The Oriental Clientele

by wandering freditor / Aug 19, 2009 / 1 comments


If you are going to spend one night in Bangkok, then you don’t need to be a good chess player to know that staying at the Mandarin Oriental is a smart move. It is a hotel that is a bit like one of those French cars of the sixties, not much to look at, but boy, do they purr under the bonnet, and wow, are they ever comfortable! When it first opened its grande facade in 1876, most of its clientele arrived by boat on the sacred Chao Phraya river, and it epitomised everything that was luxurious in comfort and service. Today, standards have not slipped, and while most now arrive by car through a narrow little back-road and marvel at their ‘secret discovery’, the Oriental consistently remains among the top, if not the top hotel in the world. Its guest list is a veritable Who’s Who of global celebrity; royalty, Nobel prize-winners, politicians, authors, screen and stage stars, the most eminent of eminences, who return year after year after year, simply because there is no other hotel which offers such a combination of unobtrusive pampering and unabashed luxury. I am sure that it is often the sole reason to come visiting Bangkok! Go elsewhere at your peril for in later years, when you tally up your regrets, at the top of the list will be, “I came to Bangers, and I didn’t stay at the Oriental.”

The Oriental experience starts as soon as your car deposits you at the front door, when staff dressed like the cast of the King and I, men in baggy pantaloons, women in immaculate Thai silk dresses, bid you welcome with that wonderful Thai expression of wai, hands clasped together as in prayer. Then there is a little bow, and a huge smile that simply says, Welcome, you are home! You are immediately embraced by the bouquet of gardenia and frangipani, as though Coco Chanel is personally sitting up above it all, and scenting the warm tropical air – and that is even before you enter the flower filled foyer, in which the music from a string quartet greets your arrival. There is a lotus filled fountain and a huge bunch of flowers, of girth like a solid red-gum tree, rising up almost to the ceiling, like worshipers to the sun, a column of greens and colours. And huge wooden light covers, that hang from the ceiling like cathedral bells.  Everything is cool, restful and serene, the light is tempered, no-one rushes, and the air is chilled, but not as in other hotels where you feel like a side of beef entering a freezer. Even if your luggage is still at the airport, your taxi driver has ripped you off with his fare, or your whole body is leaking from tropical exposure, enter the bounds of the Oriental, and everything is immediately under control again. You simply feel unburdened. As the old song says, Leave your worries on the doorstep!



foyer, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok

The Foyer area of the Oriental Hotel

Now I can push my own lift buttons and open my own room door, and maybe it is a bit OTT to have someone do it, but it is all done with such gentle panache that it doesn’t seem intrusive. There was a gentleman at the lobby lifts, always with a dazzling smile on his face and a pleasant greeting to boot, who having established I was on the sixth floor, reached into the lift like an octopus, and without looking dab-handedly hit the sixth floor button. When, a day later, I told him I had moved to the ninth floor, he performed the feat again without looking, and I confess to being rather impressed. When I told him I had only been joking, he laughed and found six again as though he was David Copperfield, then said that the ‘floor butler’ on the ninth floor would get a surprise when no-one got out on that floor. We shared the joke during the rest of my stay, a friendly banter, a wonderful pinch of service, all with an air of professionalism, and not a hint of servility. All the staff were like that, confident and competent without that sometimes greasy feeling that they were “in it for tips”. That may well have been the case at the Oriental, but the level of service makes tipping a pleasure, for assistance was provided promptly and effectively, without the room service ‘hover’ that you find even in the best of hotels.

Like the foyer, the individual rooms give an aura of space and elegance, even though the bed alone looked like a small hockey field and the down in the plumped pillows must have cut a swathe through the Swedish goose population. The chairs and lounges were all invitingly low, as though meant for relaxing and reclining rather than simply a place to sit down. The walls were soft of colour, in shady olives and greens, with Thai paintings, in gold trim, that personified peace and serenity. Tasteful carpets that did not threaten you with grievous bodily harm, bowls with orchids growing in abundance, curtains that actually cast back the light. There were DVDs and CDs to allow you to set your mood, subtle but effective lighting so that you could actually read in bed, oodles of cupboard space, and choc-a-block with hangers which you could actually remove from the rail without having to be a fitter and turner to hang things again! The writing desk was most functional, with appointments and plug-ins which gives you excellent grounding for subsequently flying a jumbo jet. The switches and plugs are all in the right places, the bathroom, exquisite in marble, with his and hers basins, a shower space where you can swing a hammer, and two shower heads with water pressure that would be right at home in a decontamination unit. There was even a little ledge to sit on, in case you have had a hard night on the tiles, and just want to stay put and have a good hosing down. There was always a wonderful bowl of tropical fruits, mangos and mangosteens, rambutans, mandarins and bananas, and each evening a special little tray of delicacies, a fruit compote one night, a bottle of gazpacho and mini glasses the next. The tea-bags came perfectly tailored in little cloth pouches with drawstrings, both exotic herbals and the old Earl Grey. Everywhere, there is that little touch of “extra special” that makes the Oriental what it is, simply the best.  I loved coming down the corridor smelling of citronella, and back to my room, my own oasis of tranquillity, and the only complaint that I had was a perennial one that the conditioner was difficult to get out of those elegant little bottles and that the printing on them was done only for those with 20/20 vision! But for ever other problem, if ever one arose, the butler was only a button-push away.

