Anyone who’s been backpacking has heard or participated in these sorts of conversations. Not the ones where you compete to see who got to that small town in Vietnam when the children still cried to see a strange face on the street, or who arrived at that beach in southern Thailand before it had a single bungalow on it and you could live there on free pineapples and coconuts.
It’s those conversations about who stayed in the most atrocious accommodation I like best. They always start with "Now, where was I?" and a scratch of the head, while the tale-teller stretches their mind across the many, many towns, countries and continents they must have been to. Then comes the recognition. "Oh, it was Pushkar. Rajastshan. That’s western India," the tale-teller will add.
It will continue: "I was staying in a glorified concrete dog box perched at the top of a three-storey condemned firetrap. There were two blue, wooden doors at the entrance," (shudder, distant look in the eyes) "and there was a chain that you put through two holes to lock them together when you were out. There were hooks on the inside, so when sleeping, you could just wrap the chain around them and you’d wake up if anyone tried to open the doors.
"On the first night monkeys came down from somewhere and shook the doors until the chain worked itself loose and fell off. I was lying in bed when they all came running in, over my pack, my bed and my clothes. They grabbed all the food I had. It was terrifying. From then on I had to padlock myself inside the room so they couldn’t get in. But they would shake the door… all night long. Still, it was only US$1.50 (Bt63) a night."
Animals – vermin, more usually – will often feature in this genre of story-telling. In a creaking guesthouse in Pak Beng, Laos (that’s northern Laos) My Man went to the loo downstairs one night and came back shaking. "I saw a rat and it was the size of a beaver. It flashed its teeth at me. And it smiled." That, I suppose, is why they had chamber pots. Until then we had thought they were ashtrays.
Another friend stayed in a "really hideous place" in Luang Nam Tha (far northern Laos) where rats woke him up as they ate through the sealed cigarette packet lying next to his head. "They ate from the bottom so they didn’t get the filter. *$%#^&?$ clever rats in Luang Nam Tha."
Fast forward to when it’s time to start working in Bangkok: then it’s the Khao San Rd guesthouse with perpetually damp mattresses, dining room/dengue fever treatment centres, share tinea-infected bathrooms, and various characters whom idle away their days talking about well, the above. But this will be where you find your launchpad out of backpacker land back into Real Life. That is, somewhere to live.
Now you’ll expand your social circle beyond those who think leaving Khao San Rd is an adventure, and rub shoulders with freelance photographers, journalists, subeditors, English teachers, self-employed and other locally-engaged staff. You’ll find that something of a transformation has taken place: the favoured topic of conversation has now become who’s got the best place. Who can get the best bang for their buck? Who managed to find a place for under Bt10,000 a month with a direct line and normal rather than fluorescent lights?
Most aren’t that lucky the first time around. Take Rufus. The first place he moved into was a one room hovel he had to share with his travelling companion. "The building was a falang ghetto, full of very low-paid English teachers and, well, Bangkok scum. Down the hall was this English teacher/male model who regularly beat up his girlfriend. Then there was a guy from Lima (that’s the capital of Peru), a big ugly bald guy who looked like John Voight, who did nothing but sit in the lobby drinking beer all day. Other South American friends would drop off mysterious packages, so he was probably a drug dealer. But we can’t be sure about that. Upstairs there were at least four katoeys who would come home at 4am drunk, start fighting, and run screaming through the halls.
"It cost Bt4,000 a month, was serviced and had a filthy, slimy pool. But the English teachers would sit around it and drink beer between classes. They’d get drunk and go swimming. I stayed for six months. It was horrible."
Eventually, you might mix with the expats who are on packages. When you tell them excitedly what you’ve found after looking for months, they’ll smile knowingly, condescendingly or, if you’re lucky, sympathetically. Actually, it’s better to keep your mouth shut to listen to their stories. I tried to smile empathetically once when someone told me how he couldn’t get his airconditioning right despite paying double my average monthly salary in rent (and I don’t do that badly). He checked into a five-star hotel and sent his landlord the bill. I think my eyes widened too far though and gave the game away.
We got what we thought was a fabulous deal on our place when we moved in a couple of years ago. We had been paying a small fortune for a terracotta tiled cupboard, and couldn’t believe our luck when a departing friend offered us first option to move into a place half the price for quadruple the space. And even though when it rains the driveway becomes a knee-deep swirling pool of mud, the dogs are mean and the security’s dodgy, the place is clean and there’s only the occasional bar girl who turns up to ask us if we’ve seen our downstairs neighbour lately.
But when we recently started hearing more tales about better places – Rufus is in one now -we decided to check some of them out. Alas, the ones shown to us were never as fantastic as what the person we knew had snared. Feeling adventurous, we also headed into apartments that looked promising, despite knowing they’d be way out of our price range.
Now, if you’re stuck in a place like Rufus once was and aspire to much greater things, let me temper your enthusiasm. Of the expensive places we saw, not one was worth a job in accounting for; boxy, airless and awfully designed, they provided fodder for their own kind of horror tales. "The built-ins that made me want to cover my eyes in horror, and the pink glass panelling was enough to make a normal human being gag. Sure, there were plastic wooden floors that you could rollerblade across, but they were asking Bt70,000 a month for it."
So in the meantime, I might be paying more than Bt63 a night, and even more than Bt4,000 a month, but I don’t have to put up with monkeys or screaming drunken neighbours. I’m not paying Bt70,000 for the privilege of faux marble in the bathroom or leopard skin carpet, either. Instead I’m living in an accommodation twilight zone. Package expats sneer at my address, new arrivals think it’s nondescript, and backpackers don’t believe for a second that it compares to that place in Mahalibalipuram … (that’s southern India).