Far too long ago I promised a list of the hostels I would recommend in Southeast Asia. My similar list of Recommended Hostels in Latin American has been popular and, more importantly, has saved me having to regurgitate a list of names whenever I meet someone heading that direction, so I’m hoping this list will have the same benefits all round.
Once again in order of my route, not preference, here are my recommended places to stay in South East Asia:
Singapore: Beary Nice
Although it’s definitely aimed at girls (the place is filled with teddy bears), even the boys can’t knock the cleanliness and homely feel of this hostel (and, boys, the place is filled with girls so that can’t be a bad thing!). In a country where you’re asked to remove your footwear inside, this is one of the few places I felt confident padding into the bathrooms barefoot. The lady running this place coaxed me out of my misery and jetlag with free beer and snacks and if you want more of the same, you’re just above Chinatown.
Indonesia, Bali, Seminak: The Island
Probably amongst my top 3 favorite hostels ever. A pool, a sun terrace, a bar, air conditioned dorms with sheer curtains for a bit more privacy (though not that much: note to the couple in bed next to me), airport pick up and a free massage for every 5 night stay, this place is as close to a hotel as you can get without the price tag. Sure, it costs more than all of the places on Poppy’s I or II in Kuta, but so what. Did I mention the pool and free massage? It was probably no coincidence this place also attracted an amazing group of interesting people.
Indonesia, Bali, Ubud: Nick’s Pension
Everything was great about this place apart from the staff, which had an unfriendly aversion to backpackers. It was another pricier-than-most option, but I was craving views of rolling rice paddy fields (which I got) and I had become addicted to the pool at The Island, so was lured in by the promise of that, too. A fresh pot of green tea would magically appear on my patio each morning, the breakfast was worth getting up for and there was also room service, which was a great time saver when I was packing for an early morning bus (otherwise the food in the town is way better).
The staff issue arose when I tried to book more nights. I was told in no uncertain terms that the pension was fully booked – not true according to several websites. I confronted the staff who said if I booked online, they would simply move me to the more downscale option in their group of properties. My advice: don’t let their stuffiness put you off, just make sure you book all the nights you want upfront and online.
Malaysian Borneo, Sarawak: Paganakan DII
Photo by: acivillibrarian.
If you want to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, the long houses (that sleep over 2o people but are extremely spacious) are a great choice. You get to enjoy the acres of jungle-esque gardens, swing in the hammocks, chill out in the onsite restaurant/bar and tv room for a smidgen of the cost of the private rooms. The owners were super accommodating. Not only do they do a daily drive to and from the sanctuary, they even called up and booked me a bus ticket.
Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Reggae Hostel I and Reggae Hostel II
Photo by: prisoneroffreedom.
Yes, that is two places and, yes, they are run by the same company and, yes, they are doors down from each other in Chinatown in the heart of KL. If you pass through the city more than once, as I did (KL is home to Air Asia so a great flight hub), you might want to try both. Helpful staff, cosy, clean and well located, there was nothing to dislike about these hostels. The owners have also developed an affiliation and discount with the Reggae Bar that sits in the street below the hostels, which is ideal if you’re new to town or tired and want an easy night out. At the time of my visit the same company were opening Reggae Mansion across town. I’ve heard mixed feedback on this more upscale option. Message me if you’ve stayed there and I’ll give it a try next time I fly through.
Update May 2013
I have just revisited Reggae Hostel I and oh what a difference two years makes. Not as clean as it was, most (not all!) of the staff have lost their enthusiasm…oh Reggae Hostel, you seem to have lost your way. The base of the bunk in the mixed dorm had detached from the bed and was dangerous, 3 out of 6 lockers were broken so nowhere safe to store my walking office, wi-fi soslow it took 20 minutes to send a word only email, inattention to small things like toilet paper in the ladies, and, worst of all: bedbugs in two of the rooms that I tried. In fairness, the place was being stripped and cleaned as I left this morning and the night staff was really apologetic and helpful, but I’m afraid I no longer recommend this hostel in KL – don’t be fooled by the +90% rating on Hostelbookers and Hostelworld – there are better places to stay in this city.
As for Reggae Mansion, I was unable to get a last minute booking (which suggests its superior status and ongoing popularity). Feedback from two other travellers who stayed there: ‘A good backpacker place.’ and ‘Overrated rip-off’. I’ll let you decide.
I’m not trying Backhome Hostel and a full review will follow but in the meantime, it seems to tick all the boxes that Reggae Hostel used to: clean, amazing staff (the lady on the front desk just walked me to an alley to personally show me the best place to get Malay food nearby), fast wi-fi, big beds, huge lockers, modern, clean, contemporary. I’ve not completed my stay, but so far, so good.
Malaysia, Penang: Ryokan
Photo by: nickchan.net.
I was in two minds whether to recommend this place because I visited in week 2 of it opening and there were definitely teething problems, but it had so much potential. Definitely pitching itself as a flashpacker hostel and with slightly inflated prices to prove it, the downsides to my stay included an over-keen manager, which I attribute entirely to the newness of the place and a lack of water that ultimately made me leave early. I assume this was also a new business teething problem and I did receive a profuse apology and full refund. The one aspect that seemed unrelated to the hostel’s newness was the fee for renting a blanket, which was needed in the icy air con. That felt cheap in the context of the relatively high price. Otherwise, the location was excellent, the building was very clean and funky and the bar had potential (if the manager backed off). The site’s Facebook page suggests this hostel has been a hit since my visit. Again, I’d be interested to know if you have stayed here more recently.