Walk to your window and get an elevated view of the river of life, the Chao Praya, Bangkok’s brown and muddy aorta, a hundred and fifty metres wide in these parts. It is like opening an old fashioned pencil box and finding a myriad of shapes and colours. There are the pencil thin long tails, looking like barracuda, a thin raked bow at one end, a V-8 engine elevated on a five metre propeller shaft and a watery rooster tail behind, the Formula One’s of the river. Then there are pretty little boats with funnel and woodwork which look as though they have sailed straight from the set of The African Queen, bull-nosed bunters that shuttle across the river as ferries, packed to the gunwales with the urban throng, or school-children in uniform. There are hotel ferries, looking like a mini Noah’s Ark, to take guests to shopping malls or just across the river to the Oriental’s luxurious gym and spa complex, and ferries flying the flags of the Hilton, Sheraton, Peninsula and the Marriot, as well as the distinctive red, white, and blue Thai flag.  Little tugs pull two, three or four huge barges, which are girdled with enough old tyres to suggest that they have claimed the entire year’s production line at Bridgestone, and there are Police and Customs launches with look-down-their-nose bows, and officious looking officials on the decks. And bobbing on the waters, are green islands of water lilies or little cut-offs from coconut palms with bright orange flowers as an offering to the gods. While the traffic may lessen in the early morning hours, it never stops, and at night, the river looks lit up like Three Mile Island, with huge dinner cruisers that look as though they took a wrong turn from the Rhine.

How lucky are those cities that have a river setting, for we are all drawn to the water’s edge, and the life that it brings. Think of London, Paris, New York, Cairo, Rome, New Orleans, Sydney and Amsterdam, to name but a few. Bangkok is also in this Pantheon. Freud saw the attraction of water as a sexual thing, not that we all seek immersion, but like voyeurs and voyagers, we all like looking at the constantly changing scenery which a river frontage brings. And here, the Oriental has maximised its position with every room, and most of its restaurants, having a river setting or view. There is no need to bring a newspaper to breakfast, for the views and the sounds of growling, puttering and purring engines are all encompassing, and even the waiters and waitresses glide up to your table to down-load beautifully prepared and presented dishes. Eating on the riverside Verandah terrace is both a gastronomic and a visual delight. You are surrounded by the bustle of Bangkok, yet have it at arm’s length. And when your meal arrives, you realise that in the kitchens of the Oriental, culinary Rembrandts and Renoirs have been at work. There is simply no place for Jackson Pollack.

I wandered around the hotel, through its opulent arcades and the stylish array of pinkie-nail shops, and bought a small item in the Jim Thompson shop, fitting I thought, as the man who brought Thai silk to the world, had once owned part of the premises. There was the wonderful Author’s Wing with none of the mustiness of celebrity, all fresh and inviting with white rattan settings and soft green furnishings, bamboo and orchids, and enough fresh flowers to make me think I was in a pavilion at Kew Gardens. Each day, the hotel replaces over 500 orchids and thousands of other floral arrangements, just to ensure the guests are always surrounded by nature’s beauty. Here, Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Noel Coward had all stayed and written, and I grabbed my latest John Le Carre (another guest) novel and sank into a lovely soft chair, and just looked around. Two chairs away, an elderly lady was reading a Barbara Cartland novel, probably, like me, wallowing in the nostalgia of seeing what our respective authors would have seen when they too took the legendary afternoon “High Tea”. As I sipped, I felt their ghosts beside me, all Casperish and friendly. Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Charles and Princess Di, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Bush the Elder, and hundreds of other household names, who had all sat here. I wondered why Neil Armstrong had gone to the moon, when the Oriental had offered him a far more comfortable, out-of-this-world experience. Why, the man who served me my tea, in its Royal Doulton cup, did so with a white gloved hand. Had he acquired that from Michael Jackson when the King of Pop had stayed here?




Oriental Hotel, Bangkok

The Author’s Wing at the Oriental

With its gardens full of lush tropical growth, there are lots of little walkways with secret paths and contemplative benches. And so early one morning, like a latter-day Stanley, I discovered a swimming pool that looked as thought it was in an ancient Aztec forest. At this hour, not a soul was there, and I went to the pyramid of soft fluffy towels and selected one and put it on my sun-worshiping bed. From out of no-where, a man appeared with a small lemon scented towel and a glass of cold water, and then like a goblin, he was gone. I went into the pool, rippling its still waters, and saw that it was made up of thousands of tiny tiles of green and blue, and the shades in between. Here and there, were tiles of the brightest gold which reflected columns of light through the water. I was swimming above my own secret El Dorado, green and mysterious, but not in a threatening sort of way. Little bubbles came up from spots on the bottom, as though tiny crabs were watching an intruder in their world, and when I looked up at the end of a lap, I saw only a jungle canopy with verdant foliage and royal palms. In a distant overhang, a punkah-wallah fan turned lazily to stir the air, and I made a mental note to return later in the day, for Pimms and maybe a cucumber sandwich.

On my last night in Bangkok I wandered again towards the river’s edge, drawn by the lights in the velvety night and the reflections in the water. In the cigar bar, with a huge Andy Warhol-type poster in the window, of the Godfather, Marlon Brando, brandishing a cigar, sat men with smouldering Havanas, their hands as steady as a surgeon so as not to disturb the ash, and enjoyed a pleasure which is increasingly restricted. The door of the famous Bamboo Bar opened slightly, and a bluesy riff rolled out while people sat on barstools and drank cocktails. Everything looked so inviting and cool that it was hard not to relax. Beyond the confines of the Oriental, there is an urban jungle out there, the frantic and frenetic city that makes Bangers a “must see” capital. But if you do get the chance to visit, make certain it is from the comfort of the Oriental, and then, for sure, you will never forget your one, or many, nights in Bangkok. It is just that sort of a place!           

Photos courtesy and copyright of Winfred Peppinck.


Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor Editor for Wandering Educators


Comments (1)

Leave a comment