When the ‘Hotel’ Was…Something Else


There was no sign for the hotel on the frontage, just a flashing neon sign which read “24 Hr Spa”. In case that was too subtle, a smaller sign read “men only” and – lest anyone still not get it – pulsating red lights traced the outline of the silhouette of a woman on the door.

I looked again at the email from the booking site, thinking that I had made a mistake, but the street number was right. I looked again at the frontage and this time spotted the word ‘hotel’ – отель – on one of the top-storey windows.

I was stopped at the door by a thick-set, close-cropped man who growled something in threatening Russian.


“Ugh. Hotel on fourth floor.”

It was an old, tall St Petersburg town house with a stone staircase which spiralled up the middle of the building and originally led off to apartments. On the landing of the second floor, there was a life-size cardboard cut-out of a smiling girl holding a sign which offered massages to men on the fourth floor. The fourth? On the third, there was more flashing neon, an arrow and the words “erotic massages for men” in English then Russian then English again. On the fourth, the signs pointed right to a spa and left to a hotel.

I turned left with misgivings, because the name was different from the one I booked and because I have never seen a hotel with a row of girls sitting in a corridor instead of a reception desk. But it was the wrong place anyway. They sent me across the landing to the spa, where there was a girl behind a bit of a desk in a bit of a dress and heels so high she probably had to have lessons in them.

Reach-ad?” she said.

Richard, yeah.”

A girl slinked down the stairs and loitered there until the ‘receptionist’ sent her away.

This is the hotel?”

“Da,” she said, as if it had not been a stupid question. “This is hotel. I show you room. ”

I followed as she clattered down the corridor past empty rooms with open doors and little inside except king-sized beds. There was one of those in my room, and a table, a kettle, an en suite and air con which, all in all, is a lot more than I am used to these days. Did it really matter, I reflected, if it was a knocking shop on the side, or perhaps more to the point a knocking shop which was a hotel on the side? In any case there was not a lot I could do about it now, except waste money on another hotel and waste time looking for it. So long as the extras were not compulsory.

The location was good, the room was comfortable; and the doorbell chimed throughout the night and the girls walked on the wooden floors in their heels and doors opened and shut and there was noisy braggadocio, hiding nerves, from the clients in reception, but earplugs shut all that out.

Then, on the last night, I was woken at five by hammering at my door and opened it to a burly drunk in late middle age and a vest. I guessed he had got the wrong room, but I slammed the door in his face and locked it again before he could state his business.

And people imagine travel to be glamorous.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: Massimo Catarinella (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Why the Worst Hotels are the Best

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It was halfway down one of the quieter sois near Khao San Road. A leathery old expat was drinking beer on his own outside. A surly woman was behind the desk.

Do you have any rooms?”

She glared at me and said nothing, but got up slowly, grudgingly, and led me up a gloomy staircase with a collapsing banister, past crates of beer and a broken toilet. The room was next to the communal bathroom. That was obvious enough from the smell. There was a horrid alabaster parrot nailed to the wall and a naive oil of a Japanese garden. The curtains were the colour and material of a Paddy’s Day hat, and too small for the window. The bed was hard, a tap dripped, and the towels were filthy.

That’s fine,” I said, “I’ll take it.”

Two years later and back in Asia, I was woken at four in the morning by what sounded like the guy in the next room wrestling a step ladder. I worked out later that it was the aluminium fob of his key banging against the door as he tried to navigate the lock – never easy when you come in at four in the morning.

It was a no-star hotel in a seedy corner of Shinjuku. The room stank of stale smoke and the air con was broken. The toilet was crammed in so tightly that the flush handle fouled on the sink.  There were leaflets for adult channels in the room, and beer and whisky vending machines in the corridors. The guy on the front desk had obviously had a few.

But it was a roof and a bed.

Back when I was a lawyer, I occasionally stayed in five star hotels, but always felt an intruder. I was uncomfortable with all the synthetic creeping and crawling, and people darting out to perform little services which I would never even have thought of – like lifting my bag over a slight undulation in the carpet. No doubt the arms dealers and hedge funders who routinely stay in such places demand it.

I still stay in business hotels sometimes, if I get a good deal or think I deserve a night of relative luxury. But they can make you feel unwelcome if you are not wearing a suit. I paid hostel prices for a Japanese chain hotel in Kanazawa, but the WiFi did not really work in the room – a perennial problem in business hotels – and I had photos to upload and a post to write and new followers to follow and unfollowers to unfollow back, so I went out in the corridor to work.

But a businessman objected to that and went downstairs to complain. The receptionist came running up and chased me back into my room then bowed so cravenly to the businessman that I thought she would dissolve in a pool of obsequiousness. I lost all my work because of his insecurity. May his spreadsheets corrupt and his meetings drag on and the lapdancers overcharge him.

The staff in hostels are always friendly (except one near Hongik University in Seoul), and the WiFi always works, and you usually meet interesting people. But it soon becomes too much, on a long trip, to share a succession of rooms with a succession of strangers. There is always a good chance that at least one will snore, and if you are unlucky you get two heavy snorers calling to each other across the dorm like big ships in fog. Then there are dorms where someone is always trying to sleep, whatever time of day it is, and you have to creep round and use your torch in the middle of the afternoon. Or where people tumble in at three in the morning, trip over things, flick on the light, and talk as if they are still at the bar.

If I can get a room of my own for around the same money, I will. All I need is a bed and a door which locks and somewhere to dump my backpack.

All things considered, the worst hotels work out best.

© Richard Senior 2015