THEY are scattered around the Bangkok metropolitan area, easily identifiable by parking slots in front of the ground floor rooms. A customer who drives into the parking space is quickly shielded by a curtain drawn by an attendant.
Since the name of the game is privacy at these so-called “love motels,” the buildings are specially designed to protect the identities of the car’s occupants as they enter and leave a room.
Most short-time tenants are there for sex, but rooms are sometimes also used for illegal and questionable activities best carried out under the cover of anonymity.
Love motels are usually two or three storeys high and some are built in the shape of a U. This allows them to provide the maximum number of spaces available for the purpose they are designed for.
A number of places have caught the attention if not the patronage of some foreigners, such as the recently demolished “Penthouse” love motel inside Sukhumvit Soi 11, where a luxury multi-storey residential condominium is now under construction.
According to one Thai official, a motel is classified as a place where you can park your car in front of the room. He said the government stopped issuing permits to build new motels a few years ago, but the old ones are still allowed to operate and use the curtains.
“There’s always a way for new motels to get around the law,” said the official. “For example, applying for a hotel permit and adding curtains after it has been inspected. The inspection is done once a year, so before the inspector comes, the curtains will be removed, parking slots outside the room camouflaged, and other temporary alterations are made. After the inspector leaves, everything is put back as it was before.”
The curtains continue to be used in many love motels for the simple reason that most customers prefer to be hidden from view. Even where there are no curtains, in some motels, there is absolutely no lighting outside the rooms, something that would normally be a big turn-off to people just looking for a safe place to sleep. But the darkness helps to protect customers from prying eyes, including those of private detectives hired by suspicious spouses.
The amenities in love motels range from shoddy, basic furnishing with decades-old TV sets to rather luxurious but tastelessly decorated rooms with coloured lights, water beds and strange-looking apparatus that belong to a Roman orgy.
Regardless of the quality of the accommodation, they all serve the same purpose: secrecy. Mostly they’re used for sexual trysts by unfaithful husbands or wives, sex tourists or teenage lovers who have nowhere else to go. However, police files include cases in which they have provided the setting for kidnappings, extortion, theft, drug deals, forced detention and even murder.
Sex workers have been known to bring clients to a motel just to rob them because they know it is easy to leave the room without being noticed. There are also reports that some law enforcement, security and intelligence officers use them as safe houses to interrogate suspects, or to meet with secret agents.
Some say love motels are the forerunners of the short-time hotels that can now be found in many parts of the city.
Roadside motels started to appear in Thailand in the mid-1930s. Back then, they were without curtains and used mostly by long-distance travelers to take a rest. Over the years their purpose has changed. Today love motels are usually hidden on narrow sois near “entertainment areas,” such as Ratchadaphisek. Some are located right in the centre of the city and many along and off major roads and highways on the outskirts of Bangkok.
One decades-old and popular motel located off Wireless Road doesn’t have rooms on the ground floor. Customers drive to a designated parking slot with walls on both sides and walk up a circular staircase leading into the room, guaranteeing confidentiality. The room charge is 250 baht for two hours.
Demolition of the infamous Penthouse on Sukhumvit Soi 11 should not be taken to mean that love motels are a thing of the past. They are still being built. For example, one luxurious motel was opened along a main road on the outskirts of Bangkok. A large billboard beside the highway proclaims in Thai, and in English: “Love XX Hotel”
In fact, this is misleading because the place is most definitely a motel, complete with curtains as well. Other motels have been re-decorated and upgraded to lure customers. However, because of the connection to criminal activities in recent years, the owners have been forced to make concessions to security.
In addition to the ban on curtained parking spaces for new motels, almost all newly constructed short-time hotels that have been granted building permits have central rather than room-front parking. Some older motels have voluntarily removed their curtains. At some places the locks have been removed from bathroom doors and the doors have even been removed to deter crime. At one new motel the wall of the bathroom is glass and quite transparent.
Another important development is that CCTV cameras have been installed at the entrances and exits of a number of establishments, although this is obviously not appreciated by customers looking for anonymity.
But as long as there’s a demand for such sanctuaries of secrecy, these specialist hotels will be around in one form or another. And while their conservative counterparts spend lots of money on advertising, love motels and other short-time hotels don’t bother. A steady stream of customers is guaranteed, especially after dark until early morning.
