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.