I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
Fortunately on this occasion, the hotel was in a central location so it was easy for me to walk to local restaurants and shops for my needs. Still, the smartly dressed staff at the hotel entrance eyed me suspiciously as I walked away. Why didn’t I get in a cab like everyone else who left the hotel? Surely I couldn’t be that hard up? They gave wry smiles when I returned a short while later with bags of drinks and snacks; their suspicions were confirmed.
One aspect of my stay that did not trouble me was the breakfast buffet, included with the room. Needless to say, such a spread must satisfy the varied tastes of people from a multitude of different cultures, so there were plenty of options for both Western and Eastern palates. A fruit and salad station, a noodle and egg station, and a cereal, breads and cakes station offered some tempting choices.
I also found time to enjoy the swimming pool. On most occasions when I get complimentary stays, I’m too busy rushing around reviewing other hotels, restaurants and attractions for guidebook listings to even have a quick splash in the pool. On this occasion, however, I had a fairly unrushed schedule and spent a pleasant couple of hours reclining on a lounger and floating in the soothing waters, though I had to decline the waiter’s gentle coaxing to order a cocktail or club sandwich.
Of course, I wasn’t going to turn down an invitation to a free spa treatment and a complimentary meal in the hotel’s signature Italian restaurant, as I would be able to mention both in a sidebar to the story I was writing, which might bring some business to the hotel in the future. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel the $70 spa treatment was no better than the $10 massage I go for regularly in my hometown of Chiang Mai. Nor was the 4-course, $100 dinner any tastier than a $10 Italian meal back home, and the constant visits from the chef to check on my wellbeing were not exactly good for my digestion.
When it came time to check out, the front desk clerk was flummoxed by the fact that there was no bill for me to settle. After double and treble checking, she put on her public-relations smile and thanked me for my visit, hoping I would return soon, though the tone of voice was not completely sincere. In the Grab car on the way to the airport, I calculated that if I’d had to pay, the hotel bill would have been more than my fee for the story I was writing. Ironically, the subject of that story was a ride on the Yangon Circle Line, a ticket for which costs a meagre 200 kyat, or about 15 US cents.
The story will appear in Fah Thai (http://fahthaimag.com/e-magazine/), the inflight magazine of Bangkok Airways, in January/February 2020.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.