial Thai town there’s always one.
Of course there are probably a number of places to stay but I don’t mean the guest houses, trendy boutiques or edge-of-town resorts with infinity pools and room service. I mean the old, dowdy commercial hotel in the middle of town. It’s always there, somewhere tucked away in a back street, a little run down, neglected by the advance of time but still accepting guests.
All the provincial towns have one. Chumphon, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani, Lampang, Phitsanulok. Aren’t you tempted by the romance of those names?
‘Nah. The Arsenal’s playing Man U tonight. Bastards.’
They have a lot in common, these provincial hotels. First, they’re generally huge, five or six floors with hundreds of rooms. You don’t need to book. Turn up in reception and the girls behind the counter won’t refer to their computer before saying: yes, they have vacancies, lots of them. We’ve stayed in hotels where only two rooms were occupied, ours and one other. We felt we should knock on the other door and suggest a hand of whist.
They used to be grand; well, quite grand. I’m not talking the George V, Paris or the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin, but provincial Thai hotels at least had ambitions of grandeur. We stayed recently in a hotel in Suphanburi actually called The Grand, and you could see their point—it had a window in the lift.
The sad thing they have in common, these hotels, is that they’re not grand any more. We’re quite good at building things in Thailand—our buildings are often imaginative and usually pretty well constructed—but we don’t look after them. We forget that our buildings are like our bodies: they tend to fall apart. If you don’t look after a hotel, replacing the bits that drop off, mending the parts that stop working and redecorating the places that get scratched, basically it’s going to become a pile of rubble. Not in a week or a month but one day and most of the sort of hotels I’m talking about are quite advanced on that terminal journey.
It’s sad. There’s something about provincial Thai hotels that speak of a different time, a better time, a time of adventurous investment and wild optimism, a time when prosperity seemed just around the corner. Hotels were built in anticipation of coach-loads of wealthy European tourists, of car parks full of the Nissan Almeras of a hundred travelling salesmen, of conference rooms droning to the sounds of bankers’ PowerPoint presentations.
And that may have happened. Twenty years ago these hotels may have been full. If they were, then it’s the legacy of all those guests that we see today, the evidence of people who came to stay but come no more— the scuffed walls, the missing basin plug, the jammed wardrobe door, the torn curtain and the broken light switch.
Evidence of decline is actually even more fundamental than that. We commonly find that central functions like air conditioning and piped hot water have been switched off. It’s too expensive to run these services for just a few rooms so they put a Panasonic air con over the window and an electric water heater on the shower instead.
The bell-hop has either been laid off or, if he’s still employed, he’s so desperate for tips that he’ll try to wrest your shoulder-bag from you for the short trip into reception. The restaurant has stopped serving dinner, sorry. The bar? Closed, very sorry. In that musty room where cocktails used to flow the chairs are stacked against the wall. There’s still a microphone stand on the little stage, but the singer no longer comes to sing. Once when we checked into a hotel in Mae Hong Son we were promised a buffet breakfast but by the morning they’d sold only three rooms so decided it wasn’t worth the bother and would we like rice soup or fried eggs?
The local conference trade is the best that many hotels can hope for. You know when there’s a meeting going on because there’s a sign in reception that welcomes somebody’s motorbike salesmen or someone else’s photocopier engineers. It could be teachers on a training day or the council finance department leadership course. When you come down to breakfast the last of them are just finishing their tepid noodles, name-cards around their necks, corporate logos on their polo shirts.
But these conference delegates are all on a discount rate. That’s not enough revenue to pay for changing the dud light bulb in the gents.
Then sometimes we arrive at a hotel at the weekend, perhaps later in the evening than usual. The car park is nearly full. This hotel seems to be doing well. We worry that they might not have rooms available. But then we hear the bass booming through an open door and fading as it swings shut. It’s a separate entrance, to the side of the main reception or in a building across the car park. It’s the hotel nightclub.
Originally intended for guests to relax in after dinner in the hotel restaurant, these days the hotel nightclub can be the place for the local middle classes to go on a Friday night. The music is loud, the girls are dressed up, the boys are swinging their car keys. Everyone is glued to their mobile phones. The bottles of whisky and soda could be the best business the hotel does all week.
When we get back from dinner I try the TV, an old cathode ray model, its remote with the buttons worn bare and held together with sellotape. There’s no English language channel.
‘How can there not be an English language channel? Even CNN would do,’ I protest.
‘I don’t know. Perhaps they’re saving money,’ Mrs Pobaan replies.
‘There’s a Korean one, and Japanese. Mostly snow because the signal’s so bad. Oh, also Russian.’
‘They must be the people who used to stay here.’