Thursday, 31 July 2008

Spirit Houses and just why we had to have one...

Animism or spirit worship has been widely practiced in Asia for thousands of years and in Thailand it was well established well before Buddhism first arrived over 2500 year ago. Today, spirit worship is intertwined with Buddhist belief.

A spirit house or san phra phum in Thai, provides an appealing earthly shelter for the spirits, who would otherwise reside in some celestial place. These benevolent, but sometimes mischievous spirits, protect the home or business of the owner and building occupants. A spirit house is especially appealing to the departed ancestors of those who most frequently use the building.

A typical spirit house is populated with representations of ancestors, a ceramic white haired old couple and, inexplicably, a trio of porcelain dancing girls in our case. Incense sticks and offerings of flowers, whisky and soft drinks are intended to encourage occupancy. Hard to get, bright red Fanta Cream Soda is thought to be particularly enticing.

A former Baan Bophut cook was visibly relieved when our own spirit house was inaugurated and received its formal blessing (pictured) as she claimed that her grandmother's spirit would no longer have to come in the kitchen and distract her from her duties. We don't mess up so much in the kitchen these days, but I don't know if that's because the cook left or her grandmother's spirit found a new home. Either way: spirit houses - take your chances without one.

Khoom Fay: Thai hot air lanterns - What's that all about?

We have a curious relationship with these paper hot air balloons. We usually have some in Reception, but otherwise buy them in bulk from a small shop in Maenam, but they're also available in the village. A Taiwanese guest once told me that they were invented thousands of years ago in China, as a means of signaling from one village to the next. Here they're lit for the spectacle, especially at Loy Kratong and New Year.

I can't recall how we came to start writing messages on the balloons to our dead relatives and friends, but it's not something we would have dreamed up for ourselves. I think the practice might be routed in the animist tradition of ancestor worship, otherwise manifested in daily Thai life through the Spirit Houses that are evident outside many Thai homes and businesses (see next entry) including Baan Bophut.

However it started, it's become something of a family tradition to remember departed relatives and friends. It's good to make time to remember happy times with those to whom we were close and it doesn't do any harm - so long as they're kept away from the thatched roof of the bar.

Chanchao's Thai Travel Menu

"Arguably, some of the best and cheapest food in Thailand is literally on the street, or in small informal restaurants. Trouble is, many of these places don’t have a menu! Or if they do have a menu, it may be in Thai language only. This makes these places far less convenient for foreign visitors than they could be. With this ‘generic’ menu you have a good overview of what dishes are typically available, and you can point at the Thai translation to tell the cook or waitress your order."

Check out this excellent primer on eating Thai street food. Go There.

One of the best investments we ever made...

Apart from getting hooked up to the municipal water supply when it finally arrived at our end of the street the best improvement we made to Baan Bophut was to build our little beach bar - The Spirit House.

photo credit: Chris Lyon - friend & guest

It's the focal point we needed for guests to meet and mingle, and an idyllic location for a sundowner or three. It really is the perfect spot to enjoy some of Samui's glorious sunsets, and unlike many of the bars in the village, we usually catch the cooling onshore breeze that can pick up at the same time.

Quite apart from paying for itself quite quickly, it must have saved us a fortune as, for our family at least, it's become our favourite haunt of an evening. Since these photos were taken, the bar has been extended by about 70 cm to the west to create more space for when we need to use two barmen. The bar's decking has also been extended by 1.5m all around in response to guests' claims that they fell off - yeah right. Another table and additional stools are currently en route from Chiang Mai.

We must admit that a large part of the bar's draw is barman Tik, an intelligent, intensely curious and entertaining card-shark. He's been warned not to take money from guests, no matter how convinced they know where the queen is, or whatever. Like most Thais, Tik is also an enthusiastic cook and responsible for both, the idea and the implementation of our ever popular seafood dinners on the beach.

Irrepressible barman and card trickster Tik

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

It seems a long time ago now...

We slithered into operation as a hotel, about four months earlier than planned in late December 2004 when, finally, we could no longer resist the pleading of tsunami survivors arriving in droves from the west coast, or those who were making their way down to Phuket and Pi Pi, or Krabi and Koh Lanta when they learned that devastation had struck the Andaman coast.

Our first guests were a Swiss honeymoon couple to whom we offered a supremely comfortable bed and a bottle of bubbly. We took no payment, but the room had no curtains and the taps fell off. They were obliged to make do using the cardboard cartons in which the furniture had recently arrived, tacked over the windows to allow some privacy. We thought we had seen the last of our honeymooners when we wished them well the following morning, but that second night they returned having failed to find anywhere else, as the island, already very busy during Samui's peak season, was now swollen by thousands more whose west coast holiday had been all but wiped out.

And so it continued. In the following days and weeks, a tide of human misery arrived in Samui trying to make the best of their altered, often tragic circumstances. We started to charge enough to cover our costs and a bit more when we realised that many of our guests were succeeding very well at making the best of their situation - most were having an absolute blast! Curtains or not.

I've just looked at our Business Plan, written when the hotel was still only a dream and the land was, literally, an infested dump and mostly, a tangle of virgin undergrowth. One of the qualitative objectives we set as a measure of our performance was to aim for 35 per cent repeat occupancy within three years.

Three and a half years after our unscheduled opening, almost 70 per cent of bookings are from guests that have stayed with us at Baan Bophut before, or are first timers who have been recommended the hotel from someone that has stayed. Many, I'm delighted to record, are repeat visitors from those very early days who saw beyond the lack of curtains, wonky taps and the idiosyncrasies of pool water that turned black when we added chlorine. Many remain family friends and it was a particular privilege when one of our most frequent visitors, right from those earliest of days, chose Baan Bophut for her beach wedding earlier this year.

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