Like with many overachievers, the story of the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok involves a lot of firsts.
The tale began in 1876, when Thailand was known as Siam and the hotel’s name was slightly slimmer too: the Oriental. This exotic jewel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River was Bangkok’s first hotel, and foreigners and dignitaries flocked to it up Charoen Krung Road—the first to be paved in the city. As the building quickly morphed into the kingpin of Bangkok’s hotel scene, within it opened the city’s first hotel spa and first cooking school, setting a mark for forward-thinking luxury and personalized service that was previously unknown in Thailand. Today, 140 years later, coming first in show is a standard that hasn’t lapsed, and a fresh slew of renovations this year have restored the historic heart of the hotel to its former glories.
“We don’t change much, but we do revitalize,” explains hotel manager Amanda Hyndman, while sipping tea upon a white wicker chair inside the revamped Authors’ Lounge. Surrounded by hi-so (Thai slang for “high society”) tastemakers and impeccably-dressed vacationers, Hyndman delves into the hotel’s colourful legacy, explaining how the gem-like property stays fully polished by undergoing renovations every five years or so.
It is a necessity in Bangkok’s ever-changing luxury hotel sector: the near future will see Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood, and Waldorf-Astoria properties all moving to town, many of them in the same swanky Bangrak neighbourhood. These builds represent competition, yes, but not when it comes to legacy—the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok trumps all in that field. A guestbook of its famed clientele reads as glamorously as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, from legends like Julie Andrews and Ray Charles, to modern-day demigods Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Demi Moore. And it doesn’t stop there. The Fabergé family were fans and it is the hotel of choice for most heads of state when visiting Bangkok—even famed shoe designer Christian Louboutin visits every month. There are even 10 unique author suites on the property that are named after contemporary writers like Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, and James Michener, many of whom have been guests in those very rooms.
Back in the Authors’ Lounge, some of these writers’ photographs are on display along with signed books from literary geniuses of the past century. These days, afternoon tea is a place to see and be seen, and it’s also rumoured to be the most-photographed room in all of Bangkok. “The Authors’ and Garden Wings are the heart and soul of this historic property,” notes Hyndman, who hails from England. “This comprehensive renovation has extended [our] unique urban resort environment, allowing guests to enjoy the extensive river frontage to its fullest.” That nip-and-tuck included new accommodations, such as the contemporary Garden Rooms—think neatly framed artwork upon whitewashed walls, river views, butler service, and colonial-inspired design—and the very epitome of luxury: the Grand Royal suite. Measuring in at 6,400 square feet, it has built-in private elevator access to whisk guests (the hotel is already booking in royal families) up to the lavish six-bedroom abode. (For those interested in something more permanent at the hotel, the Residences at the Mandarin Oriental are under construction and scheduled to open across the river in 2018.)
A club-like feel is common in places imbued with great legacy, and it is more than palpable here. Some employees have worked here for decades and their attention to detail borders on obsessive. Walking towards the lobby elevator, a hotel staffer who you do not recognize will undoubtedly know your face and floor number, pressing the correct buttons in silence for you with a wonderful air of all-knowingness. It’s subtle and suave, and after taking on the harried streets of Bangkok, what a welcome it is to have the hotel bartender remember your favourite drink.
When cocktail hour does arrive, locals might point up high to the Lebua Hotel, where part of The Hangover II was filmed at its Sky Bar (an infamous rooftop helicopter scene). Resting 250 metres above ground, and one of the world’s tallest rooftop bars, it’s highly recommended for the sparkling city view but not as much for the oh-so-sweet cocktails. Instead, head home to the Mandarin Oriental’s seductive Bamboo Bar. Joseph Conrad loved coming for drinks, as did Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, and original concoctions like the Thaijito or Oriental Mai Thai are still on the menu today. One can’t go wrong with the Bamboo Bar’s twist on a Negroni, mixed with homemade caramel gin and served with a coffee tiramisu macaron. As far as Bangkok cocktails go, it could well come in first.
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, 48 Oriental Ave, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand, +66 2 659 9000.