When you inspect hotels for a living, there are two grand truths. First, you’ll have the privilege to visit some amazing properties. Second, you’ll have the opportunity to see places that are memorable for the wrong reasons.
I’ve inspected thousands of resorts, hotels and guesthouses. I don’t know how many I’ve stayed in—at least a thousand or two. Some I never wanted to leave. Others I couldn’t get out of fast enough. I’ve had owners kiss me, and others attack me. Never a dull moment.
Slow times on Mae Nam. Photo: David Luekens.
What makes the “best” hotel can be functional—a reflection on the property, or the staff. Or, experiential—even a stay in a container can be burnt into memory when the stars align.
“Weird” is also subjective. I’ve inspected no shortage of weird and dreadful places. Insane owners, theft and other carnage. The death traps. The salt water coffee. The animals that come with the room. The general incompetence. The lies.
For me, the pinnacle of poo, was at a property on Thailand’s Ko Samui a couple of years ago. I’m going to call it Jo’s Lodge—at the time it was named after its owner (who I’m calling Jo). I know ownership has changed since, so I’m not using any real names here.
Stormy weather inbound. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I was on Samui at the time working on updates of Thailand’s gulf islands with co–writer David Luekens. While Samui has some great food, the island is neither of our kettle of fish—we’re both Ko Pha Ngan people.
We’re about halfway through Samui when I land at Jo’s Lodge. It is near one of Samui’s second tier beaches—a comfortable medium.
I don’t stay at Jo’s by chance. Recommended by a friend in Bangkok, she describes Jo as a “character” and his place is worth a look. “You’ll like it,” she says, as she sends me his phone number, “call him for a good rate”. Finishing up on another beach, I call the number. It rings and rings. I hang up. A few minutes later, a message pops up on my phone.
Don’t let anyone tell you all of Samui is a tourist trap. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
That is it.
I reply saying I’m a friend of so and so in Bangkok and am looking for Jo’s Lodge.
“Jo call you kah.”
Jo never calls. I keep working, figuring he is busy. As the day wears on I don’t hear back, but I want to sort out a room for the next day, so I message again. Five seconds later:
“I SAY JO CALL YOU OK”
I message my friend in Bangkok asking if this sounds out of the ordinary. She replies saying the messages are from Jo’s wife who can be erratic.
“Go there. They won’t be full,” she texts.
Early morning. Lipa Noi. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The next morning, I ride over. It takes me ages to find the place as there’s no signage. I send a photo of a large wooden gate to my friend and she replies saying yes that is the place. I roll open the gate. The parking area is a mess of car parts, crates of empty beer bottles and piles of dishes. A huge dog explodes when it sees me and bolts at me so fast its chain catches it before I have time to react.
Voices echo from within, a Thai woman yells, then she steps into the parking area. She’s perhaps 5'8", wrapped in a sarong, and sopping wet.
“Who are you. What do you want? Why didn’t you ring the bell?” she yells.
“What bell?,” I reply, “I called yesterday, I’m a friend of so and so in Bangkok. She knows Jo.”
“I told you kah, Jo would call you.”
“Yeah I know, but he didn’t.”
Inland Samui also delivers. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
At this, dragging at the dog’s chain, she starts screaming for Jo.
“Jo! Farang here for you, a friend OF A WOMAN YOU KNOW in Bangkok.”
Jo surfaces. He’s a Westerner, tanned and in good shape, a towel around his waist. I guess late forties. He stands by the woman and yells over the barking, asking who I am.
“I’m Stuart. A friend of so and so in Bangkok. She recommended I stay here.”
“So and so in Bangkok.”
“Never heard of her.”
I go to leave. I’ve stepped into a madhouse, but as I go to wheel the bike back, Jo yells do I want a room or not?
Last light. Thong Krut. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I say I’d like to see a room if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.
“I didn’t ask you if you want to see a room. Do you want a room? If your friend, who as I said, I don’t know, said it was good, why do you need to see it?”
Ok, I’d like a room. The woman drags the dog off and he kicks some of the trash to make room for my bike.
The set–up is a private villa with individual rooms for rent—it is more homestay than I expect—or want. We go upstairs to my room. As with the parking, the living area is a fire hazard of piles of papers, dirty plates and booze bottles.
The room is unexceptional, but, unlike the rest of the place, is clean. That white linen, dark wood look common in many Thai hotels. A small deck behind glass sliding doors overlooks a garden. For a night it will do.
Lamai is not all sleaze. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I go to the glass doors to see what I can see, and hear the door close. I turn, and see Jo is not only still in my room, but inches behind me. I jump back, bumping into the glass doors.
“Sorry about that downstairs,” he says, “yes I know so and so, how is she? My wife Noi gets crazy jealous, thinking I’m playing around. She’s beautiful but crazy.”
We chat, me explaining the latest on my friend in Bangkok. The whole time he stands inches from me, his sky blue eyes never breaking contact.
