Well, hello there! If we’re meeting for the first time, you and I that is, let me catch you up a little. Now I hate introductions, first impressions, greetings, whatever it is that you call them, but I’ll tell you three things about myself. First: my name, Natalie. Second: my occupation, a writer, silly. And third: I’m in Bangkok with One Night to uncover the characters that bring the app’s hotels to life.
So, we’re all caught up. That wasn’t so painful, was it? Now let’s get back to the story. Where was I…
I was in a tuk-tuk on my way to Ba Hao, a bohemian guest house just off of Bangkok’s very own Chinatown. After having spent a fabulous few nights falling in love with high society at The Siam Hotel, I was ready to venture beyond the palace walls to explore an edgier side of city life. Just as an unsolicited invitation inside my head, ‘an edgier side of city life’ is me imagining a fully-tatted man with a beard who rides a motorbike and smokes cigarettes as a physical place.
As my ride pulls up to a nondescript door in a graffiti-filled alleyway, I was pretty sure I would find just that. However, neither I or the driver speak the same language, I have no phone service, and at this point, I have about zero clue where I am. This definitely didn’t look like a hotel. He laughs and talks to me in Thai, I sigh and talk back at him in English. Nothing is getting accomplished and just before I’m about to give up and call this tuk-tuk my home, I see a crowd of very trendy, very hipster locals pouring out of a neon-red-illuminated door. Now that must be Ba Hao.
Silhouettes and smoke moving past each window of its quaint corner building instantly lure me in. Slightly intimidated by the crowd, I peer through the door to reveal what was reminiscent of that typical movie scene where a waiter pulls back a curtain to a secret room in an off-the-beaten-path locale. In most movies, they’re playing poker or some other card game, here they’re drinking gin and downing dumplings.
And then there’s me, the totally unprepared, undone outsider with a carry-on and a print-out of my reservation. For a brief moment, I forget what I’m doing here in the first place, entranced by the life and movement around me. And just in time to save me from my daze, a kind bartender, Eck, whom I would get to know much better later, points me to a wooden staircase that would lead me to bohemian bliss.
LOVE AT FIRST RICE.
As I make my way up, I catch a glimpse of an irresistibly cool couple lounging in a room adorned in hand-picked gems and artifacts. Bua, sweet and petite but will surprise you with her business prowess and Note, her giggly, approachable husband who knows every vintage treasure trove in the city, get up to greet me. While on first impression I falsely assumed there was no way this young couple could be the owners, I was sorely mistaken. Bua and Note are in fact the beauty and brains behind Ba Hao. I simply couldn’t wait to talk to them, and before I even went to drop off my bags, I sat down on their vintage couch to uncover their Ba Hao fairytale.
My first question, as a blatantly single person who loves a good love story, is the inevitable: how did you meet? Bua, in her soft voice giggles as she recounts, “We met at a Banshee gig. It was a coincidence that after the gig I went to my friend’s friends’ apartment for an after party and Note happened to be there too. We had some chicken-rice and some drinks and, well, that was it.” Fast-forward four years and chicken-rice has turned into marriage, a newborn, and their Ba Hao baby; a wondrous two-room guesthouse.
Excuse my poor storytelling, I may have skipped over a few details just there. So, I left it to Bua to fill in some of the blanks, “I used to work at the Hyatt and Conrad hotels, and I wanted to open my own place ever since I was in high school. One of our friends and now business partners lives just around the block and found this building. He initially just wanted to open a bar, but the building has four stories and it’s just too big for that. He knew I wanted to open a hotel so he asked me if I wanted to share the space, and that’s how it started.”
Once Bua was on board, Ba Hao took about 10 months to complete. As someone who has bared witness to the painstakingly long process of opening a hotel, my immediate response was total and utter shock at their speed. “Noooo,” Bua immediately reacts, “It should’ve been done in 5-6 months. But we got scammed, we had a furniture contractor who was supposed to build the windows and doors and he just took our money and disappeared, around 100,000 Baht.”
Me: “What did you guys do?”
Bua: “We just took one deep breath.”
