“There’s Bangkok, and then there’s the Mandarin Oriental.”
So declared one prominent Sydney businessman over pre-dinner cocktails in the legendary Author’s Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
“I usually pop over for a four-day weekend with a few friends and quite honestly I often never go anywhere else in Bangkok. It’s a true break for me and everything I want is here. I may pop out to see my tailor, but that’s about it.”
In a city where hip luxury hotels decked out in clean, modern design by big-name designers and imported celebrity chefs are de jour, it’s a mistake to think that Thailand’s oldest hotel, the Mandarin Oriental is getting tired. General Manager, Jan Goessing, points out: “Other hotels need the names of big designers, Philippe Starck and the like, but we want you to wake up every morning and know you are in Thailand.
“We too have the grand architecture, chandeliers and marble. But we sell an experience – our service is excellent. All our staff … observe, anticipate and deliver.
“This outstanding guest service is why we have so many people coming back here as a destination time and time again. This is why we are now attracting a newer, younger crowd of curious, sophisticated travellers. These travellers want to experience that level of service and genuine Thai friendliness.”
The hotel is a showcase of Thai craftsmanship. All the rooms, from the basic to the grandest feature custom-built teak cabinetry, blue and white hand-made ceramic tiles and Jim Thompson silk-covered walls, bed coverings and upholstery. The contemporary carpets in the rooms keep it feeling fresh.
However, it’s the human touches that really make it feel special. A selection of fresh local fruits in the room every day (mangoes, rhumbutan), orchids and a selection of treats in the evening raging from sushi to a vanilla panacotta.
If you want to take the Mandarin Oriental experience up a notch then there are upscale suits available named after Wilbur Smith, Barbara Cartland and Joseph Conrad. They tell me the Cartland room is a “sophisticated pink theme” but I was unable to check because it was occupied at the time of writing. Wilbur Smith is a fun, safari-themed affair complete with stuffed animals, zebra-print furniture and dark wood panelling. The showpiece is the Conrad, with large four-poster teak bed, special Thai cabinetry housing rare Thai pottery tea-sets, wood-panelled library and a balcony that looks across tropical gardens to the bustle of the Chao Phya River. The room is stylish and has real gravitas; it is easy to see why this suite has become the favourite for the Thai royal family, visiting royalty and other VIPs.
Indeed, there is a strong literary heritage at the Mandarin Oriental. Grahame Greene was once a writer-in-residence and this tradition is continuing with a range of up-and-coming international authors being offered a residence to complete manuscripts. Budding writers can soak up some inspiration in the garden-inspired Author’s Lounge where the tropical prints make for a chic conservatory feel. It’s a lovely, calm spot to enjoy coffee or some afternoon tea.
The Author’s Lounge is also a popular spot for the ‘Thai Hi-Soc’ (High-Society) to host engagement parties and weddings. It is worth popping in for a look just to see the Dynasty-style bling. Yes the rock-sized diamonds are real. It’s just that kind of place!
Ambience and aesthetics aside, another reason guests cocoon themselves at this hotels for days on end – weeks in some cases – is that there are eight restaurants on site. You can sample a different cuisine every day and still not get through them in a weekend!
The main building houses a huge range of restaurants. La Normandie specialises in French cuisine and is the fanciest venue at the hotel. Seafood restaurant Lord Jim’s has wacky aquatic theme carpets and shell-inspired booths, but there is nothing wacky about the selection of fresh fish on the menu. Nobody does fresh better than the Thais, but here you can select from a broad range of global cuisines – a feast fit for Neptune.
The very funky China House offers some of the best Dim Sum in the city. The Szechuan-style chicken soup has real kick, all the noodles are freshly made on site and the prawn and scallop dumplings with ginger are crowd favourites. Make sure you reserve a table as this is a popular venue for Bangkok locals for business lunches on weekdays and family yum cha on weekends.
The best place to be in Bangkok at sunrise and sunset is the Terrace overlooking the river. Grab a coffee and a platter of fresh tropical fruit (the full Asian and Continental breakfasts are available), watch the school kids and local workers disembark from ferries and scatter through this heaving metropolis.
At dusk, The Terrace with a gin and tonic is the perfect place to sit and contemplate the madness of Bangkok. The river maintains its’ merchant origins as traditional wooden riverboats, speedboats, tourist restaurant boats, backpacker disco boats, military and cargo boats jostle non-stop down the muddy brown strip.
There’s the impression that the Mandarin Oriental is purely for visiting royalty, VIPs and cashed-up grey global nomads.
A quick survey of the Terrace at dusk shows the place brimming with families, laptops and young tourists. It’s a mixed international bag and they are all here for the food, ambience and service.
A quick trip across the river on the wooden courtesy boat tells you all you need to know about the Mandarin Oriental. Rather than soaring glass and marble, you are greeted with a smile at the jetty and meander through a lush tropical garden dotted with little Thai-style compound of modest traditional wooden housing. On this side of the river is housed the Thai cooking school, Day Spa and Sala Rim Naan – one of the best traditional Thai restaurants in Bangkok. Even if your budget does not extend to a night at the hotel, make a booking for a terrace table by the river as it is one of the most romantic spots for dinner in Bangkok. Famous ex-pat Aussie chef David Thompson is a friend of Khun Vichit the chef and he recommends the relish with chillies and tamarind as well as a fine red curry of duck with betel leaves. Also look out for a classic chicken green curry, crunchy organic red rice home-grown by the chef himself and some red-rice ice cream.
