I’ve travelled in style, 5++stars, infinity personal pool and butler to boot, but that was travel on the gratis plan, a room on a promise of delivering a pretty two page spread on whichever luxury hotel or resort I was writing about. The real me stays in what might better be described as bunkers, rather than rooms with ‘spectacular’ views, boasting rates that could save the third world.
And most of you readers, if I understand my ‘reader survey’ demographics correctly, are likely opposed to spending 500 baht on a phad tai or throwing in a 100 baht tip for every wai you receive. You’ve most likely taken part in the great cockroach hunt whilst staying at one of those 1970s ‘golden days’ hotels in Bangkok where the showers work on the binary oppositions of boil and freeze. You might even have slummed it on the streets of old Khao San in a 4 x 4 windowless hutch whose short-time proclivities are visible on all four impending walls. But did you know you can do even better that merely cheap, these days you can do Bangkok, and the rest of the world, for FREE.
If you couch surf that is, which means joining www.couchsurfing.org along with 3,033,847 (at time of writing) and considering allowing ‘profiles’ to bed down in your spare room, kip on the couch, or even share a bed with you for one, or many, nights. People from all over the globe are signing up for, and opening up to, (the site tells us we are ‘creating a better world’ by opening up our doors to fellow surfers) this new custom of staying for free and meeting other surfers with similar mindsets, earnings, yearnings, or Hot or Not score. Although a surfer must accept – and I know this as I’ve been turned down, repeatedly – that not everyone will indulge you their hospitality, some surfers are quite picky about whom they share their space with, so if you were born to the constellation of Capricornus and prefer Trotsky to Teletubbies, then there’s a chance you’re not coming in.
Surfing Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai couch surfers are plentiful, and constitute many nationalities. Reading through the various profiles of CM-surfers it becomes evident that many of the people share a common raison d’étre. Local couches in this city are frequently the property of folk who are into ‘mindfulness and compassion’, ‘reiki’ ‘saving animals from themselves and others’ ‘romanticism’ and other nice things you might enjoy in life. There is no sign of the less virtuous Thailand traveller traits such as ‘beer and prostitution’ or ‘beaches and corruption’. So with a view to understanding this relatively new and very popular phenomenon, I got in touch with some local couch surfers.
Lucy Locket, an avid surfer and more or less full-time hostess, tells me that she is “one of the oldest couch surfers” in the community. With her fiery red hair, no shortness of energy and conversational vim, she might well have been 27, rather than 72 years old. During our interview on couch surfing at a coffee shop in Chiang Mai she admits to feeling younger than her years, while also divulging the fact she had once fallen in love with one of her surfers, a 25 year old fella who had surfed her couch for a while.
But that was a one-off, and Lucy has hosted over 100 people in the 21/2 years she’s been in the ‘community’. “Word gets around,” she says of this community, “I’ve become something of a legend.” Lucy has also surfed in various parts of the world and has had some “incredible experiences” with other hosts, whom she explains can give a person an opportunity to see things a mere tourist would never see.
“I’ve only had one rotten experience,” she explains, but for the most part everything has been great. “I get to know many of the guests well. Some people have been in tears staying with me, talking about their personal things. I think they bring out the mother in me. Many of the people I am still friends with now.”
Lucy won’t accept just anyone; rather she will read a person’s profile following a request and decide if she wants them to stay with her. Guests, she explains, usually stay for an average of three days. At the time of the interview she had two girls coming to stay with her, a man she had to turn down for lack of space, and someone who would shortly return.
“I have a set of Dos and Don’ts, some suggestions, like asking people not to leave luggage on the floor as I have nice floors, or not using the kitchen,” says Lucy, who explains that if guests are considerate, they always have a good time. “I make coffee and toast for them, sometimes give them fruit and things, it depends on how much I like them.”
In conclusion to her time as a couch surfer Lucy says: “I’ve had many fruitful relationships, people have taken me out for dinner, I am never lonely, and I have friends all over the world. Couch surfing has changed my ‘ageing’ life.”
Pang, a 28 year old Thai woman who has travelled and surfed in the US, does not take surfers due to limited space in her flat and limited time due to her hotel work in Chiang Mai, though she does meet surfers for coffee, drinks and chats. Couch surfing is not all about finding a place to rest your head; many of the community are purely in it for the social element. What you seek from couch surfing is clear from your profile.
“When I was in the US I wanted to travel with friends, and we thought if we stayed with other people it would be better,” she explains on why she became a member of the CS community. And even though she doesn’t host in Chiang Mai she does receive about one message a week from people who are coming to the city who would like to meet up. “I can’t reply to them all, so I look at their profiles,” she says, and makes a decision on who she would like to meet. “I get about 50/50 male/female requests,” she explains, “but I mostly want to meet girls.” She tells me she does not feel any fear concerning who she meets as she will read a person’s profile and references. “No one will reply to you if your profile is empty,” she explains, but adds, “although I have seen some people with negative references, I have met them and they were fine, so I don’t always believe what people say.”
On couch surfing in Thailand Pang thinks that it might not work due to cultural restrictions. For example, she says that a single man staying with a woman would not look good, though she does think that the coffee and meeting side may work.
One of Pang’s friends in Chiang Mai is Daniel, a 30 year old Australian teacher who now moderates the Chiang Mai couch surfing forum. Daniel has only surfed once, though he hosts frequently. “I receive about 10 requests a week. I get so many requests; I only accept about 9/10. I actually just had a Russian guy who was going to stay with me who asked a few days ago if I was ok with him walking around my place in his underwear. I told him no,” says Daniel laughing, and explains that some part of the surfing community may have romantic or sexual interests at heart. In the Russian man’s case he may have been trying to find out Daniel’s sexual preference with his request for walking about in his undies.
“The rules of social interaction still count in the couch surfing community,” Daniel says, and adds that people surf and host for various reasons: for the experience of getting to know another’s culture, for saving on expenses, and for some people sexual liaisons. “One guy I met had a 25 year old Chinese girl stay with him, and now they are in a serious relationship…and he’s 50 plus.”
For Daniel it is of the utmost importance that others read his profile and so know something about him before he accepts them as a host. This way a good relationship is most likely ensured. “I’ve heard of some negative experiences, but I have not had any,” he explains, and this is because he accepts those that have read about him, and who he thinks will be good company.
“You are under no obligation to accept anyone, you don’t have to host. But if you are honest in your profile, there won’t be any problems. You just have to be yourself,” says Daniel, and explains that he tells all his prospective surfers that he will not do any “touristy” activities, as frequent trips to Doi Suthep is not in his most wanted list of things to do. Though if you find your perfect couch surfing companion Daniel explains that the experience can be bliss: “You can step into a city, and walk through a window into someone else’s life. You don’t just do the 10 same things everyone else does.”