How We Ended Up With a Guesthouse on Koh Chang
This was written in three installments back in 2004. I’ve just left it up here as it has some memories. It is the story of our holiday home / guesthouse ‘Baan Rim Nam’ on the island of Koh Chang, Thailand.
Way back in October 2003, our original plan was to rent some land and build a small resort. Buying land wasn’t an option as we didn’t have much money and all land in good locations was way out of our price range, even back then.
So, after a month or searching and asking everyone we could find we got hold of some roadside land in Bailan on a 9-year lease. This was ‘Plan A’. Another couple of months passed and our plans for eight bungalows and a coffeeshop/house/small restaurant were finished. The plans were approved, after sitting in planning offices in Trat and Koh Chang for a couple of months, in early March 2004.
We could have started building then, but after having spent a lot of time travelling around the island, speaking to resort owners and seeing where visitors were staying, it was clear that Bailan wasn’t going to be busy for another couple of years at least. (Even now, in 2009, although a luxury hotel, the Dusit Princess, and many new bungalow resorts have sprung up, most are very quiet.)
We then heard about a seafront resort – including large restaurant and 16 bungalows by the sea – for rent in Bailan for only 100,000 baht/year for a long lease. We spoke to the owner and even negotiated a reduction in rent as we’d have to rebuild the bungalows & restaurant which had been neglected for a few years. This was preferable to the roadside land and was ‘Plan B’.
Then, out of the blue, one morning in early May 2004, our landlord told us that there was an fisherman’s house for sale in Klong Prao. Plan C. (There’s a very limited number of these houses which are built over the water one of the charms is that no more of these houses can be built now. So as Koh Chang gets busier, living or staying in house on the waterfront would naturally become more popular. Well, that was our reasoning.)
So we went and looked at it, and the next day paid a deposit on it, having decided to scrap the previous plans A & B. A week later bought it for what we both considered to be a good price. The following day we were offered 40% more for it by a guy who wanted it but had been too slow in paying his deposit to the owner. So if the worst comes to the worst we know we can get rid of it easily.
In mid-May 2004, we started to fix the house up. The following pages will detail what we’ve been doing and when we’ll open ‘Ban Rim Nam’ (‘House on the Water’) to guests.
May – July 2004
In mid-May we started to do some work on Baan Rim Nam. Structurally the house was OK . . . or so it appeared, the real work lay in tarting it up so that people other than Burmese refugees would be happy to stay there. The walls were lined with probably the most awful looking hardboard I’ve ever seen and so had to be covered up one way or another. The floors were in the main OK but all rooms had some gaps between the floorboards. After seeking expert opinion from a neighbour, we fixed these by using the same technique as boat-builders use to seal the planks in wooden boats. (although, we later found out that this was a crap idea.)
The ceiling in the third bedroom was a mess and so had to come off, a simple replacement we thought at the time. However, as anyone who has lived in an old house knows, when you start looking underneath the surface you open a veritable Pandora’s box. And, as everyone knows, the secrets of Pandora’s box are best left to Pandora’s husband to discover and not some amateur who’s fumbling in the dark.
It turned out that there were quite a few damaged tiles on the roof which had to be replaced. In addition, with one of the ceilings and part of the roof off it became easy to see that the wiring was in a bit of a state. We already had an idea that none of the island’s finest electricians hadn’t been anywhere near the house when we found the main circuit box for the house behind a door in one of the bathrooms.
So we added rewiring about 80% of the house and at the same time putting in a few more electrical points and light fittings. We got our old landlord to do this for us as he promised it’d be something he could do in a day or three. But, when you get friends to help out, something far more important always seems to crop up, so about three quarters of the work was done and then he declared himself too busy to finish it. (In early June he told us that he’d wait till our builders had finished in the rooms and then do all the little jobs remaining in one go – rather than doing bits and pieces weekly.)
We had our ideas for the interior of the rooms, paint over the hardboard, add a border of ‘surlampeng’ (a thin, hard panel made of woven reed) and some varnished softwood to give it that good ol’ country feel. At this point I should mention that our plan was to rent the house out to groups of Thais – be they a family or group of friends who want an alternative to renting three or four hotel rooms. There weren’t many nice house sto rent so most groups used to check into a hotel, annoy their neighbours and spend the weekend complaining that there’s nowhere for them to cook their own food.
We’d already spoke to half a dozen or so builders who’d been recommended to us by various people we’d met. However, many of them were either too busy, too lazy, couldn’t give accurate quotations for the work or just seemed to make up a number on the spot when asked how much the work would cost. Finally, work commenced in earnest in June , having found an experienced builder who seemed like he knew what he was doing, charged a sensible price for labour and, as an added bonus, didn’t come from Isaan and so we knew he wouldn’t disappear to plant or harvest rice when the mood suited him.
