Bangkok needs no introduction but just in case, it’s a sprawling concrete jungle of more than ten million people. It’s quirky and interesting, hectic and hot, frenetic and a hodgepodge of architectural beauties, ramshackle buildings and narrow waterways. The streets are alive with the smells of a thousand different dishes cooking, vendors hawking their wares, people fixing sewing machines or motorbikes.
It’s hopelessly addictive, though, which is why so many use the city to book-end their trips to Thailand. For my money, spending a week here means really getting under the skin of it, ensuring you get the right balance of calm retreat and buzzy life. Essential for that is a wonderful place to escape to – enter the Mandarin Oriental.
Why stay here
Ensconced on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the main artery that runs through the city, the Mandarin Oriental is one of Thailand’s oldest hotels at nearly 150 years and a true Bangkok icon. It’s been a temple to all things luxury since 1876 and its doors have seen royalty, celebrities and cultural icons pass through them.
That said, these aren’t the same doors – the hotel saw a huge renovation in 2020. The lobby feels a bit of a short sell for the spectacular space you enter – a huge, two-storey tall affair full of bold colours, water features and unique flower displays – the perfect place to take high tea, full of light and a wonderful respite from the sticky heat outdoors.
The hotel is split across three areas, two adjacent to each other on the eastern side of the river and the spa situated in a teak longhouse on the opposite bank, accessed via a river shuttle, next to the newly-built residences.
Rooms and suites
On the main site, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok has three wings – the River Wing, the Garden Wing and the Authors’ Wing (so named for writer Somerset Maugham who stumbled in here rather ill and used it as a base to recover from malaria). The most contemporary are those in the River Wing – a fusion of New England and traditional Thai styles, rooms are generous and comfortable, a mellow mix of bright blues, white wooden panelling and grey accents. Many of the fabrics are from Jim Thompson, saviour of Thailand’s silk industry in the middle of the last century.
You’ll have your own butler on hand to help with anything from dinner reservations to laundry services. Being greeted upon your return to your floor by someone who knows your name really builds a feeling of intimacy and the warm welcome the hotel extends. It creates a feeling of “home-away-from-home” – much sought after by hotels but rarely attained. Service throughout strikes the perfect chord between friendly and brilliantly efficient.
It’s no secret that hotel lighting is often seemingly designed by someone who’s never turned on a lightswitch before. Not here, though, with a lovely button labelled “scenes” which has several different lighting settings to suit your mood. We’re in love.
Bathrooms are marble affairs with a 21st century point of difference – Japanese toilets. If you don’t know, you’ll have to Google it, but trust us, you’ll be ordering one for your house after your stay.
Eating and drinking
Breakfast is a fun and buzzy affair taken on the terrace overlooking the river; the classics are here alongside Thai and Chinese dishes and an extensive pastry, waffle and pancake zone. Of particular note are the preserves: apple and vanilla and rhubarb were both just the right side of sharp and perfect with a croissant.
The hotel’s flagship restaurant since 1958 is La Normandie, a temple to fine French dining, which was awarded its second Michelin star in 2017. In December 2021, Alain Roux took over as chef patron, bringing his decades of experience to the kitchen. There are tasting menus galore with plenty of luxurious ingredients to devour and some of Roux’s classics like Canadian lobster medallions with ginger and white port sauce. Needless to say, bookings are a must.
Lord Jim’s is a buffet the likes of which we’ve only seen in a few ultra-high end hotels: platters groaning with lobster, crab, prawns, oysters; hand-rolled sushi; jamon iberico; hot stations with ribs of beef, chicken ballotine with truffle, salt-baked sea bass with champagne, a mash so decadently rich with butter it’s virtually a sauce; Thai dishes cooked to order and a long, long dessert section which had us coming back more than a couple of times. The room itself is lovely with huge windows facing out onto the river and a steam-ship theme.
For an after-dinner tipple, Bamboo Bar, tucked away behind a frosted glass door, is a celebrated jazz bar that opened in 1953. In 2018, the Bangkok institution was selected amongst Asia’s 50 Best Bars and has remained ever since.
Worth watching out for is two-Michelin starred chef Takagi Kazuo opening “Kinu by Takagi”, bringing his Kyoto-style cuisine to the hotel in July 2022. As of writing, the Mandarin Oriental’s Nam Rim Sala, one of Bangkok’s best Thai restaurants, is closed, having not reopened post-pandemic. When it reopens, though, ensure you have it on your list.
What to do
There are plenty of reasons not to do very much here – the spa features remarkably skilled practitioners with a great understanding of the body; rooms are generously sized and some have their own wooden tubs should you want to feel even more relaxed. Taking a boat across the river to the spa adds an extra level of decadence and treat to the experience. Behind the spa is the hotel’s cookery school if you’re interested in honing your cheffing skills to impress friends and family back home.
The hotel’s pools, recently re-landscaped with cabanas to create a more private, upmarket and intimate feel, are a wonderful place to escape the heat. A separate pool for kids means the main one remains a haven of tranquillity for you to retire with a book; regular visits from the friendly staff with iced water are a welcome interruption.
If you fancy a little something different, the hotel has a shuttle over to the newly built IconSiam shopping mall; it’s a good mix of Thai and global brands, has a very cool coffee shop and a huge food court on the ground floor where you can try lots of Bangkok’s street food in an accessible, easy (and air-conditioned) environment.
How to book
Rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok start from £400 per night including breakfast. 48 Oriental Ave, Khwaeng Bang Rak, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; mandarinoriental.com