Thailand’s major river, the 372-kilometre Chao Phraya, flows through Bangkok and on to the Gulf of Thailand. There will be new hotels springing up along the east bank of the river in Bangkok, namely Steigenberger, between Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and Shangri-La Bangkok and, only a little further south, Capella Bangkok and Four Seasons Bangkok in the same complex (all these future hotels are much more convenient than the further-out The Siam, which was so glorious in the days when it was run by the charismatic Jason Friedman).
The doyenne of the river, and indeed the city and the country, is Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. Its Ambassador Suite, #102, is a microcosm of the entire history of Bangkok over the last 180 years. The 31 framed photos on the suite’s walls are so fascinating you wonder what and why… what was King Chulalongkorn doing with 11 morning-suited teenage boys at England’s Eton College (it turns out the king, who lived 1868-1910, had 77 surviving children, including 33 sons, so it is quite possible he had 11 at that school at the same time). His Majesty obviously packed a lot into his schedule. As well as having what is thought to have been a total of 116 ladies, either wives or concubines, he also travelled extensively: photos show him in Paris, and in Russia with the Tsar in 1897. And he obviously loved having his photo taken, which in the 19th century meant posing for some time for each shot.
The Ambassador Suite, all 173 sq m of it, is up 24 carpeted stairs from the Authors’ Lounge, in the two-floor original 1870s hotel building: this, and the 1858-vintage Garden Wing behind it, constitute the entire hotel for the next few months of 2019. The River Wing is currently being dramatically being brought up to date by designer Jeffrey Wilkes, whose new-look lobby, with more wood, all champagne-white, and Lasvit chandeliers, was unveiled June 3rd. When the rest of the renovation is revealed, bedrooms will be 4.5 sq m larger. Magic? Wait and see. There will also be magic in the re-done Verandah restaurant in the form of Chinoiserie wallpaper that promises to be as significant as the palms lining walls of The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Until this new wallpaper is revealed, breakfast is served in the all-purpose Authors’ Lounge – papaya and yoghurt watched by Graham Greene and his ilk, or at least framed photos of those literati.
I took the hotel shuttle boat across the river; such a romantic prelude to pumping iron (the gym is on the river’s opposite bank, next to the hotel spa). On my way back to the boat I passed several expat guys in matching suits standing around rather self-consciously, listening to a string quartet warming up. Some guests for this, Wedding One, were having a little something, waiting for the bride. Back home, in the Ambassador Suite, I too dressed up. The hotel’s manager was waiting and we went up to have a peek at Wedding Two, in the main ballroom (the hotel does over 250 weddings a year and at this one all arrivals were photographed in front of a wall of flowers). We then walked across the hotel’s courtyard, its canopy a living fringe of greenery, for another ambassadorial experience…
China House is a two-floor heavy wood building in Maccanese style — not surprising since apparently this was once the home of the Ambassador of Macau. Lucky man. I hope he, too, dined in a small corner room that was just big enough for a circular dining table with an enormous Lazy Susan, and four chairs. I was with Sydneysider Greg Liddell and his wife, Victoria, who chose our meal. We kicked off with truffle-filled dumplings in individual wicker lidded baskets, went on to a soup, a whole and magnificent Pekin duck, big chunks of fish with julienne of leek, and small portions of sweet and sour pork with fried rice and broccoli. We drank a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Light Band 2018 Brightwater Nelson. Amazingly, just as I returned home someone in a mushroom-coloured Thai silk jacket appeared, with yet another glass of water, stemmed of course, with a purple orchid sharing its silver tray (and knowing this luxury hotel as I do, I bet you do not have to be Ambassador status to enjoy such luxury service at this thoughtful hotel).
All day and all night, it seems, there is traffic plying the Chao Phraya. There are hotel boats and public ferries going across and back. And with or against the current, there are ‘trains’ of connected tugs, occasional cruise ships and, every night, highly dayglo-decorated dinner boats. I took a boat over to the primary luxury hotel on the west bank, The Peninsula Bangkok. Since its 1999 opening it has been somewhat lonely on the west bank but no longer. Head north — five minutes on a shuttle boat or nearly twice that walking from the hotel — and there is the giant ICONsiam entertainment centre, a US$1.5 billion portfolio of designer retail, including such necessities as a giant Apple Store and a Swatch shop, plus food outlets and restaurants and a 3,000-seat events space. The result is, well, just amazing, and to be able to shop, at more, at ICONsiam is yet another plus for staying at The Peninsula Bangkok.
The 765-strong team that looks after the 370 rooms on the 37 floors of this building have one of the lowest turnovers around: The Peninsula is celebrating its 20th birthday this year by honouring the 80+ team members who have been there since its opening. Every six weeks there are inter-departmental sports events, teams competing at basketball one day, squash the next. They have a new gym, and 30 are, working in pairs for moral support, being coached in improving their overall fitness. Others are taking lessons in finance management. Joseph Sampermans, the hotel’s GM, may not have the newest hotel in town but this is an advantage when it comes to staff, who are meticulous about detail.
With a GM who is passionate about health and wellness it was not surprising that this time the books in my room, #3104, included The 150 Most Effective ways to Boost Your Energy, by an American doctor Jonny Bowden. I dipped into it and found a reiteration of what the commonsense follower already knows: eat well, drink well, sleep well and exercise body and mind. Here it is easy to do all those necessities. To complement the hotel’s well-supervised LifeFitess gym, which opens at 6 a.m., you can get extra exercise by eschewing the elevator to and from the main lobby and taking the 35 carpeted steps up from the outside garden and the river. There are three connected outdoor pools and the spa is ESPA, with Biologique Récherché, Subtle Energies and, coming shortly, Margy’s Monte Carlo.
And what about the exercising the mind at this comfortable-luxury hotel? Well even those with families can learn, whatever, on their iPads and phones: access to the free WiFi allows no fewer than ten to be connected, and yes, I am told, adults with, say, two kids in tow often need that number. For me, I was merely delighted to have those proper books and a satellite copy of The Financial Times. We dined casually in the lobby lounge on seabass tartare with avocado, salmon and spinach and a glass of Head Over Heels Shiraz 2017 from Bob and Cherie Bertons’ eponymous Vineyards in Barossa Valley. Joseph Sampermans, who ate no meat or fish, shared his exploration of the “telomere effect” and “hacking of the American mind”, as well as “grain brain’ and “power foods for the brain”. Then, back down to earth, he said the luxury hotel, which already has free half-hourly boat shuttles to ICONsiam, is adding a six-seat electric tuk-tuk to go every 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. Life at The Peninsula Bangkok gets better all the time.