Some say that Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental is the most overrated hotel in the world. The rest of the world, however, simply says it's the best. It is, after all, the most famous of the splendid colonial hotels. And the most famous of the splendid colonial writers, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and W Somerset Maugham used to sleep here. The posh set of yesteryear — Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Noël Coward — wouldn't think of staying anywhere else. Certainly, the original Mandarin Oriental building gives you a real flavor of those old days. It is startlingly beautiful — ceiling fans, carved balconies thick with climbing jasmine, old fashioned shuttered windows, intricately decorated four-poster beds, and textured walls. Everywhere is suffused with the scent of tropical flowers. And you're leaning lyrically close to the Chao Praya river, a watery thoroughfare bustling with barges and motorboats.
The historic building is considerably smaller than the modern addition, where the rooms, though nice and possibly more comfortable, are rather standard. Meanwhile, the nearby shopping arcade seriously compromises the romantic atmosphere. As does the clientèle, largely middle-aged tourists and expatriate businessmen on holiday.
Nonetheless, breakfast on the Mandarin Oriental's terrace is a Bangkok must. And dinner at the restaurant, Sala Rim Naan, to which you must take a ferry, will restore your faith in the sentimental. Nice, old-fashioned touches abound, from the blue striped pouches that house your shoes to your laundry, which comes back packaged beautifully and topped with an orchid. Then there's the staff, who are Southeast Asian perfection — smiling, sweet-faced, and attentive, and you have your very own butler round the clock.
Bangkok wouldn't be Bangkok without a touch of garish nightlife, and at the Mandarin, they do it so well, with an archetypally unhip piano bar. The best touch, however, is the selection of cocktails named after writers. So don your white shantung, watch the river traffic, and order a Gore Vidal at the bar, drinking him in slowly to avoid the bitter sting. Truly, this is literary appreciation at its most luxuriant.