ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tony Leeds and Tim Riley spent about $50,000 building an outdoor bar, lanai and restaurant, above, for the patrons of CM Blue House. Guests take their meals, visit and watch movies in the renovated space. CLICK FOR LARGE
Enchanting Thailand escape
Two former Big Island residents have found paradise as owners of a 24-room guesthouse in Chiang Mai
CHIANG MAI, Thailand » Tim Riley and Tony Leeds were exhausted with the pace of their lives running a demanding food wholesale business on the Big Island and were in search of a new beginning in Thailand.
Three months ago, they found it in Chiang Mai in a way that mimicked the actions of the city's founder, Siamese King Phaya Mangrai. The king stumbled upon the province in 1296 while fleeing the famous Mongrol King Kublai Khan and proclaimed it Chiang Mai, which means "new city."
While Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand and serves as a hub for tourism, agricultural commerce and illegal smuggling of drugs and sex trade, Riley and Leeds fell in love with the city's quaint charm. The brick-paved streets, flower-lined bridges and old light posts of the bustling city make it seem even more removed from Bangkok, Thailand's capital city, than it's 400-mile geographical distance would suggest.
The beauty of Chiang Mai enticed the pair to take advantage of the current real estate climate and cash in their residential real estate holdings in Hawaii and Washington state. The couple's idea was to use the equity gleaned from the sales, combined with the financial benefit of living in a third-world county, to make it possible for them to realize their dream of early retirement. But the couple, who were accustomed to a more entrepreneurial pace, grew frustrated with their bucolic lifestyle.
"We loved it here, but we were so bored," said the 46-year-old Riley. "We just weren't used to retirement and we were getting fat on drinks."
One night in a bar, Leeds heard about an opportunity to buy the CM Blue House, a 24-room guesthouse, and the pair jumped on it. Buying the guesthouse would add purpose to their retirement and at roughly $54,000, the price was right.
Since Thailand requires that corporations be majority owned by Thai citizens, the couple went to a lawyer who helped them find investors who were willing to sell back their interest in the CM Blue House for a fee.
"There really weren't any demons," Riley said of the experience. "The world here is your place, if you understand how business works."
After investing another $50,000 or so building a bar, restaurant and lanai, the couple opened the guesthouse in April.
"Remodeling was easier here than in Hawaii," said Leeds, referencing the tight Hawaii construction market that the pair had just left behind.
Following renovations, the guesthouse is now worth more than $108,000 and rents simple, clean rooms for between $8 and $12 dollars per night. Only one of the rooms, the rather jocularly named penthouse, is air-conditioned but all rooms have fans and large refrigerators for guests.
The hotel, which has boasted occupancy rates above 70 percent even in the offseason, has proven popular with backpackers, trekkers and global wanderers, Leeds said.
Guests come from all over the world, though most of the clientele hails from Europe, Australia, Asia and America, he said.
"Our goal is to turn this into a boutique property," Riley said of the guesthouse, which has been touted as a good value on Travelfish.com and is expected to be featured in the next edition of "Lonely Planet," a travel reference guide.
The property offers 24-hour security, room service, laundry facilities, a beauty and massage parlor and a restaurant that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner in high season and two meals a day in the offseason, which runs from May to July. It also offers a view of Wat Lam Chang, a temple in the old section of Chiang Mai, which is bordered by moats and crumbling walls.
Manager Jimmy Wijityanu, who came with the sale and hails from Northern Thailand, also offers tourist services ranging from organizing Thai cooking classes to trekking through the many forests in the Chiang Mai province.
ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Former Big Island residents Tony Leeds, left, and Tim Riley, bored with the slow pace of life in Thailand, bought the CM Blue House in Chiang Mai for $54,000 and invested about another $50,000 in renovations. The guesthouse, which often has occupancy rates above 70 percent, has rooms for between $8 and $12 .
"We take care of our guests," Wijityanu said. "If I take them somewhere, I want them to come back happy. If they want to go to an area that's not so nice, I say, 'no.'"
The level of care at CM Blue House is what keeps guest Brian Brown coming back, Brown said.
"There's nothing Jimmy can't fix. He's a gem," said Brown, who has spent the last five years traveling since retiring from a job in Perth, Australia.