Like the guests, it seems the staff never want to leave. General Manager Goessing points out that the average employee has worked at the hotel for over 16 years. This dedication was rewarded during the recent floods when 400 of the 1000 staff were affected. The Hotel opened its’ doors to families in the peak of the crisis when they lost their homes and also provided cash bonuses to get them on their feet again. The hotel also offered food and clean drinking water for all staff, then put together clean-up teams that went out to the suburbs and helped clean and repair homes for the staff members whose homes were worst hit. Two months on, a team of six staff is still helping families clean up and move back into houses.
And the feel-good factor doesn’t stop there. Chef Norbert Kostner – himself at the Mandarin Oriental for 27 years – has been instrumental in developing the King’s Project. This is where the King helps farms previously planted with opium poppies find new markets by introducing modern farming practices, rare breeds of herbs and vegetables and finds a commercial market for them in hotels and supermarkets. Much of the food at the Oriental is organic, sourced direct from the King’s Project.
Locals call the Mandarin Oriental ‘La Grand Dame’. She may be old, but good manners never go out of style.
Beware Bangkok traffic! At peak hours it can take two hours to cross the city in a car so if you do have to be Near the Sukumvit or other areas, best to catch the public train BTS. Ask the MO courtesy boat to drop you at Saphan Taksin station.
The hotel can organise BMW 7 courtesy cars to transfer you to the airport, or anywhere else you want to go. You can also catch taxis, or tuk-tuks outside the hotel for shorter trips. Tuk-tuks can be pretty rough and it may be easier on your spine to walk!
Here’s a list of things to do in the area if you do want to stretch the legs and lap up some of that magical Bangkok chaos.
The heat, humidity and the smog can be stifling in Bangkok so some people don't like to leave the pool. However, you can get one of the best views of Bangkok just five-minutes walk from the Mandarin Oriental, on the 63rd floor at the cocktail bar Sirocco. Like the Mediterranean wind from which it takes its name, it’s refreshing and the best place to be in Bangkok on those long stifling nights. Fantastic views of the river and the old part of town, watch the madness below unfolds. Great cocktails and the food menu is, like Sirocco, Mediterranean inspired. Mesmerising.
Silverware and other jewellery
In the same block as the Mandarin Oriental, and the little sois (streets) are many family-owned silversmiths specialising in 925 silver. Best buys include jugs, teapots, cutlery and jewellery. Choose from masses of Tiffany-style bracelets, charms and necklace knock-offs. Just remember to bargain – unless you want to pay Tiffany prices. Lin Jewellers offer the best quality silver.
Sitting amongst the shiny silver shops are jewellery shops heaving with brightly covered beads and necklaces from all over the Orient. Nepalese-style necklaces are popular with tourists but remember to bargain because some can be very, very expensive.
Prachak looks like a dump from the outside, but it is one of the favourite Chinese lunchtime haunts in Bangkok. Patrons have been streaming in the doors for an incredible 102 years for the crispy duck, crispy pork, steaming soups and the hand-made soft, thin glassy noodles. Faded framed Fordors and newspaper reviews are testimony to the fact that I’m not the first ferang (foreigner) to stumble into the place. But the lino floor, lino tables, faded plastic baby blue stools and DIY condiments suggest that the focus is still the food.
Best news is that three people can pretty much sample everything on the menu for 1,000 baht ($10 each).
Like any major city you take your chances with street food. Don’t let paranoia prevent you from sampling some of the best, freshest, cheapest and most inventive food in Bangkok.
I tend to eat from the stalls with the highest turnover and avoid the ones where fruit and veggies are floating in water and the meat looks flyblown. Watch for the stall where the school kids and staff of nearby hotels flock. Pull up a plastic chair or perch on the gutter and order a beer and plate of noodles loaded with veggies for 300 baht ($10).
Tailors abound in the streets near the Mandarin Oriental. Some specialise in Thai silk, but most focus on traditional suiting for the American, and European markets. They can measure you up and you can select a style from a catalogue, or even better if you take a garment you’d like copied. They can turn shirts and some items around in 24 hours, but best to give them at least 48 hours as they can be very busy in peak time September to April. Expect to pay from about $200 for a fully-lined linen sports jacket but prices can all the up to $2000 for the finest Zegna wool and cashmere suiting.
If you are buying a swathe of business shirts and suits, don’t be afraid to bargain or ask for a discount.
Beauty and Thai Foot Massage
The Mandarin Oriental offers and excellent service at their own salon: The Best Beauty Salon.
But for about 1/3 of the price you can duck around the corner for your mani/pedi and Thai foot massage.
Kirsty Manning-Wilcox was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental and flew to Thailand with the assistance of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.