Nothing prepares you for Bangkok Tree House. Not the image of a bed afloat on the Chao Phraya river (on its website). An A-Z list of tree-hugging policies. Or even the open warning that ‘Tree House is not for everyone’. Perched on my ceramic throne, therefore, I was just about wrapping my head around the concept of a (partly) transparent floor in the loo — an excellent alternative to a flat screen TV, especially if the riverfront cottage you’re in is built on stilts — when a gloriously muddy, large green gecko ambled across the clear, ‘bottomless’ floorboard.
An introduction so tame can have one of two outcomes — it can either send you scampering to the closest seven-star establishment in town, or make you feel so at home, you wouldn’t want to abandon it for all the glitz and glamour, the shopping and the pub-hopping in downtown Bangkok. I chose to stay, of course. At my own boutique duplex ‘nest’, all wood, glass and recycled metal, on the semi-rural island of Bang Krachao — known for its orchards and farmers’ markets, old Buddhist temples and, more recently, a handful of cafés and inns. A protected green lung so removed from the city’s notorious traffic and vertical living, in the cover of the night, you barely see the glow of its humble homestead lights. The six local communities here, surrendering to uninterrupted, firefly-lit dreams, hours before the pubs in town have poured the last drink. The only telltale sign of urbanity is a watery purple horizon, where the neon of the inner city bleeds into the sky every night.
Yet, across the river from the Bangna pier, not five minutes (by motorcycle taxi or regular cabs) from the Skytrain stations of Bangna and Udamsok, lie Bangkok’s many charming and alarming realities.
Among Bang Krachao’s most recent landmarks, the Tree House cuts a fine figure on its quiet banks. Not really tree houses, but a cluster of contemporary, yet not-out-of-place, cottages on stilts, held together by a network of slatted passageways and open, airy public spaces, the ‘nests’ are now almost as indigenous to the island as the rainwashed palm trees. And muddy green geckos. Back in the loo, I watch my reptilian mate underfoot retreat into a thicket, even as an assortment of critters come along to give me, a lone traveller, some creepy-crawly company indoors. The duplex I’m in — with a space-saving double-step stairwell connecting a bedroom and terrace with a semi-open shower, a dressing area and a loo on the lower level — is crawling with ants, for instance. A small army of long-legged beauties in moulded fibreglass, clinging to lamps, marking a trail above the headboard or staking a claim over the iMac station... Elsewhere, there are butterflies and moths. Elements designed to bridge the organic divide, within and without.
In fact, bathed in warm daylight and inspired by Henry Thoreau’s Walden, with little but shrubbery fencing the property from the river, Tree House brings the outside in so effortlessly that at some point you stop noticing the difference. I certainly did. Else, shedding my inhibitions and my clothes to bathe under a shower in broad twilight, to the sound of crickets and motorized river skiffs, with the chiks rolled up, would have been nothing short of a stint at a go-go bar. Such open and green ways, however, don’t always preclude material comforts. There’s air-conditioning in the nests, for instance. But you have to make do with river breeze (and a mosquito or three, for they don’t fumigate) in the lounge and dining area, just off the small, private landing area for boats. No room service. No TVs inside, either. But a common entertainment nook that doubles up as a library and has a great stack of movies you can watch — floor up, with the screen at an incline on the ceiling. There are lovely, old-fashioned complimentary toiletries too — a Margo-like local Parrot Botanicals soap, a homemade face mask and a traditional, perfumed olive oil. The one comfort I am after also happens to be free, and tucked into the back of a small fridge in the common area. Replenished every day, the kitchen staff stock made-from-seasonal-fruits ice cream for guests who are peckish at midnight (when the lean staff is at its leanest) or just plain greedy.
I had barely finished licking my glass of pineapple ice cream clean (the first of many) when I realized why success had checked-in so quickly at this inn run by young, well-travelled Joey Tulyanond (who happens to be a local diplomat’s son). A man who, in a year, has mastered the art of recognizing and dissuading ‘incompatible’ guests over the phone, all the while making the most demanding, tree-hugging customers happy with a bunch of bright, thoughtful ideas... Bicycles for guided rides around the island, incense-making at a workshop nearby, Thai cookery classes, and the surprisingly hard-to-get Nancy Chandler’s illustrated city map (and guide) for sale for those who know its value.
I can see why some might not take to the Tree House’s measured approach immediately. And why others, especially first-time visitors who want to ‘see’ the city, might be disappointed if they spent their entire vacation on this island. But if the thrill of getting to an inn only accessible by boat is no thrill at all but a party pooper for you (the last public ferry leaves no later than 9pm, THB 4, and river skiffs ply till about 11pm, THB 30). Or if walking a few paces from the wharf after a ride on the ferry with waitresses and students, two-wheelers and vegetable baskets, is not your idea of a holiday, get a key instead at Bangkok’s other, more ‘regular’ establishments.
For at the Tree House, normal is not the norm. Ask the honeymooning couple in my neighbouring nest, whose starlit night on the terrace, with nothing but a mosquito tent between them and the free world, was rudely interrupted by pounding, tropical, midnight rain. I could hear their laughter ringing next door. And no it wasn’t the sound of complaint.
Where: Across the Bangna pier in Greater Bangkok; a short taxi ride away from the Bangna and Udomsok Skytrain stations; 20km from the Suvarnabhumi International Airport
Accommodation: 12 duplex nests with river views
Tariff: THB 6,000 Tree Top Nest (double); THB 7,000 Bee Hive (for three), THB 7,000 Family Nest (for four), THB 7,000 View with a Room (double bed on the terrace); inclusive of taxes, a la carte breakfast, bicycles, Wi-Fi, cell phone with local Thai number and ice cream.
Contact: +66-82-9951150; bangkoktreehouse.com