The Worst Hotel in the World
Travel Books: Frank Bures reflects on the hotels we love to hate -- and the book celebrating one of them
10.02.09 | 10:47 AM ET
A few years ago, I checked into the cheapest place I could find in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It was grungy, as hostels go—I could see that when I stepped inside.
I didn’t realize just how grungy it was, though, until I walked down the hall and noticed a dank, sweet smell that got stronger as I got to the dorm room I would be staying in.
I set down my bag, sat on the bed and looked at the sheet. There were small brown stains all over it. Not the large stains normally associated with human beings. Little ones.
Late that night, I turned my light on and saw why: bed bugs. Everywhere I looked, teardrop-shaped insects waddled back and forth, drunk on their good fortune. They struggled across the mattress. They scaled the bedposts. They climbed the walls. I’d never seen anything like it. It was macabrely fascinating.
Bad hotels are the bane of the traveler, especially the traveler with no money. The prospect of ending up in some hostel-cum-terrarium is something we’d all like to avoid, which is why online reviews teem with tips on places to steer clear of.
At least one hostel has taken the attitude that, if you can’t beat em, at least keep their expectation low. That’s the apparent motto of the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam, which launched a clever ad campaign, back in the 1990s, geared toward keeping complaints to a minimum. It declared itself the “Worst Hotel in the World,” and it plastered the city with ads showing just how dirty, unfriendly and inconvenient the place was. Now those ads have been collected in a book of the same name.
While it’s mainly eye candy for designers and students of marketing techniques, the book does have some good yuks for travelers. And the campaign seems to have worked, sort of, judging by the online comments about the Brinker:
“Not as bad as I expected”
“Can’t think of anything positive”
“Basic, Cheap, Does What It Says On The Tin”
“NO!!! STAY AWAY!!!!”
“Not as bad as the review state”
“As bad as the reviews say”
“the worst place I have ever stayed in nearly 20 years of travelling.”
“Unless you want bed bugs, don’t stay here!”
“How could you not like this place?!”
“So bad its great!”
“Hurray for Hans Brinker!”
“You get what you pay for”
But as I paged through the book, my mind started running over oddly fond memories of bad hotels where I’ve stayed, complete with stains, terrible neighbors, broken plumbing and all the elements that don’t make for a good stay, but which do make for a good story.
Yes, as the people at the Brinker seem to know, it’s fun to read about just how bad a place is. In New Zealand, back when my wife and I traveled around for a few months, we would page through hostel comment books looking for places down the road, but usually ended up reading as much for entertainment as anything:
“Whatever you do, DON’T stay at Trekker’s (unless you want to be eaten alive by BED BUGS—122 bites to be precise.) It’s a filthy place.” Another person said: “Wouldn’t let my dog stay there.”
This rang somewhat true, since we had stayed at Trekker’s and had gotten a few bites ourselves. But there is one place I thought of instantly when I saw that the “Worst Hotel in the World” book was coming out. Judging from the reviews, the Hans Brinker Budget hotel is bad. It might even be terrible. But could it really be worse than this?
Check out this comment about a hostel in Rotorua:
Watson’s Farm Stay: What can I say? I’m stuck for words. How about, “Shithole”—cockroaches in the fridge, cupboards, cooker, etc. Stale bread and food. Miles from anywhere. Cat had kittens under the table during tea, whilst the other blew chunks on the fireplace. It was still there 24 hours later. Bucket for pig swill next to sink. Beds moved themselves around due to the amount of bugs and fleas in them. Caught ringworm, crabs and lice just from breathing. Rusty old cars, tractors and wagons fill the car park. Toilet had shit stains longer than my leg. Never heard of computers (email), bleach, air freshener or any other cleaning agent. AVOID this place unless you like living in the 1700s.
Hard to say. Maybe there are even worse places out there. But there’s only one that has turned bedbugs into bucks. And for that, we should tip our hats to the Brinker.