With budget hotels in Southeast Asia, you never know what to expect.
Sometimes, you stumble upon a princely palace that’s cute, charming and cheap, all in one.
Other times, a first impression doesn’t always do a place justice and you can’t always tell a bargain when you see it.
It’s like that first 15 seconds of surprise, when you meet a blind date in person and discover he’s mildly errr… ugly or just not your type. It kicks your *shock* notch up a little. But maybe after 15 minutes after the initial stun wears off, you warm to him; find he’s actually a nice guy. But do you dream about a second date? Not necessarily.
You still need perspective… to shop around a bit.
Finding the right budget hotel can feel like searching for Mr. Right
We all make mental checklists of what we think is our standard and ideal. They’re romantic wish lists we’d like the Santa Claus of life, love and luck to fulfill. This was my Mr Right wishlist for Phnom Penh budget hotel search. It’s not a lavish or outlandish wish list, but one I thought an acceptable standard to start from :
• cool interior design and cheerfully painted walls
• unique character with an air of brevity and hearth
• well-maintained and clean rooms, which don’t appear worn by other travelers (NO stains, soggy mattresses, personal hairs left behind, or human smells)
• a welcome cafe, where I could meet other travelers
• bright and honest-looking front desk staff with knowledge of tourist attractions
• safe and secure
My driver dropped me at CapitolGuesthouse as I requested (photo below).
A young, stiff Khmer woman at the front desk greeted at me as if I were both, business and bother. No smile. Behind her was an aged wall with a surveillance TV.
The building and rooms felt impersonal, basic and a bit dull. It echoed ‘bland’ and similar to booking a spot at a YMCA, I felt like I was standing in a domicile for single, old white men with sketchy purposes. Hardly young, vibrant and sexy.
It still had some things going for it though. It offered seemingly clean rooms (the cleaning folk were actively going down the hallway) with lots of light and a bathroom ensuite, a street level restaurant that was reminiscent of a greasy frying pan and conveniently, a bus company. Moreover, the location was central.
It wasn’t a huge turn-off. Just not a turn-on. And it didn’t fulfill my ideas of what my Mr. Right looked like.
I decided to try my luck on the streets a little longer.
Window shopping and dating
I walked up and down streets and through crowded morning street markets. I pointed at my guidebook a lot to ask for directions. I walked in and out of recommended hotels and random neighborhood ones. They quoted either, prices too high or rooms too low. Fifteen minutes turned into 45 minutes, then into two hours…
Six guesthouses and hotels later, I was tired and whiny. My feet hurt. Being a sherpa to a big backpack and daypack, which felt like it was stuffed with rocks (aka my tech equipment), I was starting to huff and puff. I’d never walked so much just to find a right hotel in my life! I was starting to feel ridiculous.
Yet nothing was impressing me. It was like going on a series of dates that didn’t do anything more than make me depressed; and yet, I couldn’t stop. Not as long as hope existed. I wanted charming, forthright, affable, warm. Instead, I was meeting depressed, too touristy, loud, lonely or sketchy.
Then I came upon a backpacker’s guesthouse! It wore the charm of color, a relaxed outdoor patio cafe decorated with potted plants for soothing conversations and dining. It had a used book stand to trade books. The Khmer staff looked young and hip; the owner, friendly and inviting. I felt excited hope. This might be my Mr. Right!
Well, it had one catch. There was only one bed left and it was in a dorm, shared with female NGO volunteers. The room was left in disarray with vomitous backpacks. Bras, towels and clothes were tossed shamelessly onto ruffled bed sheets or hung on anything that presented …a hook. There was one standing rotating K-mart fan to push the heat and smell of toe jams out the windows.
This Mr Right came with one big burping flaw I couldn’t tolerate… the baggage of piggy roommates.
When is the hotel search over?
As I walked away from the guesthouse, that ticking clock feeling was as palpable, as my dripping sweat. Was I being too picky? Maybe I was looking for something that didn’t exist.
The 11 am sun was beating down, making my search unpleasant. I needed find a place soon. A decision was imminent. Do I continue my search for a Mr. Right… or do I settle for a Mr. Right Now?
And then I received a sign.
The sensation signaled wide-eyed panic. Was that just…?
Inconvenient moments happen in travel. …Like getting your period, when you’re strapped to a heaving backpack and every crevice of you is sweating from the early afternoon heat.
Perhaps stress brings these moments on.
…Or when you’re wearing thin cloud blue fisherman’s pants!
I ducked into a motorcycle servicing shop to rest my pack and ask for their restroom. The kind Khmer folk were happy to let me use their facilities and “refresh” myself. I stood for 15 minutes in front of their fan taking the heat and my disappointing options in.
That was it! End of the hotel search. I turned around and traced my way back to Capitol Guesthouse.
Second Chances: When ‘simple’ fits
We always think we need a lot to be happy and content. The reality is, we just need a few things that we can’t live without.
For me, Capitol was that second date you take, because you don’t know what you want and you’ve exhausted your options. Luckily however, it made me realize what I actually need for fufillment:
Cleanliness, a simple non-descript room with a firm bed, ample light and a great price….And if it throws in a private bathroom and free Wi-Fi and a cheap tour bus agency downstairs, that’s a helluva bonus!
My cost? …Four dollars a night! $2 extra if I wanted air-conditioning. You can’t beat that kind of bargain!
I actually had everything I needed and more than I asked. Due to Capitol Guesthouse, I actually extended my stay in Phnom Penh longer than I imagined. I wouldn’t have imagined it judging from appearances, but my room gave me much contentment. It was an inexpressible feeling. I had fallen in love!
I found my Mr. Right.
How far would you go to find your Mr. Right in a budget hotel?
Capitol Guesthouse (website)
Capitol Guesthouse (restaurant, tour agency and bus station)
#14Eo, Road 182
Sangkat Beng Prolit
Khan 7 January, Phnom Penh