Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saigon Hotel - Windsor Plaza

This hotel looks good in the photos, but it's a 3-star Asian style hotel that will disappoint most Western visitors. First of all...ONLY stay in District 1 if you want to be within walking distance of the Saigon action, shops, etc. This hotel is 20 min. ride (free in nice hotel shuttle) in District 5.

I think this hotel is meant for Asian business people. We booked the "executive floor" at $119++ and it was a high floor, but if you have stayed in other executive floors, this will not compete. When we arrived, the very friendly hotel staff (a big plus for this hotel) requested we wait and enjoy food at the free 24/7 buffet. It was very nice to relax and have a cup of tea and some sweets.

The room was as shown in the website photos...sort of. Tile floors and a plastic shower were a surprise when a "granite" bathroom (the sink counter is granite) was described...but it is a try. The biggest problem is not so much the hotel as the guests. When we returned to the Executive Floor Suite for an evening cocktail, the room was overtaken by a loud businessman carrying on a yelling match with his colleague. This went on for 20 minutes with no intervention from management who could easily have moved their "meeting" to a private room. It was completely distracting not only to us, but to the very polite young family sharing the table next to us...just trying to relax at the end of the day.

Dinner in the hotel's Chinese restaurant was very pleasant (except for the smoking) and well priced. But unfortunately, the walls in this hotel are so thin that upon return to our room, the next door neighbor's TV was so loud that I could have left the sound off on ours and heard everything perfectly.

I guess if you are trying to save a few bucks this is a good place to stay, but if you are going to spend any quality time inside the hotel, try another facility. If you are used to 5-star accomodations in big cities in Thailand and expecting the same in Saigon or Hanoi...think again. For some reason I have yet to figure out, the same hotels here are much more expensive and have a lower level of quality and service. But then are not here for the hotel, right?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Changmai: Some Things Never Change

I don’t know how many times we have visited Chiangmai Thailand, but this is for sure our something-teenth visit, starting back in 1991. One way to count is that the hotel we have found to be the most appropriate for us when here on business is now the Holiday Inn. Last year it was a Sheraton, which—believe it or not—was an improved version of the former Westin—and for at least 10 years before that it was…yup, a Sheraton.

The new management is finally updating what inexplicably every hotel finds to be most important, the lobby. Huh? This is one of a traveler’s greatest mysteries…the big lobby renovation of a tired hotel. Why, would you invest a big chunk of your investment in a new property in the lobby when your guests only pass through there twice a day on their way to what they really are paying for, their 25-year old guest room? I have never understood this. Is the corporate guy thinking, “they will overlook the dated design of the guestroom if we just spruce up the lobby, put in some new plants, hire a new band for the bar, and get the staff new uniforms”? Whose corporate mind works like that?

Anyway, the dated but spacious rooms here have baby blue wallpaper, art-free walls, 1960’s designed ergonomics including a strange scarcity of electrical outlets (most of which turn off with the lights, so don’t try recharging your laptop or phone overnight), and baby blue tiled baths that have literally never changed since our first visit…not even the wastebaskets are new. It’s kind of like going home to visit grandma…the furniture never moves, the wall color never changes, and the old fashioned décor still performs its basic function---so why change it? In fact, I’ve gotten so used to the rooms here at the “West-Sher-aday” (which, by the way are all identical in this hotel no matter if you request Superior or Deluxe—unless you prefer a North over a South facing room). I have the furniture rearranged to accommodate my routine before the bellman is out the door with his 200 Baht tip. I move the desk close enough to the TV and the single outlet that doesn’t go off with the lights to plug in my laptop, move the coffee table against the wall where I set up the photography backdrop for my husband to photograph the day’s purchases for the website, and slide the lonely one-person bench next to the desk for the little suitcase full of trip reference materials that I can never do without but for the most part don’t use much. Then I write myself a note to unplug the cell phone and plug in the laptop when I leave for the day as they share the only outlet that isn’t controlled by the room’s energy-saving master switch.

So why do we continue to return to this hotel with the changing facade? Well, we’ve tried to replace it. There are 5-star properties here, the Oriental, the Four Seasons, and the Chedi. All have the usual amenities that go with their stars, and all except the Chedi are miles away from the action…no make that ANY action...and miles from the charming walled Chiangmai city. They are also too expensive for a growing company’s business to justify with prices ranging from $350-1,000 per night.

