Jewel of the Orient

Nearly 150 years old and still stealing hearts.

An enduring oasis of calm and elegance in a city that never rests, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is coming up on 150 years and still comfortably occupies a place as one of the greatest hotels in the world.

James McRory

28 September, 2023

... an oasis of calm and elegance in the frenetic city of nearly 11 million people – quietly reinventing herself at regular intervals along the way to remain at the very cutting edge of modern, luxury hotels

Queen of the romance novel Barbara Cartland, called it ‘the most glamorous hotel in the world’ while fellow author Graham Greene, said it was a ‘hotel where almost anything may happen and one may meet anybody from a mere author to an international crook on his way to elsewhere’. The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, which started life as The Oriental back in 1876, has hosted a veritable Who’s Who of famous authors in its 147 years, as well as heads of state, countless celebrities and no doubt its fair share of ‘international crooks’ as well.

Yet with the better part of one and a half centuries under her belt, she remains an oasis of calm and elegance in the frenetic city of nearly 11 million people. Quietly reinventing herself at regular intervals along the way to remain at the very cutting edge of modern, luxury hotels, but without losing any of her charm and the history which simply can never be matched by even the most modern gleaming tower.

There is an undeniable excitement that constantly emanates from Bangkok – a promise that anything is possible – and as such an intrinsic part of the city, the Mandarin Oriental likewise conducts that energy. It’s not hard to see why so many literary luminaries have been drawn to this special place and have drawn inspiration from her over the years and now they too have become part of the place – literally.

Special suites are named for just some of the many authors who have stayed here over the many years. The aforementioned Dame Barbara Cartland and Grahame Greene have suites named in their honour, as does Wilbur Smith, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. John Le Carre’ finished The Honourable Schoolboy while staying at the Mandarin Oriental and also has a suite named after him, while the likes of Ian Fleming, James Michener and Norman Mailer have all enjoyed the charms and hospitality of Thailand’s first luxury hotel.

Indeed, what was originally the hotel proper is now the Authors’ wing, containing a reading room off the Author’s Lounge named after Noël Coward – the walls adorned with photographs of many famous guests to have stayed at one time or another.

Perched on the edge of the bustling Chao Phraya River, it’s no stretch to see why so many have been and continue to be inspired by this place. Despite numerous changes and modifications over the years, the hotel is by no means the largest in this salubrious location, surrounded as it is by some of the most impressive names in modern luxury hotels. In fact the largest and most recent renovation conducted over 10 months in 2019 at a cost of US$90 million actually reduced the number of rooms to its present 331. Many of the rooms in the River Wing were combined to create more suites with their commanding views over the Chao Phraya, while the famous lobby was reimagined by renowned designer Jeffrey Wilkes and given a new more contemporary look, yet without radically changing her design. Softly does it at Mandarin Oriental.

Perched on the edge of the bustling Chao Phraya River, its location alone is inspirational

Bangkok's first-ever jazz bar, the Bamboo Bar, celebrates its 70th anniversary from next month

This flows out to lush gardens surrounding the largest of two pools and edges the walkway that takes guests past the cigar lounge and the famous Bamboo Bar and on to a second pool. Further along is The Verandah and Riverside Terrace which offer guests front row seats to the never ending show on the river while they dine on delicacies from around the globe for lunch and dinner or enjoy possibly the most comprehensive breakfast buffet even assembled.

The Bamboo Bar which hosts live music in its elegant, clubby interior has the distinction of being the first jazz bar to open in the city and will celebrate its 70th anniversary from next month. As part of the celebrations, some of the top bartenders from all over the world have been invited to come and create their own take on famous cocktails from each of the seven decades.

It’s just another in a very long list of firsts that the Mandarin Oriental holds – hardly surprising given its long history that predates cars in the city, with the original guests arriving by horse-drawn carriages or by boat from the river. She was the first hotel in Thailand to get electricity back in 1891 – an unbelievable luxury at the time.