Malaysia Langkawi: The Cabin
This booking definitely falls into the category of backpacking-splurge, but it was worth every ringitt. Situated doors down from enough eateries to make me want six more appetites and a short shot to the beach (vital when you’re visiting in rainy season), the location was perfect but it was the concept that was the real draw. Portacabins converted into luxury rooms with flatscreen tvs and a cute G&T veranda where I could sit and stare at the pretty plumeria. I didn’t want to leave this place.
Thailand, Bangkok: Lub-D
Photo by: Lozula.
I explored a number of accommodation options in Bangkok and this is the only one I’d recommend. The first thing to note is that it’s not in or anywhere remotely near Koh San Road. The upside it that you get to explore a different side of Bangkok, Siam Square (note: there is also a Lub-D in Silom, though I’ve not stayed there). The downside is you’ll be relying on taxis or tuk-tuks if you want to go for a night out in the backpacking district. Regardless, the social area and bar area are excellent for meeting people. A decent priced Western breakfast is available if you get sick of starting your day with noodles and the rooms are clean with good beds (a rarity in most of Thailand). This place definitely attracts a more upscale kind of traveler – there was a discarded Tiffany bag and an iPad box in the bin, but this hostel is a short skytrain hop from the mall, so it’s not a huge surprise.
Thailand, Koh Phi Phi: The Rock
Take note: I would not recommend the dorms in this hostel and, like most places on the island, you have to join the party (all night, every night) or take earplugs because you’ll be hearing the club beats from every one of these rooms. The private spots on the higher floors give great views out to sea and are worth the slug of getting your backpack up there in the heat. The bathrooms are funky (toilets in image above are only decorative!) but, as mentioned, the dorms are best avoided because they are diabolically tiny and looked like how I’d imagine a Bangkok prison cell would be styled. There is a restaurant on site run by a nice family but, sadly, the food is better elsewhere.
Thailand, Chiang Mai: Spicy Thai Backpackpers
I spent a while weighing up whether to stay at this hostel, which is not in the center of Chiang Mai, and don’t regret my choice for a second. Run by a local family, it was the activities that really made this hostel special. A night at a local BBQ that I’d never have found without the guiding hand of the hostel was a memorable, authentic experience and the owners were great at organizing a wide range of trips from seeing tigers to mahout training with elephants. Add to that the hostel is in a converted house and has a homey feel with a dining table and two lounge areas and a garden with a hammock. This place is particularly perfect if you’ve got any form of travel burn out or homesickness.
Laos, Luang Prabang: Spicy Lao
Run by the same people who put together Spicy Backpacker when I visited, this hostel is definitely rougher at the edges (not so clean and sparkly), but what do you expect for under $5 a night? The hostel is a short walk into town so the location is idea but avoid the free snake whisky if it is still going – yes, an actual snake is pickled in a large container and although it looks like a delicate rose wine when poured, it has the potential to make you blind, or lose a day, or both. The only downside to this hostel is that my iPhone got taken from the dorm and another girl lost her camera. There is very low security (people can wander onto the property and the dorms are doorless), but neither of us had properly secured our valuables so the fault rested with us.
Note: Since my stay in 2011, there appears to have been a management dispute and the hostel is seemingly no longer run by the original Spicy company. I don’t know what the property is like currently, but the location will still be excellent.
Separately, I see that the Spicy company has opened properties in Pai and Koh Tao in Thailand and while I’ve not stayed in either, I would imagine they are worth a look.
The don’t stays
I’m not too keen on the idea of publicly trashing hostels, but there were two places in Asia that I found so indefensibly bad that I would recommend avoiding them at all costs:
Thailand, Koh Phangan: The Party Hostel
It’s perhaps no surprise that a hostel on Koh Phagnan makes it onto the list. With up to 35,000 people flooding the island each full moon, the proprietors effectively have a licence to exploitation. Which, to some extent is fine – the hostels in hot spots around the world are hardly cheap, but this was something else. With a price several times that of normal Thailand prices and requiring a minimum five night stay, I at least expected the toilets to work. Given the showers were the over the toilet type, it made for an unpleasant experience all round. My honest belief is that this hostel is opened once a month for the full moon weekend only, which would explain, but not justify, the overpriced filth. Plus? Right next to the beach…which makes for a cleaner toilet, even if there are 35,000 other people weeing in it. Actual plus – I met lots of nice people there, but I would definitely stay anywhere else if I ever went back to Koh Phagnan.
Indonesia, Lombok: Sonya’s Homestay
Photo by: Charles Jeffrey Danoff.
There’s a rat in my bedroom, what am I gonna do? Worst. Hostel. Ever. And somehow this hostel is recommended in the Lonely Planet Asia on a Shoestring. $12 a night to be woken by a family of rats chewing my bag – rat eyes in the dark are not a happy travel moment. ‘Nuff said. Upside? they did cook amazing banana pancakes the next morning while I waited for the first boat out of there.
Booking tip: after a lot of research I found Agoda to be an excellent site for booking accommodation in advance. It does not list hostels, but these can be few and far between in parts of Asia. Agoda offers some of the best discounted prices that I found on the web for this part of the world. Plus, sign up and you can earn points that can lead to free rooms.
…and now for another promise. Still to follow, lists on Europe, the Middle East and the rest Asia (China and India).
Leave a comment if you have stayed at any of these places and let me know if you agree with my thoughts, or if there are other places you’d recommend.
Happy hostel hunting!