Before I returned to the city in December, it had been eight years since my last visit to Bangkok and so I contacted various travel journalists and members of the industry for tips. It’s a nice perk of the travel industry that the people within it tend to be genuinely hospitable, and that’s how I came to receive repeated recommendations that I stay at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.
I took their advice, but an even bigger endorsement for the property came immediately after my arrival. I entered the lobby (vibrantly decorated with a towering cone of purple orchids, a distinctly Thai take on a Christmas tree) to find a battalion of security guards, the hotel’s top brass and a quartet all in wait as a welcoming committee. But not for me, of course.
Right behind me was the only daughter of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana. She and her retinue were due to have dinner in the hotel’s two-Michelin-star French restaurant Le Normandie.
A private reservation rather than an official visit, it was nonetheless a significant occasion. In a country where the royal family are so revered, her decision to dine here was in every respect a very big deal.
Part of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s renown stems from its heritage. Known as The Oriental Hotel when it opened on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in 1876 and the longest-standing property in the Mandarin Oriental portfolio, the address has welcomed luminaries for decades, among them authors such as Somerset Maugham, Wilbur Smith and John Le Carre.
Their legacy is enshrined today in the Authors’ Wing, the original hotel building. Along with the adjacent Garden Wing, it underwent a £13m facelift in 2016 and today the 30 rooms and suites in these adjoining spaces — rather than those in the later River Wing extension — are the most charming places to stay.
The Authors’ Wing, in fact, is home to one of the world’s best hotel suites. Its palatial Grand Royal Suite spans across its entire first floor and is decorated with stucco ceilings, silk rugs, antiques and crystal chandeliers.
The Garden Wing’s suites are tasteful, comfortable and homely. The lounge and dining room incorporates a cocktail cupboard in place of a minibar, a butler is on standby and there’s a (relatively austere and perfunctory) balcony.
Their best feature, though, is the sweeping views of the Chao Phraya through their floor-to-ceiling windows. Very much still a working river, it is constantly abustle with barges and longtail boats, commuter vessels and jauntily illuminated river-cruise ships.
Watching traffic ebb and flow upon the water is a hypnotising pleasure that should help to ease the annoyance of jet lag (though with noise insulation through the panes not as complete as might be expected, that same activity can be a bit of a nuisance when it’s time to rest).
The river location has another significant benefit: it provides an alternative means of exploring this horrendously traffic-clogged city. From the hotel’s pier, boats frequently bob across the water to the newly opened Icon Siam.
To describe this ambitious $1.65billion development as a shopping mall seems inadequate. At 750,000sq metres it is mammoth, with 100 dining options and a replica floating market in its lowest level, plus a boulevard full of the fanciest of designer boutiques (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermès and many more).
It’s worth a quick visit, but really it’s more interesting to continue upriver to the temples and palaces that are concentrated along the water’s edge.
Wat Arun, the temple of dawn, is a few minutes further; across from it is Wat Pho, an ornate complex of temples and spires that houses a 46-metre-long reclining Buddha. The dazzling Grand Palace is nearby. (Incidentally, The Siam, the only other hotel that was recommended to me time and again, is another 15 minutes upstream.)
They’ll all be familiar to frequent visitors to Bangkok, but the hotel also allows for easy access to less obvious sites. The city’s Chinatown is nearby; at the colourful 24-hour flower market nearby, garlands of orange marigolds, considered auspicious, overflow from traders’ stalls like spills of lava.
Charoenkrung is one of the city’s emerging creative districts, home to an increasing number of independent galleries, converted shophouses and independent bars.
But despite all that, many of the hotel’s guests elect to remain on site. Afternoon tea is an institution and the spa is renowned — it was the first city spa to open in Bangkok (back in 1993) and its Thai massages, in particular, are highly recommended.
Alongside Le Normandie, riverside Lord Jim’s serves seafood and Ciao Terrazza is the hotel’s Italian. More likely to interest European visitors, Thai restaurant Sala Rim Naam stands in a waterside pavilion that is reached by the hotel’s teakwood boat.
I thought the dishes on offer were nice rather than impressive — there are more exciting places for gourmets to discover authentic and inventive Thai cuisine in the city — but the classical dance show that accompanies dinner service each night, with performers beautifully attired in traditional costume, is a nice touch.
I preferred the fusion of Thai flavours and live entertainment at the Bamboo Bar, which has existed in the hotel in one form or another since 1953. Dark, decadent and an atmospheric spot for a date night, it is a proper, classic hotel bar, one of the most inviting I’ve been to in recent years.
Drinks from its current Compass cocktail menu feature distinctive ingredients from each region of Thailand (from the east, non-alcoholic Talad Nam is made with dragonfruit, holy basil, papaya and passionfruit; from the south, Breakwater is a combination of cinnamon rum, coconut and fennel). There’s live jazz music each night save Sunday. The space feels timeless.
It’s wise then, that it will be left untouched when the River Wing in which it is found undergoes a complete renovation from March. The overhaul enjoyed by the Authors’ and Garden Wings have rendered rooms in this 43-year-old extension relatively dated and so the wing will be closed and completely reconfigured before reopening in October 2019.
Among the changes will be larger rooms and suites — currently the wing holds 338 rooms and 30 suites; those figures will change to 301 and 46 respectively — and transformed interiors.
Accommodation will feel more residential, with lighter, fresher interiors, wooden floors and enhanced amenities. Many will incorporate apartment-style lounge areas, custommade furniture will feature throughout and Thai fabrics and unique artworks, often sourced from the hotel’s private collection, will decorate the interiors.
It’s a huge undertaking; in the hotel world, any changes to the most venerable grande dames come with their own unique pressures. Greg Liddell, the general manager, told me that 60 per cent of the hotel’s clientele over Christmas were repeat guests, with many of them spending the festive period in this home from home every year for the last 10 years or more.
They have been candid about their high expectations, but after seeing a mock-up of the new rooms I think they’ll be satisfied. The update is warranted and the designs are a clear improvement, while the team is committed to ensuring the hotel’s ambience remains unchanged. I expect travel writers will continue to recommend the property for some time to come.