Brown, who has stayed at the CM Blue House eight times in the past three years, is finishing up another monthlong stay. This stay is unlikely to be Brown's last, he said while cooling off with a beer at CM Blue House's new bar and lanai.
"The rooms are nice, new and clean and that's something you usually can't find for this price," Brown said.
Other guesthouses in the CM Blue House price range often have rats, Brown said.
"Big ones," Brown said in disgust, while spreading his hands wide to convey a large-sized rodent.
CM Blue House offers more amenities than most properties in its size and price range, Riley said.
"We want guests to come here and learn and feel the Thai culture while still feeling like they are at home," he said. "This is about sharing the wealth of knowledge -- it's not about money."
From the start, running the guesthouse has felt like home, said Riley, whose background is in food and beverage management. Leeds' background is in hotel management. The two met in San Diego while working for the Best Western hotel chain.
Like their Chiang Mai experience, the two wound up in Maui following a move-inspiring vacation.
ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tim Riley, left, and Tony Leeds cashed in the sale equity on their Hawaii Paradise Park home on Puna on the Big Island to buy CM Blue House, a 24-room guesthouse in Chiang Mai. CLICK FOR LARGE
"We vacationed together in Hawaii and never wanted to go back to California," Leeds said. "We moved there and started a new life."
The two former executives struggled in Maui working for minimum wage before finding good jobs. Leeds eventually ended up as front-office manager at the former Aston Papakea Resort and Riley became a sales representative for Morrad Foodservice, which distributes food to restaurants and hotels.
They lived cheaply and pooled their money to open Haiku's Gourmet Take Out and Deli in Haiku, Maui.
"We took it from the ground up and turned it into a real hot spot," Riley said, adding that the pair had found their niche market in the slew of Silicon Valley second-home owners who disliked cooking on vacation.
After three years, the pair sold Haiku's for what they term as "a slew of money," and went to the Big Island to expand Morrad Foodservice. They bought a home at Hawaii Paradise Park in Puna and settled into life on the Big Island, but began dreaming of retirement when Morrad was sold to HFM, a big food corporation on Oahu.
"We didn't like the big-city feel. We wanted a more low-key lifestyle," Riley said.
The $100,000 in equity that they made from selling the property that they had owned in Puna for two years, combined with the equity they made from selling residential property in Washington state as well as from the sale of Haiku's, gave the partners freedom to explore other paths.
During a vacation to Thailand, they considered moving to Bangkok but found it too urban. They said Phuket, though a beautiful seaside town, was too much like Hawaii. In Chiang Mai, the couple found a new place to call home.
"We miss the ocean, but in Chiang Mai we've found the old Aloha spirit," Riley said. "It's an unspoiled paradise where the people are happy and loving and full of smiles."
The couple's new undertaking, with its shoestring staff of six, has provided a lifestyle far more laid-back than the one they left on the Big Island, he said. Room assignments are logged on a magic-erase board and most guest communication is done in person.
"We keep things simple around here," Leeds said.
While the decision to locate in Chiang Mai has satisfied the couple's quest for a more culturally rich life, it also makes good business sense, Riley said.
After the spoils of the infamous Asian tsunami in 2004 that killed more than 280,000 people, Chiang Mai is the neo-haven for tourists who are seeking travel alternatives to Thailand's coastal areas, he said.
Visitors come in droves to catch the sun rays off Chiang Mai's golden temples or to find cool cover in the province's many forests, which led to a hodgepodge of isolated villages that provide shelter from the big city for Thailand's ethnic minorities.
The quest for authentic sightings of Thailand's hill-tribe people, the Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Karen and Padaung, who have been made famous by the likes of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel for the heavy brass coils that they wear on their arms, legs and neck, has opened up a new category of eco-tourism.
Though noisy red tuk-tuks, which resemble cattle wagons, and brightly colored, pink-metered taxis, dot the landscape of urban Chiang Mai, the province boasts more forest lands than any other region in Northern Thailand and is home to three of the country's highest mountain peaks -- Doi Inthanon, Doi Phahom Pok and Doi Chiang Dao.
From Chiang Mai, it's a short drive to nowhere.