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Mandarin Oriental Bangkok: Classic Luxury & Charm On The Chao Phraya River

Bangkok is a city swept up in modernization.  Shopping malls and entertainment bombard you everywhere you look.  New hotels with the latest trends are popping up almost monthly.  How does the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok stay at the top, despite being the oldest luxury hotel in the city?

A stay at the Mandarin Oriental hides you in an oasis of calm in this hectic metropolis.  Originally located on the outskirts of the city  on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, this was once considered a quiet area.  Decades later, the city has expanded and now the river is no longer quiet, but the hotel maintains its serene elegance.  Locals and travel veterans still reverently refer to it as “The Oriental”.

The feel of the hotel is still very much colonial elegance.  While the standard attire in the lobby might not be men in white linen suits or ladies with parasols, the hotel still maintains the ambiance.  The lobby is filled with local business meetings by day, and well dressed locals and guests enjoying the live music with a pre or post dinner cocktail in the evening.  The river front terrace is filled with guests having breakfast or cocktails watching the boats float by.  The famous Author’s Lounge still draws the afternoon tea crowd with its colonial architecture and traditional charm.  The Bamboo Bar cocktail lounge in the evening with daily live jazz is reminiscent of an old noir movie.  There are dark woods and wicker furniture and small tables, without a strobe light or DJ anywhere to be found.  Le Normandie, arguably the most recognized French fine dining restaurant, requires dinner jackets for men.  Take the boat across to the spa grounds, and you’ll find a Thai restaurant with traditional architecture, as well as a cooking school and the spa built in the same colonial style as the garden wing.  This annex of the property adds to the experience as it feels like you are on a private personal estate, and not a luxury hotel.  Many times during my stay I forgot about how busy and hectic Bangkok is, or how there were supposed to be protests happening in the city.  I just felt relaxed, calm and like I was in a colonial period movie.

In terms of rooms, the hotel has often been criticized for being behind the times.  This is especially the case when compared to some of the recent neighboring hotels which maximize views of the Chao Phraya River from nearly all rooms and facilities.  The Mandarin Oriental still has some great rooms, a few of which are still the most sought after rooms in Bangkok.  In the River Wing, most Superior and Deluxe rooms only have diagonal views of the river.   The Superior rooms in the Garden Wing do have good views from the river facing rooms, but these large duplex apartment style rooms are not favored by short stay guests.  The Executive Suites are a nice option for those who want a large river view room.  My personal favorite is the State Room.  The State Room is adorned in a lot of Thai silk, and Thai sculpture.  The corner location affords it a wide panorama view from most areas of the room, including the living area, and bed.  This room even has a small balcony, just large enough for you to sip cocktails and watch the boats float by.   The one room type that is still the hardest to get over the New Year’s holiday is the Heritage Suites in the Author’s Wing.  Formerly known as just the Author’s Suites there are only five of these Heritage Suites in the Author’s Wing.  These huge decorated suites, named after famous authors who have stayed at the hotel, are the hottest rooms in the hotel, and maybe Bangkok, during the holidays.  I have for many years, more unsuccessful than not, tried to book these rooms for my top clients.  If you do want to book a Heritage Author’s Suite for the holidays, you will need to try to book them as many months in advance as possible.

I think the long standing success of the hotel can be summarized by two concepts, dining and service.

A reputation for dining is extremely difficult in a luxury hotel packed city like Bangkok.  Within walking distance of the hotel alone, there are top hotels in Bangkok all boasting top dining experiences.  But the Mandarin Oriental has an almost legendary status for its dining options.  Le Normandie is still one of the top fine dining French restaurants in all of Thailand.  Visiting Michelin starred chefs keep this restaurant at the top of the list for travelers and locals.  Sala Rim Naam, located at the spa annex on the opposite side of the river is still considered one of the top traditional Thai restaurants in Bangkok. Lord Jim’s is a modern seafood restaurant which is full of locals for lunch, and hotel guests in the evening.

Service is probably the key element in keeping the Mandarin Oriental the top hotel in Bangkok after all these years.  Every floor has a butler.  Butlers who not only remember your name, but also help with simple requests such as needing eating utensils for your room, or letting you in if you left your key in your room.  Suites each come with a private butler.   Even staff at poolside, remember your name the second day, and know what you like to eat or drink.  They remember if you like your chair in the sun or shade.   It is this personal service and recognition that makes the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok different than the multitude of luxury hotels in Bangkok.

The hotel also likes to celebrate its own heritage and its connection to the local culture.  I was at the hotel during the Thai New Year of Songkran.  During the regular weekly management cocktails in the Author’s Lounge, the hotel hosted a local family to celebrate the traditional rituals of Songkran to share with the guests.  From the blessings of the family elders to the splashing of the water and the traditional dance, to the releasing of birds and fish, the management wanted to celebrate the hotels place in the community and share this part of Thai culture with guests.

The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok in my opinion feels more like a resort than a hotel.  The serene lush pool, the spa annex with its private residence feel, the Author’s Lounge and Garden Wing with its colonial architecture and decor, all contribute to this experience. This hotel is best for clients who want to spend more of their time in Bangkok at the hotel, as opposed to wandering the city.  It might be best for those who are repeat visitors to Bangkok.  I also think that the hotel is more appropriate for guests who stay longer than the one or two nights that make a typical Bangkok stay.  The State Rooms, Superior Rooms or Executive Suites make great longer term stay options.  But if you were to stay only one or two nights, I would probably recommend a different hotel.

The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok remains one of the top hotels in this crowded luxury hotel city of Bangkok, but it keeps its place at the top by providing something that few other modern, flashy, trendy competitors offer…. experience.  It’s this experience, whether it be the 100+ years of high caliber service, or the guest experience of stepping back in time to a more civilized colonial era, that makes the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok special.  This isn’t my first stay here, and it definitely won’t be my last.


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