Adventure's Afoot at Barefoot Hotels of Asia

Peffer is a free-lance writer living in Andover, Mass

One wrong turn on a short walk from one tourist spot to another and we found ourselves caught in a maze of back streets that seemed to double back on themselves.

Sidewalks overflowed with street vendors selling shish kebabs, ginseng root, live monkeys and silk sarongs. Medicine men squatted in doorways and read fortunes in mummified horses' heads. The air vibrated with the scent of incense and ginger.

We had found our way into the heart of Asia.

"Talk about the mysterious and exotic Orient. I didn't know places like this still existed," my wife said.

"I wish our hotel was here," my son replied.

"Hello," called a female voice. "You want a room?"

My mouth had just opened for an automatic negative response when the voice insisted, "Come, you have a look."

Before us stood a young Thai woman with an ingenue's smile. She ushered us into a tiny restaurant that opened to the street like a sidewalk cafe. Westerners and Thais sipped crushed fruit drinks at the tables.

We entered the restaurant and after walking through to the back found a staircase surrounded, like a stage with an audience, by a half dozen pair of shoes. Our hostess quickly slipped off her thongs.

"Barefoot hotel, in respect for the spirits of the house," she explained.

We padded upstairs in our bare feet to a small room with nothing but two large beds, a chair, a sink and a fan. It was strictly pension-style, except for the view.

The large windows overlooked a quilt of Oriental roof gardens bursting with orchids and bougainvillea. The only sound was the song of caged murtabok birds that hummed like wind playing in a cave.

"Eighty baht, if you like," our hostess said. "Shower next door. Only six rooms. Very secure."

"Can we, Dad?," my son pleaded. "Eighty baht; that's only $3." I could see he had already made eye contact with a shy but smiling 10-year-old Thai girl who had been following our progress through the hotel from a distance.

"It would be like staying with a family," he added.

After a week of international-style hotels I had to admit I craved a break from elevators, Muzak, air conditioning and the plate glass that separated us from the countries we had flown so far to see.

Half an hour later a taxi carried us back with our luggage. Over a $1 lunch of shrimp fried rice our Thai hostess and her younger sisters explained that we had stumbled into the heart of the Banglamphu district where a grass-roots accommodation industry was in bloom.

"We call these barefoot hotels 'guest houses,' " our hostess said. "Five years ago there was only one little hotel here. Now Kao San Road has 35 guest houses--very popular with young travelers."

That was evident from a glance around. Against the backdrop of traditional Oriental street scenes, backpack-toting youths strolled among the street vendors and lounged at tables that spread in front of restaurants like the tavernas of Mykonos.

Among themselves they chatted in German, Dutch, Swedish and English with an Australian accent. Some spoke Thai while others used English as the lingua franca with Asian friends. Life seemed to move in slow motion . . . even among the children my son joined to play soccer in the street.

Beyond the restaurants and guest houses of Banglamphu we never saw Westerners; the city absorbed them. Here, Bangkok opened to us like a blooming lotus.

Our hostess and her sisters showed us how to bargain for silk, jewelry, Buddhist antiques. We learned where to catch inexpensive water taxis to escape Bangkok's heat and traffic and visit city shrines by boat.

We gave alms to monks who queued up at our doorstep for a breakfast bowl of rice. We found absolute peace in the cloisters of a Buddhist temple. But most interesting of all was that we discovered how the Thais use their smiles to wipe away the unpleasantness in life.

More practical travel information came our way, too. Acquaintances showed us how the barefoot hotel network had spread through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

The "Traveler's Survival Kits" published by the Lonely Planet guidebook service provide good anecdotal advice about thousands of barefoot accommodations ranging from dormitories and pensions to resort vacation homes and private grass shacks on a tropical beach.

Generally, the lodging cost is less than $12 a night and often it is under $5 with a meal or two included. It has been likened, both in personal style and economics, to a stay in Europe's bed-and-breakfast establishments.

With two more weeks to explore the Orient, my family and I embarked upon the barefoot trail using the excellent Malay and Thai railway system to ferry us between destinations.

It did not matter that we arrived without reserved accommodations in Hua Hin, a Thai fishing village and resort.

As the train slowed for the station, three bicycle rickshaws raced alongside. Their drivers screeched to a stop, dismounted and swung aboard the moving train, laughing at their accomplishment.

"Good rooms! Good rooms!," they shouted, grabbing our bags. "Beach house. Very cheap. OK?"

These were not your average touts, they were high-school boys whose jolliness and energy put us at their mercy.

Five minutes later they rolled us up to a modern two-story resort home on a quiet lane one block from restaurants and the South China Sea.

For $8 we had a living room, kitchen, bath of kingly proportions and two balconies. With no landlord on the premises, it offered privacy almost unknown in Asia, with a spectacular beach and a nearby outdoor market that turned shopping into a carnival.

We might never have left Hua Hin except that Malaysia's Penang Island called to us.

Once a crucial British colonial trading center, Penang's only city, Georgetown, seems architecturally and temperamentally frozen in the days when Chinese Tokays and turbaned Indians clogged the narrow streets and whispered promises of ivory, emeralds and longevity potions.

The barefoot hotels stand at the center of the city where gold merchants, antique traders and silk emporiums have streets to themselves. And unlike the guest houses of Bangkok or the bungalows of Hua Hin, Penang's barefoot accommodations are small hotels, most run by Chinese families.

Over the years these establishments have developed a reputation for housing "short-time" girls, so once again we found rickshaw drivers useful in leading us to a "barefoot" with family accommodations.

The Swiss Hotel on Chulia Street offered quiet rooms, laundry service, breakfast for under $1, a serve-yourself beer locker, free newspapers and a shaded patio that seemed a crossroads for Western travelers.

All this was within 50 yards of Indian parades, Chinese tiger dancers and a Mardi Gras atmosphere of food stalls and revelers painting the streets of Georgetown every night of the year.

But not all of Penang's barefoot hotels are caught in the endless throb of Georgetown. Some, like the Southern Cliff, are on the edge of the quiet palm forests north of town.

There we shared the upstairs of a beach-front restaurant with the owner Fu, his wife and two boys. We caught our own fish, ate family style and played majong. The boys gave each other English and Mandarin lessons while playing hide-and-seek or flying paper airplanes out the windows.

Fu's youngest son had an expression for how our families related. "Learning house together," he called it.

During the rest of our stay in Southeast Asia we also "learned house together" with Tamil Indians in an urban bungalow and with Muslim Malays in a coastal stilt village.

We learned the secrets of cooking with coconuts, curry and hot peppers. We learned how patience and an exceptional sense of comic irony made life a joy in a Muslim household with no fewer than three wives and 14 children.

And always, of course, we learned about friendship.

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