I am not sure how many hotels I have stayed at in my life, My memory can take me back to most of them if I try hard, and they include backpacker lodges from a trip in Southeast Asia more than 20 years ago, run-down joints in all Central Asian countries, faceless motels in the US (and now Australia and New Zealand), and posh business establishments when traveling on work to many different countries — the list is long and varied.
However, few of these places have left a lasting impression, and I wouldn’t be able to conjure up specific reasons to visit them again today. While there was serendipity involved in choosing many of them (especially in the pre-internet booking and review-obsession days), there was not to be a shared history between the hotel and my life, or that of my family.
Except for those that I have listed below — special places with autobiographical meaning.
Ariyasom Villa. Arriving in Bangkok in 2019, we stayed in a serviced apartment for a few days and have returned to those again over the years. However, the most memorable place is this small hotel near Asok, replete with a vegetarian restaurant set in a quiet leafy garden. Apart from the escape from the hustle and bustle of the city it affords in such lush settings, it exudes something else, perhaps a spirit of the Bangkok from before the mass tourism boom. A stay with my sister and her husband in adjoining rooms, with the door opened and the fan on and our daughter running back and forth is among the most lasting memories of the trip we’re currently on.
Birds and Bees Resort. An NGO formerly engaged in family planning, contraception and HIV prevention runs this mildly eccentric hotel with adjacent restaurant (appropriately named Cabbages and Condoms). It’s a two-hour drive from Bangkok, set by the quiet (for Pattaya standards) beach, with short walks through its jungle setting, and ten rabbits roaming about to entertain the kids. The special thing about this place, too, is that it’s not special by most standards anymore (and is still very charming), but exudes something timeless, perhaps a contemplation on what travel is about after all. We have been four times, most recently a few days ago with friends and family for New Year’s Eve.
Claska. Memorable experiences in ryokan or business hotels with six-square-meter rooms were more quintessentially Japan, and featured frequently on our trips through this amazing country during our four years there. Claska was in walking distance to our home in Meguro, but we had been a few times before when living slightly further afield in Shinagawa, on the recommendation of a friend of a friend who had stayed here. This was a place on those (generically individual?) Monocle lists for Tokyo – a boutique hotel with beautifully themed Japanese style rooms, a craft gallery on the second floor, and a great rooftop affording lovely views across this more residential area.
Our most intimate connection to the place was the restaurant downstairs, and while in her mother’s tummy and during her first two years, our daughter grew up on its Japanese breakfast, gobbling up the rice, natto and egg with a gusto not seen since. An LP by Jesse van Ruller Chambertones trio was playing on repeat, and completed the atmosphere. Before leaving Japan, we stayed here with friends for two nights and had dinner in the restaurant. I don’t think we ever racked up such a bill on checkout, but that’s not why we had tears in our eyes when leaving for Haneda airport, Bangkok-bound, waving goodbye at our buddies. Unfortunately Claska closed its doors for good during the pandemic.
Hotel Okura. It’s the only hotel on the list I have never actually stayed at, but somehow it’s the closest to my heart of all of them. We lived a stone’s throw away from it for half a year between 2011 and 2012. We walked through the old hotel lobby countless times, taking us straight back to the sixties, and enjoyed a highball in the legendary Orchid Bar, where TV export cartel prices were fixed. I wrote about this institution of postwar Japan on this blog before and don’t need to dwell on it much here. It hurt when the place fell victim to the wrecking ball a few years back, but in Japan, c’est la vie.
Tokyu Hotel Shimoda, A scenic two-hour train journey from Tokyo lies the town in which Commodore Perry’s steamboats arrived during the dusk of Tokugawa Japan. We went a few times, once with our three-month-old daughter, when she first experienced wind blowing in her face next to the pool, a few steps on the way to the beach. The hotel was built in the sixties, and has all the showa-era charm one would expect. A small onsen, an amazing breakfast and its setting on a hill by the sea make it unique, even after extensive renovations made it look more generic than before. A similar but slightly more upmarket experience, especially for the food, was the Toba Hotel International, near the Ise Shrine.
Buelow Palais Dresden. This posh independent hotel is a stone throw away from our friend who we visited twice when living in nearby Leipzig for a few months during the pandemic. The stay in Saxony was a highlight of those difficult Covid years, friendships were re-experienced and re-lived in both places with two close school buddies and have only become closer since. Our daughter also walked happily to my friend’s pediatric practice around the corner from the hotel to get her flu shot and a regular checkup. Covid-safe in-room fine dining almost drove tears into our eyes during these culinary-deprived years.
Thamada Hotel. The Yangon Architectural Guide I co-wrote with two friends created a deep connection to this city. However, I actually only ever spent a total of about two months in Burma’s former capital. Much of that I stayed at this 1950s hotel sharing a room with Manu, who took the photos for the book. So this place, too, symbolizes friendship, best encapsulated by countless beers and lazy breakfasts in the downstairs 365 Bar. I revisited the Thamada in 2019 when it had already relaunched as the swanky Hotel G, in which process it lost quite a bit of its original, slightly dilapidated, charm.
Inya Lake Hotel. For the charm of yesteryear, this hotel might provide a more authentic experience. Set a few miles north of the busy downtown area, it’s a quiet (usually more than half-empty), Soviet-style sanatorium with a mosquito-ridden outdoor area by the lake, serving cool Myanmar Beer and rather average food. The huge rooms are classically worn out but very comfy, and walking the extremely long corridors gives you the chance to ponder the passage of time. I become melancholic (and worried) thinking about the state of the country and our friends living there now, two years after the coup.
Energihotellet Nesflaten. The only place in Europe on this short list is the place where my wife and I spent our short honeymoon in September 2012. This is the former guesthouse of a nearby hydropower station. It’s set in a striking landscape of fjords (and a huge nearby dam). The rooms only feature the bare minimum (a bed but not much else), allowing the eyes to focus solely on the incredible view. A contemplative place in brutalist architecture, at the beginning of our mutual journey more than ten years ago.
Added: Upon reflection, the Anantara Riverside in Bangkok also deserves a place on this list. This is where we spent two weeks of quarantine back in October 2020. It’s right by the water, so the sound of the river barges on the Chao Phraya still reminds me of this involuntary confinement. What strange times these were. Luckily our daughter was just a little over two years old, so we could entertain her to her satisfaction within the confines of the room. The daily highlight was ordering the next day’s food and the one-hour time allotment outside.