We’ve just hit a very special milestone here at Wanderrlust – our 100th unique hotel of the trip! This distinction goes to Tiger Eye Guesthouse in Manali, India. While Tiger Eye probably isn’t going to blow anyone away, it offers clean and comfortable accommodations at a a very decent price (and a pretty darn good view too).
This has been true of most of our accommodations on this journey – not terrible, but not terribly special either. Of course, there are exceptions on both ends – some real horror shows (this place in Tra Linh, Vietnam, comes to mind) as well as a handful of glittering gems. In honor of this special anniversary, we thought we’d take a look back at the gems – the best of the best of the 80+ hotels we’ve stayed at in SE Asia.
To be at the top of our list, it’s not enough to have comfortable beds, clean rooms, and decent service, though that does go a very long way. It’s also not enough to be a “five star” or luxury property – sure, the accommodations may be beautiful, the amenities generous, and the service Western, if impersonal, but is the cost of a Four Seasons stay justified, especially when $60/night gets you something really nice in most of Asia?
For us, the best hotels have three things in common:
- Value: Simply put, is it worth the price you are paying? This is an especially important consideration in a market where prices are often determined by what the guest can pay/afford rather than by services/amenities offered. Our cheapest hotel cost a measly $6.24/night – given its location in the dusty Laos town of Paksan, we found the value very good (clean, private room, en-suite bath, safe place to park our bikes, quiet). Conversely, we paid $30/night for a place with similar amenities in the rural Vietnamese village of Mai Chau – except this place had no hot water, a loud dance party going until the wee hours of the morning, and a bamboo floor so rickety H nearly fell through. It was not a bad place to stay, but $30 is far, far too much to pay for accommodations like this in rural Vietnam. We found this also holds true at the higher end – we stayed at $150/night big name hotel which was nice but easily matched, if not outclassed, by several $50/night accommodations.
- Unique style: We’ve stayed at plenty of wonderfully-appointed hotels with modern, if a bit soulless, design (think Ikea showroom). That’s not to say that I don’t like Ikea (far from it) or that we haven’t enjoyed staying in such hotels (I’d venture to say they’re vastly underrated), but it’s generally not special enough to make it to the tippy-top of our list. Our favorite places have a style all their own that reflects the tastes and lives of the owners as well as the local culture and environment.
- Je ne sais quoi: While the Ritz or the Hilton may greet you warmly, book you the perfect tour of the city, and get you the 18 pillows you MUST have to sleep well, is the staff going to greet you by name, know where you’re from, and share something of themselves and their lives with you? Is the setting or location so spectacular that you know you will never find another place quite like it again? Is the experience something you’ll remember the rest of your life? I think it’s akin to meeting your soul mate – when something is right and special, you’ll know it. All of our favorite hotels have that certain something that’s stuck with us long after we’ve said goodbye.
With that, the winners are…
5. Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is awash with “boutique” hotels – some of them are legit, while others simply use the word boutique without understanding what it means. Baby Elephant is the real deal, and for a very competitive price too.
It’s set down a dirt alley about a 15-minute walk away from the madness of Pub Street – trust us when we say that you’ll be glad for the distance. As you walk in from the street, you’re welcomed by a beautifully landscaped and tranquil garden space as well as a sparking pool, just begging you to cool off in the sweltering Cambodian heat.
The design of the hotel itself is classy yet funky – art deco meets Indochina – and the accommodations very spacious and comfortable. There’s a small food menu if you don’t want to venture out plus a fully stocked bar, but there’s really no excuse not to sample Siem Reap’s great dining scene since Baby Elephant offers the use of its bicycles for free. And like any true boutique hotel, the customer service when we were guests was above-and-beyond. From arranging tours to restaurant recommendations, shopping advice and more, they do it all, including helping us sell our motorbikes after we left the country. Seriously.
Siem Reap has no shortage of beautiful boutique hotels, but you’ll be hard pressed to find that kind of service and settings for the price.
