I’ve been to Bangkok before and I’ve stayed at some very nice hotels in my life, but nothing quite prepared me for our stay at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. The focus of our trip to Asia was to explore the luxury side of the travel life in Asia and there was no better way than to partner with the Mandarin Oriental for a night in Bangkok we will never forget.
We had already spent a week or so in the Thai capital but we had one last evening after returning from Laos in advance of our long journey home. We didn’t have a lot of time that night, just enough to relax and prepare for a very long flight. Frankly, there was no better place to do this than at the Mandarin Oriental.
The first sign that we weren’t at your average high-end hotel was the valet adorned in a Victorian style pith helmet and khakis. Now that was something I had never seen before. His presence and hospitality set the stage for what was arguably our most luxurious hotel stay anywhere in the world.
The hotel enjoys a prime position on the Chao Phraya River, the lifeblood of the city. We had passed it many times while taking river taxis up and down the river and I always wondered how it came to occupy such a prized location. I received the answer later in the day when I was told that the hotel was celebrating it’s 137th anniversary. Not the hotel chain, that particular hotel. I’ve seen how much Bangkok has changed in only five years, but to travel back in time to Bangkok of the 19th century would be like a journey to the moon. Dirt roads, ox carts and well-to-do visitors ascending the steps of the hotel to spend a month or more in the chaotic city are all the stuff of day dreams. The hotel smacks of colonialism, but Thailand has the proud distinction of never having been a colony of any country. It has always been an independent nation, so the pith helmet instead helps the guest visualize a different era rather than a political designation.
The hotel is deceptively large, the property is well interspersed with gardens, cafes and of course amazing views of the river. As we settled into our room we heard a soft knock at the door and opened it to find the butler for the floor. Yeah, a butler. I’ve experienced plenty of luxury hotels, but this was a first for me. While at times stuffy and even awkward, the attention to detail and of course the service is remarkable.
Later that afternoon I walked around the property to the original hotel where some guests were enjoying afternoon tea with a guitar player strumming Pachelbel’s Canon in D from the balcony. I had apparently just entered the Gilded Age without realizing it. I expected to see Joseph Conrad come traipsing through the side door, battling a furious bout of writer’s block. Actually, that probably did happen because just as Bangkok has attracted writers and artists for more than a century, so has the hotel.
Authors such as Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and James Michener all spent considerable time at the Mandarin Oriental. Exploring what must have seemed like an almost alien culture, before returning at night to the decidedly civilized Mandarin Oriental. Of course at the time the hotel was simply called The Oriental, a name that has evolved over time but a spirit that has stayed the same. The hotel pays homage to these famed authors of the past through a series of lavish suites both in the old hotel and the newer buildings devoted to their memories. The rooms are each decorated in a different style, in an effort to evoke the personal styles of the authors themselves. They’re marvelous and I sincerely hope to win the lottery one day so that I too may stay and rest just as Conrad once did.
Our night at the hotel was the last of a long, hot, exhausting two-week vacation. We were emotionally and physically spent and had no desire to do anything but rest and relax. The Mandarin facilitated this in a way few other hotels truly can. At their Bangkok location, the hotel is a little world unto itself. Restaurants, cafes, shops, bars and even a library exist to serve the many guests. Visitors also can make use of the hotel’s private riverboat to cross to the Mandarin’s other restaurants and spa. Yup, the hotel actually spans the river, a fact I never noticed on previous visits to the city.
We made use of the boat and enjoyed a truly excellent massage, their signature which is a mix of Swedish and Thai, in a spa that has been ranked as one of the best in the world. After two weeks of tense muscles and leg pains had been eased away, we joined a full house at a unique Thai style dinner and performance. Multiple, and I mean multiple, courses were served over the course of the evening as Thai dancers, actors and singers gave us all a look into traditional life; performances once performed for royalty in years past.
By the end of the evening I was in another world, in every sense of the term. I was as relaxed as I could be, well fed and intellectually satisfied, all within the comfortable confines of the Mandarin Oriental complex. Not only was our stay the perfect end to a near perfect trip, it was a fun and new way to experience a different side of Bangkok life and history.