The river of course still offers a gateway, with the hotel’s private Teak launches shuttling guests across the river to the city’s newest and largest luxury shopping precinct, IconSiam, as well as to the nearest Sky train station or directly across the river to the hotel’s extensive fitness facilities, three more restaurants and The Oriental Spa.

Here, at this secondary location just across the river from the main hotel, a faithfully restored teakwood guesthouse was reimagined as a spa in 1993 – the city’s first in a hotel– and is the only spa in Thailand to have been awarded five stars by Forbes Travel Guide. Within these calming walls, any lingering tensions not already alleviated by staying at the Mandarin Oriental in the first place will be banished by any number of luxurious spa treatments on offer. After an hour at The Oriental Spa, if you were any more relaxed, frankly you’d be decomposing!

Nearby, the Fitness & Wellness Centre features a state-of-the-art gym for those feeling the need to pay some form of physical penance for enjoying such luxurious surrounds. There are also tennis courts as well as an aerobics studio and even a Muay Thai boxing studio with classes run for hotel guests by a former national Muay Thai champion. 

Those with a more spiritual hankering are likewise well catered for, with daily yoga classes and even the opportunity to take part in the daily alms giving to local monks.

This secondary location also plays hosts to the hotel’s two Thai restaurants (a third operates here only in the cooler climes), with one, the Sala Rim Naam, the first restaurant in Bangkok to present Thai as fine dining.

And fine dining, as you would expect is yet another of the hotel’s great strengths right across the board. 

After an hour at The Oriental Spa, if you were any more relaxed, frankly you’d be decomposing.

Viewed from this location on a hot humid evening with a dry storm brewing, it is the very embodiment of this vibrant Asian city

With no less than nine restaurants ranging from the two-Michelin-starred French restaurant, Le Normandie, sitting atop the Author’s Wing, to Lord Jim’s – named after Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel – cuisines ranging from Thai to Japanese, French to Italian and everything in between, are all offered to delight the most demanding gourmand. 

Each restaurant brings its own ambience to match its culinary speciality, though it would be hard to think of a better representation of the city and indeed the hotel than dining alfresco at The Verandah at night.  

Viewed from this location on a hot humid evening with a dry storm brewing, it is the very embodiment of this vibrant Asian city that is constantly on the move, with its myriad barges and colourful boats jostling for position as they head up and down the river,

As if on cue fireworks explode in the air above the river along with an even more spectacular lightening show and it would be no stretch to think that this too was a perfectly orchestrated touch from the hotel, such is the extraordinary level of attention to detail.

With a staff-to-guest ratio of four to one, it comes as no surprise that service is without peer, yet it remains, like the hotel itself, quiet and unassuming. From the moment the doors into the sumptuous lobby are opened for you, to the 24-hour butler service available to every room and suite at the press of a button, nothing is ever too much trouble.

Much has changed since the Oriental opened its doors in 1876, but its not hard to see why the Mandarin Oriental has continued to delight and inspire not just the literati but countless other guests over its 147 years. Its inclusion in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Hotels likewise seems like par for the course as it has moved with the times while retaining its priceless link with the past.

The Mandarin Oriental is still a haven for travellers to Bangkok, but it would be interesting to see what some of her earliest guests would make of the current iteration. The Quiet American author, Graham Greene, said of the hotel that he had very happy memories of his numerous stays, though in the early days ‘it was impossible to sit outside in the evening because of the mosquitos and room with a bath meant a barrel on the balcony and a bucket to pour water over oneself’.

But he went on to say that ‘this was all part of the atmosphere of The Oriental and I hope that its character has not changed with all the modern improvements’.

Greene needn’t have worried – right along with its world-class facilities, service and restaurants, the hotel’s atmosphere and character remain very much intact.

... its inclusion in the top 10 of The World's 50 Best Hotels seems almost a formality