From $45/night for a standard double room*; www.babyelephant.asia
4. The River Resort, Champasak, Laos
To say we were shocked to find this place in rural Laos is an understatement.
Champasak lies between the dusty city of Pakse and the 4,000 islands at the very southern tip of Laos. There is a whole lot of nothing in between … except the River Resort.
Book-ended by a peaceful section of the Mekong River to the west and towering emerald karsts to the east, the location of the River Resort is so beyond beautiful that mere words fail it (see our gallery for proof). We kept saying to each other: “Can you believe this place exists on earth, and we never knew about it?”
The day is welcomed by local fisherman and ends with the sunset’s pink glow on the river and its boulders. If you’ve ever romanticized life in rural Asia, the setting here will not disappoint, however unrealistic those fantasies usually are.
The property has a Bali-esque, indoor/outdoor vibe – airy pavilions dot the rice-paddy like gardens and house the reception, spa, and dining areas. A sparkling infinity pool commands majestic views of the river. The rooms are fabulous and near perfect in layout, size, comfort, and amenities – in fact, we dubbed it the best hotel room in SE Asia. The bathroom has both an indoor and outdoor shower, separate toilet, and a huge vanity. Then there’s the pièce de résistance: 180 degrees of windows and a wrap-around deck. It may not be the most personal or unique of designs, but who can argue with a breezy, perfectly-white palate?
There is one big downer: the food. It was expensive, which is not unexpected at a five-star place like this, but the quality was just not up to par. Though the Thai and local dishes were very good, the Western dishes sucked, and the breakfast was downright appalling. There is just no excuse for messing up toast and eggs. To their credit, I mentioned this in my review on TripAdvisor, and the response was extremely professional and appropriate.
Food issues aside, this place is the crème de la crème and up there with the top luxury hotel brands. Located almost anywhere else in the world (Hawaii, Bali, Fiji, Cabo, Europe, etc.), the River Resort would easily run $500+/night. At around $70/night, it was above our budget and absolutely worth every penny.
From $70/night for a pond/garden view; http://theriverresort-champasak.com/
3. Sirilanna Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand
This one was a bit above our budget, but my parents generously picked up the tab for us as they were along for the ride. Nonetheless, I would have considered this a worthy splurge even if it had come out of our pocket.
The Sirilanna is in the heart of the Old City, just a short walk to its many restaurants and attractions, including the famed Sunday market (don’t miss this, if you can help it). It’s all done in the style of the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna (13th-18th centuries), which means beautiful teak wood, white-washed walls, and ornate objets’d art.
The rooms are huge and wonderfully appointed with ample storage, a well-equipped desk, seating, and an enormous, canopied bed, complete with pillow-topped mattress and a boatload of pillows (an easy way to win my heart). The bathroom is equally spacious and boasts a massive shower as well as a separate whirlpool tub. At less $100/night, the Sirilanna is a fraction of what you’d pay for a room like this in the U.S., Europe, or even elsewhere in Thailand.
As for other amenities, they offer spa services and a small but nice pool – a must for cooling off in the Chiang Mai heat. On-site parking is free, as is the airport shuttle if you’re arrive between 7am and 10pm. On the downside, the restaurant is only open for breakfast, and it’s … not great. This was not a huge deal for us, as we stumbled upon some wonderful cafes nearby (Good Morning Chiang Mai or Cafe de Thaan Aoan).
Finally, as with all the hotels on this list, the staff is lovely and the service excellent. They were particularly helpful in booking last minute ferry tickets for us from Koh Samui to Koh Tao after I realized it was too late to book online, and they even surprised me on the morning of my birthday with a cake and a serenade. Pardon the pun, but does it get any sweeter?
From $95/night for a deluxe king room; www.sirilanna.com
2. The Outside Inn, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
This was a VERY close second, edged out only because the top spot’s location is unbeatable.
