By BRIAN BERKMAN
The Chao Phraya snakes through Bangkok like an arterial vein bringing sustenance to the city. Any doubt that this is the river of kings is pressed from the mind the way that searing chilli in the hot and sour Tom Yum soup opens the nose. Just note the bridges that join the river to the land. The Bhumibol Bridges named after the most recently deceased king and his father, and bridges to honour Kings Rama 3 , 4, 7 and 8.
The best hotels in Bangkok are along the river and none more historic than The Oriental or known by its full name The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok. The MO is not alone, on the opposite side of the river the storied Peninsula Hotels towers among many grand and special hotels: The Anantara, Riverside and Shangri-La among them. The more recently opened Avani, just behind The Anantara, sits at a more affordable price point and prices continue to drop the further from the river you go.
Not just because the MO was the first hotel to open in Bangkok, 140 years ago or because of its literary roots with Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, James Michener even our own Wilbur Smith who has a suite named after him but because of an excessively high staff to guest ratio and, mind you, not just any staff but staff who must be tested for telepathy and the level of empathy and insight into human needs expected from Carl Jung himself. The guest experience at MO cannot be explained – it has to be lived. From arrival in the high ceilinged foyer to breathing the air scented by the myriad flowers in the hotel’s gravity defying floral displays. It is the most pleasing sensation – a sudden quiet amplified by the bustle of the city.
Lift doors open with your floor pressed before you arrive – how each member of staff that you encounter knows your name and which floor you are on is one of the great hotel mysteries. Perhaps they all have FBI-style earpieces and secret contact lenses that broadcast guest photos or, more likely, a practiced memory and profound sense of attention to detail. The extraordinary staff aside, personalisation extends to check-in inside your suite where writing paper with your gold embossed name is waiting at your desk. There is a purpose designed cubby for your shoes that allows your butler to remove them for buffing as you sleep only find them, without disturbing you in anyway, gleaming and wrapped in tissue paper before morning.
Most high-end hotels and resorts lavish attention on their guests and provide magnificent surroundings and facilities but the MO Bangkok is different. Here you ask your waiter not to bring you another coffee. A tissue asked for to catch a sneeze one day is waiting at your table the next. Not satisfied with iced water and a bowl of apples poolside, staff come by with shot glasses of ice creams and platters of decoratively cut fruits. Another magazine similar to the one you were reading before you’ve even put yours down. A selection of sun creams is quietly provided. Rather than being creepy, the intense attention and concern shown is the most seductive of things.
Join the other sophisticates for Afternoon Tea in the hotel’s white cane furnished Author’s Lounge. As with everything at the MO, more is also offered at tea. The traditional cream tea of scones and clotted cream is, of course, available, but so too is an Oriental version with chicken satay and steamed pork buns along with Thai confectionery.
The fact that this hotel has 324 rooms and is frequently at capacity makes the successful personalised service even more extraordinary.
The Grand Royal Suite upgrade was completed one year ago. The six-bedroom, 600 square metre suite now occupies the entire first floor of the Authors’ Wing, which was the original 1876-built Oriental Hotel. As you’d expect, The Grand Royal Suite has private lift access and has a one-bedroom, 315 square metre Royal Suite and the adjoining 165 square metre Ambassador Suite with two bedrooms, as well as three further separate guest rooms to accommodate family, personal staff and security detail. Designed to be lavish, one might host another Head of State or fellow royal in the lounge or grand dining room of your suite or have 12 to dinner prepared in your private kitchen. The biggest television screen you ever did see, gargantuan crystal chandeliers above the bath and a myriad other excesses are also all beautifully elegant. This hotel gets non-garish opulence right.
Lord Jim, the hotel’s fine dining seafood restaurant is named after a Joseph Conrad character while French restaurant La Normandie is known as the the Thai Queen’s favourite.
Everything about a stay at MO Bangkok will be memorable including the price which is upwards of R4500 for an entry-level room while The Oriental Suite (sleeps five) will cost about R55000.
While there are so many things to keep you at the property, including the vast spa, fitness centre, cooking school and traditional Thai restaurant on the opposite side of the river, the MO has free teak water shuttles to the skytrain and transport hub. Don’t miss Jim Thompson’s House, also on the river or a visit to The Royal Palace where the river bends, if you must go out.