He asks for my passport and 800 baht for the room, then leaves. As he departs, he says over his shoulder I should shower, dress smarter, and then come downstairs. There’s a sarong on the bed, he says.
There is always some dude selling floaties. Photo: David Luekens.
Like the room, the bathroom is clean and well kept. The accessories are all branded for a six star resort on the island. I strip and go to shower.
There’s no water.
I look for a switch or handle to turn it on but there’s nothing. The toilet likewise doesn’t work. I open the cistern and it is bone dry—it looks brand new. The basin also has no water.
I dress and walk out. The air–con doesn’t work. Nor do the lights. I pull back the cover on the bed to see a bare mattress—no sheets.
I walk downstairs. Sprawled on a sofa, Jo asks after my room. I say there is a problem with the water. He says the water works fine. I say it doesn’t. He says it does. I say it doesn’t. Sighing, he gets up and walks to the kitchen, turns the tap on and water gushes out.
Bang Po. Clearly a tourist hell–hole. Photo: David Luekens.
I say but the water isn’t working in my room. He rolls his eyes like I’m lying, and we go upstairs. I turn on the shower. No water.
That’s weird he says. He tries all the taps but no water comes. He’s acting surprised, but I get an inkling he knows full well the water doesn’t work.
“Bloody Thai plumbing,” he says, “I’ll get it fixed. In the meantime you can use my shower.”
“Use my shower. Use the ensuite downstairs, by the kitchen.”
“Can’t I just move to another room?”
“No. The upstairs rooms are on the same pipes. If this one isn’t working, the others won’t either. Use mine, it is no problem.”
He’s so insistent, I say ok.
Ko Pha Ngan beckons. Bo Phut. Photo: David Luekens.
I walk into his bedroom and his wife is laying on their bed still wrapped in a sarong, combing her hair. I’m intruding and go to leave, but she calls me over and pats on the edge of the bed for me to sit down. She’s a changed woman to the one who was yelling and holding the snarling beast earlier. Thai charm absolut. She spins around and sits beside me, her hand on my back, and asks if I like my room? Would I like a different room?
I say there’s no water, no sheets and no power. Like Jo, she behaves like this is a revelation. Mai pen rai, she says, they’ll get it fixed. Now you go and shower—for as long as you want Stuart—relax kah.
It is uncomfortable to me, but I go shower. When I come out, she’s gone, replaced by Jo. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, still in his towel, as I scuttle through.
Closing in on Chaweng Noi. Photo: David Luekens.
He reaches out towards me as I pass, when he misses, he jumps up and follows me out. He makes small talk about why I’m on Samui and for how long—standard stuff. I lie, and say I’m on holiday and plan to ride around this afternoon—lets go and sit by the pool, he says.
He grabs a couple of beers and walks me out. The lawn is a fair size and the gardens walling it in are lovely. When I comment on this, he says he was a horticulturist in another life. We get to the pool, it is deep, that weird size between a splash and lap pool.
It is also empty.
Well, not empty. At the base there is a layer of brown sludge. I stare but he doesn’t even mention it. There’s deckchairs and Bali–style umbrellas and beanbags. He relaxes in one of the deckchairs and waves me to one beside him.
I sit on the edge, accept the beer, and ask after the pool. Where’s the water?
Wreck hopping near Na Thon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
It’s cool season he says. He empties it this time of year. He’ll clean it in a few months then refill it.
Don’t guests expect there to be water in the pool? I ask.
“The ocean isn’t far,” he replies, then, before I can say anything else, he asks me if I like his wife, Noi. Do I think she is beautiful? Again, before I can answer, he asks if I want to get high.
I say Noi is friendly enough, and yes she is beautiful, and no I don’t want to get high. Instead, I’d like to go out and take a look around.
“Hang on a minute, I’ll need to call Noi. She took your bike.”
Choeng Mon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“Her bike is out of gas and your keys were in yours, so I figured you wouldn’t mind. You were after all in my shower, in my bedroom, near my wife, in my house.”
The last bit, about it being his shower, wife and house isn’t delivered aggressively, but it isn’t far off. I say I do mind—it is my bike not Noi’s.
“No, it is not your bike. It is a rental. I checked. Please don’t lie to me. You’re my guest.”
Lost for words, I finish my beer and ask is there WiFi. He says yes, and tells me the details. As I head back to my room without water nor electricity, I ask if he could let me know when my rental bike is back.
“No problem,” he says, waving me off.
I should have just gone to Ko Taen. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
It is hours before Noi returns. I know she is back because she lets herself into my room—I’m laying on the bed on my phone (the WiFi doesn’t work of course). She throws herself onto the bed beside me—way too close—dangles the bike key on her finger and says thank you. I take the key, thank her back, and sit up on the bed. She spins and sits on the far edge, says something in Thai that I miss, then turns and hands me my passport and my 800 baht.
“Jo thinks you should find a different hotel kah.”
I grab my bag and go find another hotel.