On my return to Bangkok, I had to find a new hotel and I plumped for an old favourite, the Liberty Garden in the Northern residential area of Saphan Kwai. The Liberty is a wildly eccentric place, the kind of hotel Donald Draper might once have staid in. In the 1960s this part of Bangkok had a string of top-class hotels, the Liberty Garden, the Elizabeth, the Ambassador. In fact they are all still there and – more or less – much as they were then. Unrenovated, the rest of the city has slipped past them, and the action has moved away from Saphan Kwai leaving these hotels, and the Liberty Garden especially, in a kind of dreamy rundown timewarp. It doesn’t take internet bookings, or even creditcards, its not on Agoda but it is still there – half fallen down ( one wing was torn down for renovations which never happened several years ago giving it a pleasingly dilapidated air). Fans whirl in the oddly decorated, quiet lobby and for 20 USD per night you get a big double room with air conditioning, breakfast in the Lynchian “Blue Diamond” coffee shop and use of its generous pool, with its clear water and chipped tiles, in a courtyard under a lamphu tree, next to the Beirut-like rubble of the torn-down wing.
Its rare to see another guest. The Liberty Garden seems to be something that has slipped down the side of some enormous couch somewhere. You can imagine a junior member of an enormously wealthy Bangkok family stumbling across it in a dusty ledger book and asking in astonishment, “did you know we have had a hotel in Saphan Kwai for the last forty years?”
One day as I was swimming, gloriously, through the little used (but clean) pool, I heard a strain of music coming from the ruins. I couldn’t help smiling. It was the perfect song for an aging sixties belle like this- “You Only Live Twice”.
Other than its seedy dated charm, and the price, the other great thing about the Liberty Garden Hotel is its location. Saphan Kwai might not be on many visitors’ hitlists, but the main drag of Thanon Pradiphat is as vibrant a local Thai neighourhood as you could hope for. Every single time I walked down the street I would notice something new that I had not seen before. There was simply too much to take in in one go – food stalls selling tom yum or gai ying chicken or barbecued skewers or fruit, little local coffee shops and desert places, Buddha shops, the garlands of flower sellers, traditional Thai clothes, underwear, Arab and Indian tourists ( seemingly the main market for the aging hotels in the area) and dusty-looking foreign exchange stores, blaring internet cafes, an occasional junkie or homeless person, motorbikes, monks. Towards the skytrain station, a ten minute walk away, there were footpath vendors of porn magazines (gay and straight) and magical amulets and a great second-hand book store.
Saphan Kwai really has everything.