As an anxiety-ridden New Yorker, I had a lot to learn from the couple’s zen approach. I found out that on top of managing Ba Hao and having a baby, they both still have full-time jobs, Bua in corporate communications for a food retail company and Note in his family’s wholesale clothing business. But in order to get through all the work, the couple has had some fun over the years.
“There’s a lot of good memories, when we opened there were a lot of available nights and we hadn’t had a baby, so we would drink a lot at the bar and stay here.” She continues, “Actually one of the first nights we hosted an open-house event where we had beers and tours of all four floors. There was a lot of people, people we’re chilling where your room was. The third floor was filled with DJs in the rooms. We wired the speaker to downstairs as well. From outside you could see everything.”
Ba Hao’s intimate spaces certainly lend to said moments of spontaneous interaction, and over the years Bua and Note have befriended many-a-traveler passing through their place. “We’ve met so many people. We often take them out for dinner, sometimes we watch football games with them or have drinks downstairs. You can drink as much as you want and just walk upstairs to sleep, it’s the best!”
It became apparent to me that my romantic fantasy was sitting right in front of me, the sweet girl and the hipster tatted-man who defied the odds to open a hotel together. I caught myself staring at them a little too long, and just before it got weird Alex arrived downstairs to snap me out of it. On our way to dinner Bua left us with one last slice of wisdom, “Try the duck wontons, for sure.”
THE BARS AND THE BARTENDER.
And try them we did. Alex and I scurried to secure a coveted table at the buzzy Ba Hao restaurant. In just a few short moments I locked eyes with Eck, the gentle-souled bartender who had been so kind as to lead me in the right direction just a few hours prior.
He comes over, a smile ear-to-ear, and asks us our favorite question: “what are we drinking?” The menu consists of eight cocktails inspired by Ba Hao’s Chinese heritage using only local ingredients from Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road. They all look delicious, so I, like the annoyingly inquisitive New Yorker I am, asked about each and every one. The favorite? The Opium. Eck was very clear as to mention there is “no actual opium in the drink.” Any secret menus? A secret cocktail Eck creates weekly with his own recipes for in-the-know locals. Sold, “We’ll take two of those.”
Eck worked his magic, and a few sips in, we were already buzzed and invited him to join us for a chat. “Do you usually chat with your guests?” I inquired. Eck shared that he does, “When it’s not busy, or when guests drink a lot.” I wondered, “What’s a lot?” Eck laughed, “One time a woman had about 10 glasses in three hours.” Challenge, accepted.
We order two more cocktails, Opiums this time, and continue to grill Eck with all of our slightly intoxicated questions. Eck tells us that he usually makes around 60-70 cocktails per night on weekends and that there are only two bartenders behind the bar. His favorite drink, however, is “Beer! It’s easy and we drink every day after work.” Which according to Eck, after work usually is around midnight or 1 am, which is why he claims he’s currently, “Single!”
A few Opiums later, although I decidedly did not beat the 10 drinks in three hours record, we decided to check out the infamous bars of Soi Nana. Which luckily for Alex and I (we were in no state to be navigating Bangkok’s winding alleys), was only a few skips away. What proceeded was a lesson in bar hopping. Over the next two hours, Alex and I had gin at Teens of Thailand, whiskey at 23 Bar & Gallery, a crafted cocktail I cannot recount at Wallflowers Upstairs, and a local Thai concoction at Tep Bar. I was falling in lust for a Bangkok that was rough-around-the-edges one drink at a time, and within the span of the night, I was left smitten.
THE GUY ON TOP.
The entire journey, I found myself immune to hangovers in Bangkok. I awoke feeling fresh as ever in the minimalist oasis that was my SANTIPHAP room. No time to meditate (as if I meditate) or enjoy my sprawling balcony overlooking the now quiet Soi Nana street, I was scheduled to meet with Top, the busy man behind Ba Hao’s surreal structure.
Top rushes into the living room slightly disheveled with a suitcase in hand. He only has a few moments to spare before he has to head to Shanghai for work, since apparently aside from bringing Ba Hao to life, Top is “a full-time architect with my own practice, it’s called Integrated Field. We actually just got an award from the United States from Architizer, the winning prize.”