The builders started off in promising fashion, turning up at 7.45am on their first day of work and proved to be a hard working bunch of guys who also had a few good ideas about how to go about saving money on unnecessary expenses etc.
There are two ways you can employ builders, one is to get them to give you a price for the entire job i.e. for the total cost of materials and labour. You then pay them this amount and they present you with the finished building with no further involvement form yourself. The other way is to pay for labour and materials separately. You have to get hold of the materials yourself for the builder to use. providing you are happy to spend a bit of time checking out the cheapest places to buy stuff and have a builder who is happy to explain what he needs and why he needs it, as you don’t want to end up ordering anything in excess.
Most builders now prefer to work on this second method of employment as it cuts down on accusations of them wasting money or deliberately ordering excess amounts which can be syphoned off for their own use.
The initial estimate of taking a few days to tart up the rooms always seemed a tad optimistic. As it happened it ended up taking the workgang around 3 weeks to complete the renovations we required. That doesn’t mean it was costly as we ended up paying less than 200 baht per labourer per day and they were actually doing stuff whilst they were here. But we treated them nicely, bought cheap fruit, bottles of Redbull, put some music on, gave them drinking water etc. Doing little things like that makes it far easier to add on extra jobs to be done for no extra cost.
We replaced all the windows in the rooms, the ceilings in two rooms – one of which had already been done by our neighbour but needed re-doing by someone who knows plaster. Unfortunately, as the walls were made from wood panelling we had to use a semi-gloss paint on them rather than a regular matt emulsion. This coupled with the varnished wood used to add some ‘country’ feel to the rooms has led to the interiors being a bit shinier than I’d have liked.
It took several coats of rather expensive paint to hide the panelling but in late June the walls and ceilings were finished and we had the floors sanded and re-stained a dark brown, a shade that goes by the description ‘Oak’ on the bottle. Our builder, being the nice guy that he is didn’t charge us any extra for replacing the bathroom windows and sanding, staining and varnishing the bathroom floors.
The final piece in the how to renovate the rooms puzzle was what to do with the doors to the rooms. As you’ll have seen from the photo a couple on the main page of this section, the doors were made of six hinged panels which folded back on each side of the door. These added up to doors which were approximately 2.5 metres wide. However, this type of door is impractical for a guest room, it would feel like you were locking yourself into a large wardrobe if you had to bolt six solid wood doors before turning in for the night.
We had already asked a couple of people about what I thought was a simple & possible solution, given the way the wooden panel doors were constructed. That was to replace two central panels in each door with glass and then bolt the 4 outer doors shut permanently leaving two central doors for use by guests. This would allow a lot of light into the room and also keep some of the original character of the house. The people we asked had told us it wasn’t possible to put glass in the existing doors. We discussed other expensive options with our builder and it appeared that whatever we did was going to cost a lot, I thought I may as well mention the initial idea above, and to our surprise the builder said he could do it . . . and a week later the doors were finished.
By the end of June we’d had a team of five guys working for the best part of a month, they’d had a few days off, and the work on the interior was just about finished. Time to move onto other work we had planned for them . . .
We were away from Baan Rim Nam for most of July due to firstly having to do a visa run and secondly having to go through the whole, lengthy, ritual of a Thai funeral.
For anyone not acquainted with the Thai government’s policy for issuing visas, other than the visa on arrival which tourists receive as they arrive for their two weeks of sun, sea and culture, is pretty arcane & insular. It’s not easy for non-working, non-wealthy people to get a Thai visa which can be renewed annually in SE Asia. I ended up taking a trip back to the UK, for the first time in 8 years and got the visa I wanted in all of 7 minutes at the Thai consulate in Hull.
The funeral rites were due to the death of my partner’s grandfather. Thais don’t quickly cremate their dead so there’s a good few days of temple related activities & rituals to endure before they burn the body. We finally made it back to Koh Chang at the end of the month, however we had been in touch with the builders by phone and in our absence they had, when the rain allowed, been busy beavering away.
As mentioned before we paid the workers a set price for doing the job, therefore if it rained it doesn’t affect us financially as we aren’t paying day by day.
The front balcony had now been re-floored and stained as quite a few of the existing floorboards were showing their age i.e people’s feet kept going through them. The exterior paintwork now looked like a river front house should look like in my book – natural wood doors, white door & window frames and sky blue walls. It looked very nice indeed.
The main job for July was building a bungalow for ourselves at the back of the house. This would be a 6m x 4m , just a bedroom & bathroom. (I’ve never really cared too much about how fancy my house is.) I wasn’t party to most of the decision making so for reason’s not fully understood, the bungalow is a lime green, which honestly doesn’t look as bad as it might first sound.
