A hotel in the centre of a river that you have to walk or row a boat to doesn’t sound very sensible. But for the sustainable traveller, it’s the best place in Bangkok. By Jeremy Torr.
Bangkok, February 25, 2018. Bangkok Tree House is built on an island in the Chao Phraya River that flows through Bangkok. Well, it’s not completely an island, but a bit of land called Phra Pradaeng inside one of the Chao Phraya’s many serpentine loops. It is lucky enough to be cut off to road transport, and has therefore escaped the crazy urbanisation that has metastasised the majority of urban Bangkok.
But the fact it lists among its attractions green roofs and walls that produce organic vegetables for the kitchen, says 100% of its outdoor lights and restaurant lights are powered by wind and solar energy, and hires locals who live within walking distance to cut down on mechanical transport all seem a good start.
The man behind the Tree House, which opened its doors in 2013, is Joey Tulyanond, who is proud to say that the hotel is like “Bangkok as it was 200 years ago.’’ Admittedly the hotel offers local barking dogs and the smell of a certain amount of organic decay in the surrounding river, but that’s definitely Bangkok as it was. Tulyanond calls himself Chief Greening Officer, so you already get an idea of where he is coming from.
The refreshing part comes from the complete lack of cars and motorised transport, and the location – sometimes called Bangkok’s Green Lung due to its dense vegetation and criss-crossing foot and bicycle paths between small farms, despite attempts to develop it - is a real escape from the city rush.
The hotel is built from bamboo reinforced with recycled metal, blends into the island’s presence with a range of quirky accommodation. Top of the list is the View with a Room. This is a top floor viewing platform that looks out over the river with all its variegated life and action, and has a bed inside a mosquito net. It’s not five star, but you get more than that if you just lie back and look at the night sky and the fireflies winking at you. All dishes on the hotel’s menu are organic; vegan guests are catered for, and smokers are not welcome so there is no doubt where Joey’s loyalties lie. Not only that, his respect for the environment includes not spraying to keep bugs down (not that it would make much difference with all the farmland round it) and leaving poison residues in the process.
“It’s a very green, very untouched part of Bangkok and not many people know about it,” says Tulyanond. “I wanted to create a small place here that people could come and enjoy.” He is also at pains to point out that building the Tree House where he has means the families living in the area can send their members to work there – and still be part of the community. Not just another of the commuting millions that trudge to the city’s big hotels to work and return after dark every day. “It means they are still part of the family of people round here, and even better, they care about the area because it’s their home” he adds. “You don’t get that in big city (hotels).”
The Tree House’s unique formula seems to work. The 12-room hotel sits in a tangle of mangroves and palm trees in the Bang Kachao district, home to six small communities, fruit orchards, ancient temples and a maze of tree-lined trails that attract hundreds of Bangkok cyclists at weekends, looking for a fresher alternative to the city’s innumerable shopping malls. And although something of an isolated green oasis in the urban desert, the island is easy to get to by boat or bicycle using the Bangkok Skytrain to Bangna station. As its blurb says, if you love trees, plants, exotic lizards, birds, fireflies, cicadas, butterflies and Mother Nature, you like the Tree House.
The hotel’s dedication to green principles also applies to its construction and day to day running, says Tulyanond. “You have no excuse today to not become green. A lot of material in the hotel is organic: bamboo, wood, river driftwood and so on,” he explains. But this, he says, is not just because it is not made by machines, is carbon neutral and all different and challenging yet soothing to the eye. “It’s because it’s beautiful,” he adds. “And at the end of the day it can become fertiliser.”
The hotel is also keen to emphasise (at the risk of turning away some of the more temperature-sensitive guests) that instead of insulation and full air conditioning it concentrates on ventilation to keep visitors comfortable. “Here, building green is not just about ventilation, it’s about building to take advantage of predominant winds and breezes too,” says Tulyanond.
The hotel claims you can sleep in a tree, bathe in a pond, lounge on a green roof looking at cranes and kingfishers, shower alfresco in the moonlight with water heated by sunlight. All in the middle of a city of over 8 million people. And although it is not amongst the cheapest of hotels in Bangkok at around US$120 a night for its Treetop accommodation, the Tree House says it is not in business just for money.
“It’s about making less of an impact on nature. To make the Tree House bigger and more commercial would be challenging the green concept,” says Tulyanond, “and we have no interest in doing that.” Instead, the Tree House commits to using some of its income on picking up and disposing of rubbish; 1kg of rubbish for every booking they get. It is, say the managers, their way of making a difference, no matter how small.
“A lot of companies are trying to make no impact as part of green policy; we try to make a positive impact instead,” says Tulyanond. “It’s better for animals, better for the trees. We think that making a small impact is better than nothing.”
And best of all (but only for Thais and PRs), you can get a 15% "digital-detox" discount if you leave your mobile phone in a locker during your stay. Now that’s real environmentalism.