Whenever you arrive in a far off city and head to the place you will call ‘your’ hotel for the duration of your stay, you want to do your best to make sure it’s worthy of your temporary ownership. I have learnt this the hard way and have come to dread the random nature of doorstepping. Fifteen years ago I arrived in Marrakesh at 4am, walking into town my friend and I were picked up by a solitary taxi who whisked us off into the mud daubed backstreets and deposited in front of a place with an open door. Inside a cubicle, a greasy drunken lump in a string vest relieved us of money and passports and proceeded to show us to our room: an un furnished tall square cell with only a skylight and no windows. We backed out and started to look concerned.
This increased when he took us across a walk-through shower with opened paint pots on the floor. Our nervousness accelerated past panic and into giddiness when he opened another door and we peered in to see all the furniture chopped up and stacked against a side wall as if someone had decided to hold Bonfire Night in doors that year. In shock and awe we took back our money and passports and raced in hysterics through the alleyways towards the noise of dawn and found a youth hostel who would let us sleep on their roof for the morning before allocating us a room. Despite the sound of a donkey being slaughtered next door, it seemed positively palacial to be in a place that hadn’t hosted a prison riot.
It’s when I think or adventures like that I now feel no guilt whatsoever in choosing the finest hotels in the world to stay in. The challenge then is to make sure that if you do go ‘big’, you don’t go too ‘corporate’. Even when you re on business abroad, you want to feel like you are on holiday and not attending a conference.
It was only when I walked through the doors of the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, proceeded to the lift where the bellman knew my name, and emerged on my floor where my butler guided me to my room which was situated just down from the John le Carre suite that I realised the hardest challenge of a big hotel. And by big hotel I mean big in size and big in reputation. The hardest challenge for a big hotel with many floors, wings, guests, bars, restaurants, staff and competitors is for the customer who likes small hotels to feel comfortably boutique, for the business guest to feel like he’s here to do a deal and for the beloved couple to feel like they’re in the most romantic place in the world.
The Oriental not only does all three and more, it manages to make you feel both at home and abroad all at the home time. At home because it’s a very easy place to relax in and abroad because you can stay there for days and still be discovering new rooms, restaurants, corners or views.
The Mandarin oriental Bangkok doesn’t feel like a big hotel, it feels like five different hotels. It’s a stress free environment that’s easy to move about and operate in, to check in and out speedily, to never have to wait for anything.
One entrance to the sizeable pool takes you past a charming looking bar and restaurant where a string quartet are playing, the other side takes you into a colonial secret. A supremely cool white villa, lined with old black and white photographs of the thai royal family, and housing a library with twenty original portraits of literary stars who have stayed there. In a hundred yards you can walk quietly from European charm to poolside heat and on into a haven of prestigious and delicate society.
Somewhere in the establishment there is a French Restaurant in this hotel that has recently been voted the best in Thailand. It’s a tribute to the hotel’s mystique and character that I didn’t come across it, unlike other big places you can go with the flow here without being ordered and marched around by masses of signs and overtly advertised floors and restaurants. Rather than eat European in the Orient I chose to dine in their Thai restaurant. To get there from the lobby you walk through one terrace bar and two restaurants packed with diners. You board a very traditional ornate looking ferry that is more like a floating temple, that delivers you across one of the major waterways of the orient to a part of the hotel that is more Thai than Western.
At this point If you’re wearing black you might want to gatecrash one of the fashion launches people like Jo Malone host in the outer pavilion. If you are in need of an adrenalin kick you might want to descend on their sizeable gym, and if you’re hungry and inquisitive you can enjoy yourself in the Thai Restaurant which has a buffet with close on a hundred different things to chose from.
The most rewarding reason to cross the river is to visit the Spa. Thailand is famous for it’s massage and the spa industry has erupted across the country but the ayevedic enclave hidden from view is the place you should visit above everything else at the Mandarin Oriental. With it’s Dark wood lined treatment rooms, old fashioned steam cabinets where you sit with your head out and body in it’s a million miles and moments away from the busy bustle of the scene across the river. You could probably just holiday in the spa in it’s own right and forget about the city around you.