We’ve also come to understand that we can’t build the bungalow to incorporate all the features on our wish list if we still want to make sure we have enough money to build a new bridge through the mangroves to our house and also add another small two-bedroom house and deck at the side of the existing property – which was the plan at the time., as there was quite a lot of space between our house and the nearest neigbour and we were toild it belonged to our house originally.
The building materials for the structure of the bungalow were all bought on Koh Chang however we got the more individual and easily transportable items such as glass; paint; tiles; electric wiring, switches, breakers etc; bathroom and light fittings from Homepro in Bangkok and some cheap places in Rayong. Choice for these types of items was pretty limited on Koh Chang and also on the mainland in Trat, unless you wanted a choice of pink, blue or white plastic.
It’s month’s end and despite the incessant rain the bungalow was 70% complete and looked like being completed within the budget that we set. So it was bottles of M-150, our builders favourite caffeine loaded energy drink, all round.
Aug – Dec 2004
When you rely on a single, 200 metre long stretch of 3/4 inch piping for your water supply your always going to have some problems . . .especially if your pipe also has to run under a 50 metre wide river estuary which happens to be in flood. The start of August bought very heavy rains over the mountains and as such the usually calm river outside our front door became more of a torrent. A torrent that swept away all of the debris on the river bottom, leaving only sand . . which was a good thing. But amongst the items washed out to see was our water pipe . . .which wasn’t such a good thing.
Luckily we had a 2000 litre water tank which was full and as it was pissing it down we also had plenty of rain water to use during the few days it took for the water level to die down and us to be able to connect a new pipe across the riverbed. The real plus side to all this rain was that after the floodwater subsides and all the debris has been washed out, the clean, clear river water was great to swim in.
During the first week of August our builders concentrated on getting the bathroom tarted up. As we’ll be living there the finish needs to be better than if it was being built solely for holidaymakers, therefore we’ve got the builders to do stuff slowly rather than slapping on cement & tiles willy-nilly. Unfortunately having them take a bit of time didn’t automatically equate to taking more care, so it took a couple of attempts to get everything up to better than Cambodian standard.
By the middle of the month the bungalow was virtually finished and the builders began to set about finishing off a dozen or so small jobs that had accumulated during the room renovation and which had been put off till the big jobs were finished. We also began to plan where the new footbridge, to link the house to the land through the mangroves would go and how much we could afford to spend on it. As our finances weren’t at their healthiest we went for a no frills footbridge; not designed to last a lifetime but built so that it wouldn’t fall to pieces as soon as the first ‘big-boned’ European set foot on it.
Late August and a potential hiccup was brewing – in so much as hiccups can brew – in the form of local government officials and boys in brown who have been snooping round our neighbour’s new riverfront bungalows. it looked like we would have to wait and see just how much trouble he was in or more likely, how much it’ll cost to get out of it before we started to build anything else.
At the very end of the month we’d just started building the new footbridge, which for the most part ran along the path of a long since collapsed bridge that served the house when it was first built. However, we didn’t count on our new neighbour, the Thai boss of a dive company in Klong Prao, complaining this wasn’t fair to him as he wanted to build a bridge there too – even though he’d never shown any inclination to do so until this day – and going into a whole “Build it here and I’ll knock it down“, “I know lots of important people“, “You have a black heart” rant lasting for well over a couple of hours. It amused the hell out of our builders who shared my feelings that the guy had lost the plot entirely and was behaving like a small child whose Mum had told him he couldn’t have any more ice-cream. However, in the end we compromised and will reroute the bridge in an attempt to stop the endless whining and to avoid making this idiot our enemy.
September kicked off with an all out war of words between the neighbours over a land dispute. Apparently you aren’t supposed to keep your distance in this kind of feud and so both parties were asking us to take their side. Taking a leaf out of George W.’s book it was “your either with us or against us”. Both sides called up their friends of friends who knew people in moderately high places. One side bought a top army guy, plus entourage, to stay in their bungalows; the other had a visit from an old bloke who was obviously a ‘somebody’ as he had a guy who’s job it was to follow him around, carrying both his mobile phones for him.
Needless to say our footbridge plans, after being delayed earlier by the other neighbour, were still on hold as you never know which of the visiting dignitaries were good guys who didn’t give a toss what you were building and which would see a few poles in the ground as a money extorting opportunity.
Come the middle of the month there was a big meeting involving all the riverside residents regarding the dos & don’ts of building stuff on the riverbanks. Most of those present were severely pissed off of as what started out as they were now mixed up in what started out as a neighbourly spat. Top brass from the planning authorities, marine park, national park etc proceeded to tell the assembled masses how to live, what they could and couldn’t do and so on. As more than a few of the locals pointed out, there seemed to be some reluctance by the powers that be to enforce any of the “strict” rules on cashed up property owners and developers and a quick changes of subject were substituted for replies when direct questions about how and why certain hotels had been allowed to bend the rules into a pretzel shape.