Besides, the last thing the owners want is publicity. Though they have been here for decades and are located all over Bangkok, almost a part of the local folklore, very little has been published about their real function. The proprietors will do anything possible to keep what transpires quiet. Some don’t allow foreigners because they offer underage girls to customers.
When there is trouble or a crime is committed they will usually offer incentives to the police to conduct their investigation discreetly and not inform the press. Once a year, however, they cannot escape the media spotlight. It is an annual ritual for newspapers to dispatch reporters to cover police teams assigned to watch for teenagers involved in extra-curricular activities on Valentine’s Day.
Inside love motels
The BigChilli visited several traditional love motels. We took photos of the rooms and spoke to people connected to them, including staff, local and foreign prostitutes and motorcycle taxis.
“Our customers are mainly foreigners because Thai men prefer motels in other areas,” said a room attendant at one curtained motel in the centre of city. His job is to collect room fees from customers, check the rooms before and after they are rented and close and open the curtains for vehicles parked outside.
Wearing slippers and a fluffy uniform, a man who claimed he had worked there for about 20 years and “seen it all” was hesitant to talk at first, but after a sizeable tip he started to spill the beans: “In the past, we had a number of robberies and even murders here, committed mainly by dark-skinned foreigners. The victims were usually Thai prostitutes working in the Sukhumvit area.
“It is not only love birds who use the rooms but some tourists rent upper floors because it is cheap, and sometimes various units will bring suspects to the curtained room on the street level for a chat.
“Every room generates good money because they turn over frequently. We can sell the room sometimes 8-10 times during a 24-hour period. Most customers pay 360 baht for short-time, which allows them to stay up to three hours. But most of them will leave earlier, maybe after one hour or less than two hours. The room will be immediately cleaned up and ready for a new customer within five minutes.”
Curtain motels in the Sukhumvit Soi 3 area are popular with Bangkok’s infamous ladies of the night hoping to lure customers, particularly visitors from the Middle East.
Despite the dangers, including being robbed by tourists, assault and even worse, the women continue to ply their trade in these establishments.
“I always carry my handbag and even clothes to the bathroom,” said one young woman. Another said she always carries a cutter to protect herself in case of a disagreement or scuffle.
Crimes are also committed by prostitutes, often transvestites, who lure foreigners to the motel, order a coffee or a soft drink and slip in something to knock them out. After the man is unconscious, they will steal what they can.
Motorcycle taxis stationed near one love motel confirmed that police and government officers from other security agencies use the motel for various purposes. Apparently the motel attendants don’t ask them for the rental fee.
There have been several well-publicized reports of people being abducted and detained in love motels. Probably the most famous case is that of Saudi Arabian businessman Mohammad al-Ruwaili, who was allegedly kidnapped and held in a Chim Phlee love motel in the Khlong Tan area of Bangkok before being murdered by five policemen in February 1990.
A January 2010 indictment from a Thai court charged that the police officers beat the businessman in an effort to extract a confession that he was involved in the earlier killings of three Saudi embassy officials. The five policemen were acquitted by the court in March 2014.
In another case that made headlines a British couple claimed they were falsely accused of shoplifting a Givenchy wallet from the King Power duty-free shop in Suvarnabhumi airport in June 2009, and then held against their will for several days at the Valentine Resort love motel.
The couple said they were threatened and forced to pay a bribe of 8,000 baht to secure their release. The couple said a Sri Lankan man negotiated a “bail” payment. The Sri Lankan told them the money was to induce a character known as “Little Big Man” to withdraw the case against them.
Easy in, easy out
To rent a room at a love motel is a very simple matter. In fact, anyone of any age can rent a room and check in without showing ID. This contrasts with normal hotels where customers must fill out a form and produce identity.
The cost of rooms depends on the class of the hotel and the amount of time a customer wants to stay. Prices range from 320-380 baht for three hours in a lower class motel to 500 baht-plus for a better place. The rooms can also be rented on a daily basis for between 600 and 800 baht per day.
Some working women apparently rent rooms on a daily or even monthly basis, often sharing with one or two friends. They may bring customers there, with the full knowledge of the motel staff.