A homestay in the Hoàng Liên Son mountains of northwestern Vietnam, a solar-powered tent at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, and a somewhat rustic cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee don’t have much in common at all, except taking pride of place in my travel memories. Luxury doesn’t rank particularly high on my list of priorities when booking a stay, but personality does, and I often find that the two are mutually exclusive – at least I did until the 142-year-old Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok put my theory to shame.
Need to Know
Serene, splendid, refined – it’s no wonder that the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is affectionately referred to as “La Grande Dame”. There’s a quiet sense of sophistication that permeates the hotel – even when it’s operating at full capacity – which feels almost surreal in a city as chaotic as Bangkok. It is spread between two properties on either side of the Chao Praya River, and almost all of the 35 suites and 393 rooms enjoy river views.
I ended up in a split-level room (a plush lounge on the lower floor, a meticulously outfitted bedroom on the upper) in the Garden Wing, where a bowl of tropical fruit, soothing silk fabrics, and soft-green touches aptly reflected the surroundings. Other amenities at my disposal were an iPod docking station, a pillow menu, a kitchenette catering to virtually every whim and fancy, and even butler service. None of them, however, compared to the hypnotic river views that come courtesy of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I watched with fascination as the hotel’s private teak shuttle boats transported guests between the two banks (they make over 350 trips daily) as its main spa, the Thai restaurant, the cooking school, and the health center are located on the facing shoreline, but more on that later. Chugging alongside were ferries, water taxis, barges, and vibrantly colored long-tail boats – if New York is the city that never sleeps, this is its waterway equivalent.
What You'll Like
So many tales, so little time – that’s a stay at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok in a nutshell. This is where Michael Jackson hid from the press during his 1993 scandal, Elizabeth Taylor threw a fit because the hotel’s best suite was already booked, and Billy Idol trashed his suite like only a rockstar could. Other notable guests? Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Princess Diana, Richard Nixon, Johnny Depp, David Beckham, and Kofi Annan (to name a few).
The rich and famous have long found respite within the walls of this palatial property, but it’s still best known for the literary greats who once called it home: Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Noël Coward, John le Carré, Barbara Cartland, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and many more. And to really soak up this aspect of the property’s DNA, you can splurge for one of the four suites housed within the two-storey Authors’ Wing. Each is named after past guests, furnished in the style of their time, and accented with cushy extras like a balcony, powder room, and walk-in wardrobe.
The Authors’ Wing is the only structure that remains of the original 19th century hotel, which opened as The Oriental in 1876 after Siam – as Thailand was then known – opened to foreign trade. A dinner celebration in 1888 of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was the first major event that took place here and, after personally inspecting the premises, King Chulalongkorn decided that it was up to the task of hosting royalty. Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia was the first royal guest when he visited in 1891, and he quickly became the first of many. It’s history of this sort that no amount of money can buy, and what results is an air of old-world romance reminiscent of a bygone era.
What You'll Love
A taste of Thailand, both literally and figuratively, awaits at the Mandarin Oriental. With only 48 hours in the city, I was looking to explore every facet of the country at the property – and it obliged. The perpetually smiling staff who welcome you at the lobby are outfitted in traditional attire, potted frangipani plants add a sense of place, native elements such as jasmine-rice soap feature heavily in the spa menu, authentic cooking techniques and trips to a local produce market attract guests to The Oriental Thai Cooking School, and Sala Rim Naam restaurant resides in a pavilion inspired by an architectural style found in the north of Thailand.
And speaking of which, a meal here is an absolute must, preferably paired with the nearly two-hour cultural show that takes place nightly. Not only will you make your way though a veritable feast – herbed pomelo salad, yellow curry, stir-fried blue river prawns with chilli jam, and coconut ice cream with caramelized banana included – but you’ll also take in a back-to-back sequence of diverse dance performances from various parts of the country. Another must: a pit stop at the award-winning Oriental Spa.
In keeping with my preference for all-Thai everything, I opted for the 90-minute ‘Oriental Signature’ treatment, starting with a simple inhalation of eucalyptus and rosemary. While the combination of Thai stretching techniques and a soothing blend of lavender, patchouli, and ylang ylang oil made for the perfect massage, it’s the unexpected extras that I remember most: the gentle sound of a Tibetan bell signaled the treatment’s start and finish, a warm neck pillow added a layer of relaxation, and a herbal shoulder compress containing lemongrass, turmeric, and plai put my most troublesome body part at ease.
You could explore the city in one of the hotel’s fleet of BMW limousines or by taking a shuttle boat to the Saphan Taksin BTS station – a free service offered to all guests – but there’s plenty of onsite temptations to get through first. For starters, there are two swimming pools, one of which is surrounded by private cabanas. The luxury of lounging poolside is echoed at the nearby Spa Studio, where four beautifully designed treatment rooms offer express massages, customized facials, anti-aging treatments by Endermologie, and specialty manicures and pedicures by Bastien Gonzalez.
If you’re the type to break a sweat on holiday (no judgment), you’ll love the variety: two tennis courts, one squash court, and an outdoor jogging track complement the fitness center that offers yoga, meditation, Muay Thai, and Tai chi sessions. Be sure to take some time to browse the boutiques located in the Garden Wing, even if you don’t actually end up buying anything. “Silk King” Jim Thompson was part owner of the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok back in 1946 and, today, the hotel hosts an outlet of the eponymous store. In the same vicinity are contemporary furniture store Jonathan Franc, jewelry boutique Maison Artinian, Art to Art Gallery, and more.
While you’re around, take the elevator up to the first floor, where detailed illustrations, vintage photographs, all manner of memorabilia, and interesting anecdotes help bring the property’s vivid history to life in an exhibition titled Oriental Journey – how electricity arrived as early as 1891, trivia on what it takes to create the elaborate flower installations in the lobby, and a list of all the royals and heads of state who have been officially hosted at this oasis of privilege. The likelihood of doing a little name-dropping will be very real after this.
Bangkok Bucket List
Thai food – or ‘food’ in this context – may be the single greatest thing about Thailand, but what’s impressive about Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is how it has established itself as a culinary hub – even in the eyes of the city’s residents. Highlights of the nine restaurants and watering holes include seafood spot Lord Jim’s, Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Normandie, dim sum haven The China House, live jazz at The Bamboo Bar, and the breakfast buffet (that’s as expansive as the waterway it’s facing) at Riverside Terrace.
But the definitive Mandarin Oriental experience – one on every Bangkok bucket list, for that matter – has to be afternoon tea at the Authors’ Lounge. Not only is this one of the most photographed locations in the city, but it’s also the ultimate emblem of the hotel’s literary heritage. Here, marble flooring, white rattan furniture, towering bamboo trees, the tinkling sounds of a piano, and washes of natural light come together to evoke colonial-era high society. And as lavish as the selection is (think: tarts, pastries, savory puffs, scones, mini bagels, and finger sandwiches taken up a notch with typically Thai ingredients), it’s the ambiance that makes this afternoon tea a legend in its own right.
Four literary greats have been immortalized in private rooms within the Author’s Lounge, so a leisurely stroll will both burn a couple of calories and reveal old photographs of Richard Attenborough and Tennessee Williams with members of the staff, catchy quotes on character and travel by James Michener, and stories about how Somerset Maugham staggered into the lobby upon an onset of malaria in 1923. Enriched by the sheer character of these surroundings, I returned to my room determined to tuck into the book that had sadly been neglected since I arrived.
What greeted me there was a box of freshly baked macarons alongside an orchid flower pinned to an excerpt from the James Thomson poem Insomnia – that’s service excellence 142 years in the making for you.
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