The Inn is owned and run by an American-Thai couple, Brent and Tun, who decided to open the Inn in Tun’s hometown after being disappointed with many accommodations during their own travels and thinking “we can do so much better” (we can relate to this!). We were initially staying elsewhere in town and came to the Inn for dinner after reading all the rave reviews about Tun’s food. One warm welcome from Brent, an excellent meal, and a few real cocktails later, we found ourselves booking a few nights with them despite the fact that we already have reservations elsewhere (which we were thankfully able to cancel).
Brent and Tun, with the help of friends and family, built and designed the entire Inn themselves, and the thought and care they put in shows in all the stylish details and personal touches. From the beautiful garden with a fountain to the little relaxing spot on the front porch to the building materials to the photos/art, bedding, etc., almost everything is locally-sourced, but done with Western comfort and standards in mind.
Then there’s the food … oh my. Tun is a fantastic cook, and though she obviously makes Thai food, our home-sick stomachs couldn’t refuse her American and Mexican specialties, honed while living in Portland, OR. Highlights include the chile-verde smothered pork burrito, the carnitas melt, and the burger. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this burger would hold it’s own in America against some of our best (Five Guys, Shake Shack, In’n’Out). The whole thing was perfection, and I really regret eating one only during our stay. Add in Brent’s inventive cocktails made with GOOD booze (100% agave tequila and homemade liqueurs) and the company of interesting locals (hi to Tony!) and travelers, and you’ve go the makings of a very multicultural evening in Thailand.
It’s all wonderful, and Brent and Tun are some of the most caring and genuine people you will meet. We were a bit of a mess while staying there (paralyzed muscle in my neck, followed by a chipped tooth for H a day later), and they took amazing care of us.
If you’re traveling overland from southern Laos to Thailand and/or really in need of a top-notch burger and good company, don’t miss this place.
From $20/night for a deluxe AC room; www.theoutsideinnubon.com
1. Phong Nha Farmstay, Phong Nha, Vietnam
The Farmstay is what I like to call a hostel for adults – the communal vibe of a hostel married with the amenities and service you’d expect at a mid-range, boutique hotel (they even have a pool!).
Located a stone’s throw from Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to some of Asia’s best caves (including the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong), the Farmstay overlooks stunning rice paddies with mountains rising in the distance. Our planned three days there turned into over a week, and we spent a good chunk of that time simply enjoying the views and watching rural Vietnamese life go by with tea or a beer in hand.
The Farmstay offers accommodations for a variety of budgets: dorm beds, private rooms with a shared bath, and private rooms with en-suites. We sprang for the private en-suite and were not disappointed (try for their “honeymoon” suite at the left end of the 2nd floor for the most privacy and best views). This is rural Vietnam, so don’t expect separate showers, a bathtub, in-room wifi, room service, etc. But, for a modest price, you’ll get a very clean and nicely decorated room with daily maid service, a fabulously comfy bed, air con/heat (this SAVED us in the winter cold), and hot water.
The food on offer is a mix of Western and Asian favorites, all decent and very filling, and you can even find imported wine and cocktails (a rarity in these parts). In the evening, guests gather around the massive fireplace, drinks in hand, to swap stories about their caving adventures and travels in general. We met wonderful people from all over the world, including Australia, America, Romania, Holland, and Ireland. Some were budget backpackers, others flashpackers like us (i.e. up-market backpackers) as well as motorcyclists, adventure-junkies, photographers, caving enthusiasts, and older couples on vacation/holiday. It’s a really happy and interesting cross-section of people.
Most importantly, nothing is too much for the owners Ben and Bich, an Australian-Vietnamese couple, and their excellent staff. They offer their own tours of the area as well as help booking other adventures with local caving outfit Oxalis, onward travel, etc. If you’re having trouble choosing your adventure, they will talk you through the options, listening to your wants and concerns. Here, as the with the Outside Inn, you’re not just a guest – you’re treated like family.
Our experience at the Farmstay and caving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park was the highlight of our entire four months in Vietnam as well as one of our favorite experiences so far on this whole trip.
From $33/night for a private en-suite; http://phong-nha-cave.com/
* NOTE: All room rates in this article are current as of August 2014.