Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
First published 27th April, 2014
Even those who rarely venture from their neighbourhood pubs know Thailand for its magnificent beaches, glittering temples, fiery food and notorious nightlife. Now drawing well over 20 million visitors a year, the kingdom has accommodation for every imaginable niche and budget. But will it keep the backpackers smiling for long?
The trailblazers who first crashed on empty Thai beaches in the 1980s will now find some of those same beaches fully developed with a mix of large-scale luxury resorts, boutique hotels and featureless villas that fetch 3,000 baht (US $95) a night in high season. A few old-school bamboo bungalows might sit in the shadows of all that concrete, at least for now.
I swear there was a 100-baht bungalow right here!
During his first visit to Bangkok in 1992, Travelfish co-founder Stuart McDonald paid 60 baht a night to stay at a place called Bony Guesthouse, which he recalled featured a big ceramic jar in lieu of a shower. Like many Thai guesthouses back then, Bony was a local family's house with a few extra rooms rented out to passing travellers.
According to Stuart, much of the accommodation in Bangkok at that time "was either a big hotel or someone's house... Little had been custom-built for tourists". Round-the-clock electricity was a distant dream on most of the islands, where travellers had a choice of hut, tent or hammock. The term boutique remained nothing but a French word for "small shop".
Gracefully ageing bungalows at Buoy Guesthouse, Sangkhom.
In a country that still lacked many first-world comforts, the majority of rooms were insanely cheap by Western standards. Not surprisingly, they were mostly filled by young, baht-pinching backpackers who were happy to rough it in exchange for adventures in an exotic land. If you happened to be one of them, we're sorry to tell you that the glory days are over.
After apparently checking out the current Bangkok travel guide, a Travelfish member who last visited Thailand eight years ago, pointedly asked: "Where has the budget accommodation gone?" While plenty of cheap rooms can still be found, the question provoked us to look deeper into how Thailand's accommodation landscape is changing.
Hostel is the new guesthouse
Over the years, "guesthouses" have evolved from being family-owned houses with a few rooms for rent (those are now called "homestays") to purpose-designed mini-hotels with 24-hour reception, internet stations, lounges, restaurants and maybe a tour desk. The two chief factors that made a given guesthouse popular were: a) inexpensive rooms with minimal cockroaches, and b) a lively scene where you could meet other travellers.
The old: K Guesthouse, Krabi.
These became standard accommodation for foreign travellers on a budget, with cheap bungalows being the island equivalent. For a long time, the only other options were large and comparatively expensive hotels and resorts that were usually sold through travel agents; or old-school Chinese-Thai hotels that had targeted domestic travellers since Jim Thompson's days.
While guesthouses remain popular in Thailand today, they seem to be gradually going out of style. Born in Europe and adopted by Asian cities like Tokyo and Singapore, the stylised hostel craze has now been firmly planted on Thai soil. Many would-be guesthouse owners now open hostels instead, while some old guesthouses have transformed into slick hostels.
The new: Chern Boutique Hostel, Bangkok.
Unlike in more expensive countries, hostels are not always the cheapest choice in Thailand. On several occasions, and not only in Bangkok, we've come across dorm beds that go for 400 to 500 baht per night when guesthouses in the same area offer private rooms for the same amount or less.
Many of the higher priced hostels have catchy design themes that range from "prison-camp-chic" to "antiquarian-Thai" and "boozy-art-pad". Yet plenty of others are essentially guesthouses that have jumped on the hostel bandwagon; many don't even offer dorms at all. "Hostel" is often used simply as a modern replacement for "guesthouse".
So why are guesthouses dying out?
One theory is that guesthouses have become associated with that minority of backpackers who can be aggressively stingy, stinky and generally offensive (no it's not okay to enter a temple in a bikini). Though many Thais are experts at travelling on the cheap, most don't seem to relate to the so-called backpacker lifestyle.
At the same time, a booming Thai economy has made it possible for more Thais to travel for leisure. Hoteliers have responded by introducing accommodation that will appeal both to short-term domestic holidaymakers and foreign travellers who have graduated from their backpacking days to seek something a bit more cushy and sophisticated.
Maybe something like Loog Choob Homestay?
With millions of relatively well-funded foreign and domestic travellers all looking for rooms, why open a cheap backpacker guesthouse? And if it's not geared towards backpackers, why call it a guesthouse at all?