The impressively-dressed Bangkok native didn’t just fall into being an award-winning architect, “Since high school, it was all I ever wanted to be. I admired buildings and was just like, wow, I want to be the person who can design them. That was my dream.” And boy did his dreams become a reality.
As a close friend of Bua’s, he was an instant choice to help concept and construct Ba Hao. He describes the ethos behind the guest house, “It is inspired by a Chinese teahouse that has two functions. In Chinese pastimes when people traveled they stayed at these places that had a room in the upper story and a cafe on the ground floor where everybody came to chit-chat and inevitably get into heated arguments.”
Top too has had his fair share of chit-chats and drunken debates in Ba Hao’s ground floor restaurant. He reveals, “After Ba Hao opened I rarely go outside to eat, I just come here and enjoy it with friends. I love gin, but gin is not good for my liver because I drink too much, so nowadays I try to change to wine. It depends on my feeling. Sometimes whiskey is good. Sometimes it’s scotch, sometimes single malt.” My kind of guy.
And when he’s had too many to go home? Top sparingly shares that he’s “slept in every room. I think I even slept on this couch. One-time Bua, Note and I slept in the same room, I slept on the floor. We are like family, close friends. It’s like they are the parents and I’m their son.”
As an honorary family member and Ba Hao expert, I ask what his favorite Ba Hao feature is, “It’s in your room. You can see the Wat Traimit temple right above your bed. The bed falls under a big window that frames the temple. It’s like a painting, but it has life and changes all day.”
THE LAST NIGHT.
I bid Top farewell as he hurried to Shanghai, and the reality hit that I too would be leaving the very next day. After spending nearly three weeks in Asia’s city of angels, it had begun to feel like home. I was comfortable with both my high society prince and edgy in-the-know hipster, and even comfortable in the fact that I could still only communicate in smiles and gestures.
Once I let it sink in, Alex and I decided to get the drinks in. We wondered Yaowarat Road, Chinatown’s main street where each of our senses became instantly overwhelmed by colorful surrounds. Yaowarat Road is possibly the only place I’ve encountered where street food vendors take up more of the sidewalk than actual people passing through. Naturally, we stuffed our faces with as many inconspicuous eats as we could handle before realizing we had a dinner to attend.
Our boss Jimmy, who is equally as obsessed with the Juul as he is U2, was inviting us and the Sansiri team out to a celebratory meal at Charm Eatery and Bar. Before ordering any solid foods, in true Jimmy style we are served with a round of tequila shots. One shot leads to another, and another, and a cocktail here and there and before we know it we’re ordering Jimmy a cake to celebrate his 80th birthday. He’s 52.
From what I can recall, the remainder of the night went a little something like this. First, we collectively decide the best and only option is to dance it off. Next, we stumble into Revolucion Cocktail. The place was entirely empty, and we couldn’t care less. We had just launched our baby (One Night) in Bangkok, and more tequila shots were in order. Finally, we decide to go to a fabulously gay club in the basement of an InterContinental Hotel called Mixx. The last straw? Alex was denied entry due to her off-brand sneakers, we still managed to sneak our way in, and one last bottle was shamelessly popped.
The next thing I know, I look down at my phone and it’s 5 am. I probably shouldn’t have, but I decided the only way to end my Bangkok night in style was to take a motorbike back to my hotel (sorry mom). And then there was one last rookie mistake. I ordered a burger, chocolate fondant, pasta, and an extra side of fries all for myself from the always convenient 24-hour room service. And just like my college years, I woke up the next morning to a cold meal that I hadn’t touched. It was then I finally decided, get your sh*t together, it’s time to go home.
The most important relationship you have is with y̶o̶u̶r̶s̶e̶l̶f̶ the cities that you call home. Much like in my past human relationships, each trip to Bangkok has taught me something new. What, you wonder, did I learn this time? You can have it all. I want a city (and a man) who can show me the finer things in life and is not afraid to get dirty and go off-the-beaten-path. So what if it’s not all caviar and champagne? If someone has a problem with that, well, let’s just say nobody gets to talk bad about my boyfriend.