BANGKOK -- In downtown Bangkok, hardly a week goes by without a soft opening for a high-rise hotel offering a plush but hardly unique experience. With around 35 million visitors a year the Thai capital is a spectacular tourism success, but it is lagging behind regional competitors when it comes to quirky, idiosyncratic accommodation.
Heritage hotels, many in crumbling Rajput palaces, have been one of the main reasons to visit Rajasthan, in India, since the 1960s. More recently, heritage accommodation has proliferated in Luang Prabang in Laos, and in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia.
In Thailand, while there is plenty of remarkable architecture scattered around the older parts of Bangkok, especially in Chinatown and on Rattanakosin Island, countless structures are threatened by construction, lack of maintenance and the absence of official development guidelines.
"There is no preservation of what we might call 'ordinary' heritage structures in Bangkok," said Yongtanit Pimonsathean, a former professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, and a consultant on conservation. "Heritage status is generally applied to dead monuments, such as temples and palaces."
Yongtanit, who has long advocated a change to this outmoded perception of the history of the city, said progress has been slow. "We did a survey of Rattanakosin and Chinatown and found 9,000 heritage buildings -- 6,000 in Chinatown, 3,000 in Rattanakosin -- including private homes. Not one of them is listed, certified or registered.
"And while Rattanakosin is a conservation area, Chinatown is not. We have the backing of the National Human Rights Commission who wrote a letter to the government emphasizing that Chinatown should be protected too. We have been waiting for cabinet approval for a year and a half."
Despite these challenges, some highly motivated young entrepreneurs are trying to use these old buildings more imaginatively.
Kittisak Pattamasaevi, chief commercial officer of the Montara Hospitality Group, is the driving force behind two boutique developments: the Italian-built Praya Palazzo hotel, which offers early 20th century glamour on the banks of the Chao Praya river, and the recently opened Prince Theatre Heritage Stay. The theater building, a restored Art Deco cinema in Chinatown, built in 1917, offers smart dormitories for affluent backpackers and a couple of sumptuous suites behind its old cinema screen.
"Bangkok has never been a boutique hotel destination. That's not what visitors are usually looking for, and it's not what's promoted," said Kittisak. "But there's a great deal of talk about quality instead of quantity tourists. There are hardly more than 10 heritage hotels in Bangkok because they are not really economically viable. You can make more money knocking down your old house and building a condo."
Kittisak said families who own heritage properties often cannot agree on what to do with them because each generation creates additional stakeholders. "My family had the idea to create a museum-cum-arts center, but this requires charity money, and it's not sustainable in the long run," he said.
"The advice we were given was to turn the building into a business. We can break even with the rooms, but the Prince Theatre will only become profitable if we innovate and run workshops and events, and develop partnerships with the street food vendors in the neighborhood."
Kittisak added: "We are still at the experimental stage. The private sector is aware that all these properties are empty and available, but there is no clear idea on how to generate a revenue stream. But my family has a passion for conservation. The only way for us to be noticed among countless hotels in Bangkok is history. It is the only thing that cannot be copied."
Another group of entrepreneurs in Soi Nana, Bangkok's hippest nightlife area, recently opened 103 - Bed and Brews, located in a 100-year-old shophouse. Sarinya Chintanawararak, one of the owners, said that such a heritage property cannot compete with the bland luxury of the Thai capital's skyline of five star franchises on amenities.
"Most people who are interested in our hotel understand the limitations of staying in an older building -- guests may hear some noise from the street as our wooden floor boards might not provide adequate sound insulation," she said.
But the property, which has just six rooms, oozes 19th century ambience. "103 - Bed and Brews is a living memory of the Chinese settlers and the life they brought to this area," said Sarinya. "It was once a Chinese merchant's house, through which herbal medicines were imported, blended, and sold to working class people. We tried as best we could to restore the charm that the building originally had."
Panida Tosnaitada, whose grandfather migrated from China to Thailand during China's Cultural Revolution, has achieved a similar transformation on a larger scale at the Bangkok Publishing Residence, a boutique heritage hotel in Lan Luang, on the edge of Bangkok's historic quarter.
Panida's grandfather, who founded the Bangkok Weekly magazine and eventually published 17 magazines, ran the family business from six adjoining shop houses, with living accommodation on the top floor. "By the time I came here a decade ago, the building had long been deserted and was in a terrible state," she said.
It took Panida seven years to transform the shop houses into one building, framed inside by huge steel pillars. She salvaged as many period items and family baubles as she could track down, and the lobby and downstairs common area are stuffed with mementos, from garish magazine posters to her grandfather's desk and printing presses.
"Sixty years ago, this area was the place where young intellectuals would meet. Lan Luang was packed with printers and bookstores. I wanted to preserve as much of the area's history as possible," Panida said.
"I feel very grateful for this magazine business. Some of the antiques and objects I have here are quite rare. There are only a few pieces left in Thailand. But collecting books and old stuff is not really a thing here. Thais go for modern, elegant and luxurious."
Changing that mindset is likely to be a long and arduous process, involving a significant shake-up in the way Thai institutions think about heritage issues.
"Decision-making power needs to devolve from the center to local bodies," said Yongtanit. "The protection of heritage buildings needs to be broadened, following the example of European countries or Japan, which took those steps in the 1930s to 1960s. And we need to define what actually makes a heritage building and how to inform the public on how to take care of their properties."