As the scene rapidly descended into a farce, the high-ups decided that the poor never really would understand politics and so it was best to head off to a nearby seafood restaurant so as not to waste the entire day.
A couple of days later the ‘Pu Yai’ – a local guy who has the unenviable task of enforcing the wishes of the local ‘kamnan’ (headman) came around checking all the houses on the riverside. Everything was OK – he found no signs of any dodgy building, except for the places (our neigbour’s new bungalows) where he had been asked told to find signs.
The following day were in the car on our way to the ferry to go and visit Mam’s parents who were staying with her brother in Rayong. When we were on the ferry she got a call from her Mum. Her Dad hadn’t returned from his morning run on the beach. By the time we got off the ferry she knew her Dad had drowned.
The remainder of September and most of October were taken up with the funeral and family related stuff away from Koh Chang.
(As a postscript, this is the boss of a dive company who borrowed money to buy the house & couldn’t repay the loan. So the lender took the house off him. In early 2009, we finally bought it.)
As we had now entered into a new era of friendly neighbourliness and had the green light to build our own private footbridge and so that’s just what we did at the start of the month. However, our stock of cheap wood had been ‘borrowed’ by another neighbour (Although he did promised to reimburse us at some undefined future moment in time. which hasn’t yet arrived.) So, we had the additional expense of having to buy yet more wood. So a third of the 70 metre long, one metre wide bridge is 6-inch planks and two thirds 4-inch. Looks OK though and makes life much easier. We can even ride a motorbike right up onto the deck.
Another couple of days were spent adding a wooden fence between our house and our neighbour’s as the Thai holidaymakers who occasionally stay there seem to be under the impression that they can wander round to our (far nicer) house whenever they feel like it.
We have been sitting on the balcony, throwing a few prawns on the barbie and a couple of complete strangers have wandered over and sit down in front of us without saying a word. That’s ‘Thai style’ I am told. Only it’s not. I’m banned from asking what they think they’re doing or asking if I arrived at their house in suburban Bangkok could I just walk into their living room without them calling the police?
Inside the rooms there were only a few small jobs to complete: fixing curtains, adding soap holders & rubbish bins etc. Outside we got to work on lighting up the bridge and deck.
From the opposite side of the river the house looked great at night. We have three hanging lights in front of the rooms, four slightly nautical lights on the balcony outside the rooms and the deck over the water is lit with low intensity spotlights.
Just when I thought the end was in sight, Mam decided that we couldn’t live with the current kitchen and that it had to be enlarged . . . and while we were at it we might as well get the builder to knock up a storeroom as well. So we’re back to living amongst debris again.
The original plan was to enlarge the kitchen – a 4 day job and then head into the big city (Trat) and buy some kitchen units. That was before our builder said he could make units if we wanted. There are a total of 21 cupboards and all of them have to have doors made from scratch which seems to take time . . . a lot of time. So before you knew it we were into week three of the 4 day job. At times it appeared as though there was no end in sight , with utensils, gas stove, crockery etc scattered amongst piles of wood at the back of the house. ” Where’s the coffee?” ” Look under the pile of wood where the kittens are.” (A cat who has adopted us had two kittens.)
While we were in Rayong in early December, we had a look round some of the wood shops just out of the town and found some nice teak garden furniture at a good price. I didn’t stop to think about how much teak furniture cots in the UK, USA etc but after a quick search of ebay I found that we paid less than 10% of the US price for equivalent furniture.
We also picked up some more furnishings for the house in Baan Nam Chieo – a small village near Trat. There are a few small shops which sell locally made basketry etc. The shop we go to is the cheapest and is run by a very nice old woman. One of the bedrooms is now home to a 1.5 metre diameter woven hat – which she let us have for 200 baht as her workers were busy making a truck load of them for a new resort in Koh Kood.
Bookings for the guesthouse had by now started to come in from people who were following this , then monthly, update on the original iamkohchang.com site. The other major expense was a new aircon unit for one of the rooms, as I figured that the sight of a blackened, slightly melted, AC unit in a wooden house might be a little off putting to anyone with an irrational fear or being burned alive whilst sleeping.
And that was pretty much it. Everything was completed by mid December 2004. The first people to stay were a Thai group who had planned to stay at the neighbours house but liked ours better. They were also the last Thai group to stay here.
The ‘honour’ of the first visitors to stay here went to a Swedish family who opted to spend Christmas 2004 on Koh Chang instead of at Khao Lak, north of Phuket. On 26 December 2004, the tsunami wiped out the resort where they had originally planned on staying.
2009 Update: In the meantime, (Nov 2009) we rented the house on the opposite side of us and fixed up a couple of rooms up and also rebuilt the deck area. So, we now we have 5 rooms and a two large decks for guests to relax on – one open air and one covered.