Enter the boutique hotel
The catch-word "boutique" is now being swallowed up by travellers as often as pad Thai noodles. They're not guesthouses anymore; they're boutique houses. Throw a red-silk pillow on the bed, draw a couple of flowers on the wall, and -- voi-la -- these masterful interior-design skills have bagged you an extra 500 baht per room.
Bangkok's fantastic Loy La Long Hotel goes way beyond a few patterned pillows.
For the record, our definition of a boutique hotel is an intimate place to stay -- so not more than a dozen or so rooms -- with a creative touch and no two rooms that are alike. The art should be hand-picked by (or better yet, created by) the designer; vintage antiques and heritage architecture are welcome but not required; and, most importantly, the word "boutique" does not have to appear in the title. People over 40 might be thinking, "Isn't that a bed and breakfast?"
An easy-to-miss turn off the boutique highway takes you down the "eco" route. In Thailand, the term is sometimes used honestly by hotels with environmentally sound practices, but is often a shameful ploy to tap the ever-growing sustainable travel market.
Bangkok Tree House: a real-deal eco-resort.
Whether used properly or not, the terms "boutique" and "eco" usually translate into "expensive". More than a few old guesthouses are now "boutique hostels" or "eco-resorts" that are often very popular among a diverse mix of travellers. Most backpackers, on the other hand, simply can't afford those red-silk pillows.
Rooms are comfier online
Long gone are the days when travellers relied on traditional guidebooks and travel agents when picking a place to stay. Even many of the lowest-budget backpackers are now extremely savvy, scouring online reviews and blogs in search of ideal rooms and inconceivable deals. While the vast majority of cheap rooms used to be booked in person, on the spot, many budget travellers now opt to book online.
Maybe I'll search for tips online instead of noticing this travel writer standing right in front of me.
Before this shift occurred, a lively atmosphere and reasonable rooms were all that a guesthouse needed to literally lure travellers in off the street. Today, the same sorts of travellers wander past the same sorts of guesthouses and think, "Why didn't I see this one online?" Unless the old-style guesthouses have phenomenal reputations, they're forced to reinvent themselves as "boutique hostels" -- or anything that cuts through the clutter of cyberspace.
Does this mean budget travellers are doomed?
Over the past several years, room rates in the big cities and popular islands have steadily climbed. Even some of those basic cold-water beach bungalows that went for 50 baht a night 20 years ago now fetch 1,000 or more in peak season. Plenty of budget options remain, but they're overshadowed by all of the bigger, pricier, boutique-ier resorts that have gradually filled in the landscape. (Over-development in popular Thai destinations is a whole other story.)
Dude, where are the cheap rooms?
Even so, very few destinations lack some sort of low-cost accommodation, which in Thailand means under 600 baht per night. In places like Sukhothai, Bangkok's Khao San Road and Chiang Mai's old city, budget travellers still huff it from guesthouse to guesthouse and score private rooms for 400 baht or less. The difference nowadays is that you might have to huff a little farther to find it.
Is this really a bad thing?
Complaining backpackers and unfortunate names like "Sunset Splendor Tropical Garden Boutique Eco-Resort" aside, the bottom line is that Thailand's accommodation scene is now better than ever.
Those wanting a local experience can settle into a homestay; budget travellers who appreciate a modern edge can go for a hostel (free ebook to Bangkok's best hostels here); those who incline towards the artsy and intimate might check out the B&Bs and boutique hotels; travellers wanting a straightforward comfy room can grab a serviced apartment; the well-heeled have an impressive selection of swish hotels and five-star resorts; and yes, the old-style backpackers still have their old-style guesthouses.
Plus "swinging bungalows" like this one at Sunset Beach Bungalow, Ko Jum.
While it's true that some of the modern boutique hotels and concept resorts are more shocking than stylish, Thai hoteliers should be praised for pushing the creative limits light-years beyond the boring chain hotels that dominate many Western countries. From concrete blocks reborn as plush pads to tastefully restored teakwood houses and space-age hostels, Thailand has come a long way since Bony Guesthouse.
Read 2 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (18)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (19)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (83)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (38)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Budget Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- DIY Ha Long Bay
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Mid-range Ha Long Bay
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which Ha Long Bay tour is right for you?
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (22)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (18)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Great river trips in Southeast Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.