OK, then why not go really budget, stay at a “Guest House” and get a real feeling for life Thai-style? Unfortunately, this is a business trip in a beautiful place, and although we are blessed to be traveling here for our business and not to Des Moines or Fresno, (no offense meant to those fine U.S. cities), we need business services and comfort, most importantly a reliable internet connection and a comfortable sleeping accommodation after a 12-hour day in 95° tropical heat. Most guest houses are equivalent to the European style bed and breakfast. They are family run…and sometimes part of a family home or compound. The rooms are tiny and spartan and sometimes without aircon. There is no internet connection or business center, no down duvet or extra pillows and no daily maid service. But, on a budget you do trade those things for wonderful Thai hospitality and a taste of a simple life most American’s have either given up or never experienced.

At one point we searched for something new in the middle ground, and found very interesting hotels. All are priced at about $120-150/night and fit into the 4-star category by U.S. standards. The first is the hip D-2 hotel right in the heart of the after-dark action, the Night Market. This too cool, modern reno of a former 60’s no-name hotel is great if you long for Manhattan cool in the heart of an ancient city. Trendy orange décor, high tech gadgetry everywhere, and youthful friendly staff make this an option.

The Ratchamanka within the old city walls is a peaceful boutique hotel that provides a middle ground blend of Thai style and modern conveniences. The Lana architecture of the building with its peaceful courtyard, secluded lap pool and library/business center (2 computers with internet access) almost make it, and for convenience this hotel is well situated.

The third is the Bann Tazala, located off the beaten path on the outskirts of town and not within walking distance to anything interesting. It too falls into the boutique category with under 20 rooms decorated in high quality Lana style with all the upgraded amenities including flat screen TV and DVD, a big soaking tub and separate shower, ample closet space and in-room internet connection. There is also a stellar on-site restaurant where breakfast is served and a romantic dinner can be enjoyed alfresco. There are only 2 things that keep us from adopting this one as our Chiangmai home, the inconvenient location and the incredibly unbelievably annoying and uncontrollable neighborhood roosters that begin their call of the wild at about 4:00 am. Sounds like a big nothing, but unless you grew up on a chicken farm, this is not nothing…it’s a sleep eliminator. Unfortunately, although management even provides earplugs, this is a big problem if you are trying to get much needed sleep to be able to work. ( See other blog entry about this hotel specifically).

So, as a small growing company with a need to keep the hotel and food expenses to a minimum without sacrificing these basics, we keep returning to West-Sher-aday, which in its ho-hum ness does fit all our needs. The room is spacious, the bathroom is clean and in working order, the aircon is quiet and controllable, there is an in-room safe, a business center if you need to make a photocopy, and the big buffet breakfast (which is often our only meal of the day) is included in the price. Oh yes, the price…an unbeatable $77 including breakfast.

Oh, there is one thing the new Holiday Inn face on the West-Sher-aday has taken away that served as evening entertainment on all our previous visits…the Kashmiri silk carpet sales outlet in the lobby. This fascinating operation was renamed by us “The Spiders”. The friendly and incredibly persistent Kashmiri carpet salesmen (the Spiders) would carefully approach each Fly (unsuspecting and jet-lagged hotel guest) with the opener, “May I please show you my art? (Spider words for handmade silk carpets). If the Fly even hesitated or politely smiled, the web began to tighten. A second Spider would magically appear from behind the screen to assist by quickly unfurling each carpet with a graceful bow followed by a finishing SNAP as the rug was spread in front of the Fly. Then, with predictable aplomb, the assistant Fly would quickly spin the rug around 180” to show the Fly the difference between the light and dark side of the carpet. And finally the Spider’s closer was to show how the silk masterpiece (and truly these rugs are incredibly beautiful works of handmade art) could be easily folded into a parcel that one could easily carry on their journey home…no waiting, no shipping costs…just more stuff to schlep along through security onto the plane. The entire web of salesmanship was so carefully practiced and timed that Jerry and I used to anticipate each move as it was executed on the unsuspecting Fly. I believe only once did we ever see a Fly actually get caught and eaten reluctantly proffering his Visa card for the doormat size specimen that is the last resort of the Spider before the Fly wriggles out of his sticky trap. But this free show was a priceless reminder that we had returned to our Chiangmai home away from home…and now, sadly it’s gone from the new West-Sher-aday. But you know how Spiders are…they have a way of showing up in your house when you least expect them….