Beds are one of Bangkok’s strengths. The Big Mango has long excelled at grand hotels, with some of the best value luxury rooms in the world even earning splurges from those on a budget.
When the likes of Joseph Conrad steamed in a century ago there was only one place to stay: the Mandarin Oriental. It has been joined by others along the river and up the business district of Bangrak to Siam and Sukhumvit. Grand hotels are social city institutions, too, notably with regard to haute cuisine (see Five star food below), rooftop skyscraper bars (see 20 great things to do in Bangkok) and destination spas (see Spa hotels below).
For people with less money, there are guesthouse options spread from the traveller ghetto of Banglamphu, and its extension up Samsen to the original traveller’s hub, Soi Ngam Duphlee/Soi Sri Bumphen, which is now more a place for long-term stayers, who enjoy its frisson and tolerance for night guests.
The boutique hotel boom has transformed the mid-range, which was dowdy and limited to blocks, inns above tailors around Nana, or faded, no-frills, no-smiles Chinese hotels. Now all manner of compact hotels offer quirky surroundings, artist-commissioned decor, minimalist chic or comforting ambiences. The trend for converting old buildings has greatly broadened choice near the major sights.
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The gap between boutique hotel and youth hostel is being filled by a rise in hostels with a sense of style that bring designer decor, free Wi-Fi and air-con to budget bunking. Exemplifying this trend, Lub-D couples minimal furnishings with colourful, hi-tech amenities. Room types vary from private en-suite doubles to shared dorms for 8 people. Guests get their own reading lights, power sockets and safety boxes, but communal bathrooms.
Train Inn echoes that functional-and-fun aesthetic. Inspired by nearby Hualumphong Station, it splits no-frills lodging into three cabin classes. Some hostels, like Take-a-Nap, also offer ‘sleeping rooms’ with a family-style array of king-size and single beds. Most dorms offer stowage space underneath beds, while some can store bags for a limited time.
Hostels function as online/offline hubs for travellers. They’re more social than many guesthouses and English-fluent staff happily share insider tips on the city. See the growing choice of budget lodgings at www.hostelworld.com.
Among hostelesque guesthouses, the semi-wooden Baan Hualampong has a dorm with a traditional ambience. The courageous can share the 8-bed ‘love shack’ of bamboo and thatch at the inimitable Phiman Water View ‘art guesthouse’. A measure of how the categories blur, Baan Dinso bills itself as a ‘boutique hostel’.
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Bangkok’s hotels are home to some of Asia’s most luxurious destination spas. Local therapies apply native healing traditions to release blocked energy, relieve sore muscles and stimulate the circulation and respiration.
Bangrak is home to the best of them, many by the river. You are literally transported to another realm on the Mandarin Oriental ferry to the Oriental Spa. Evoking the interior of a Thai teak house, the spa provides classic Thai therapies along with Turkish Rassoul steam and Moorish mud wraps. An Ayurvedic doctor supervises the penthouse devoted to ancient Indian treatments.
Next door, the name Shangri-La, the mythical, age-defying Himalayan kingdom, inspired the theme of Chi Spa. Amid vast, meditative spaces and medicine shop motifs, Tibetan and Chinese treatments are prescribed based on your particular Chinese element. Look for specialities such as a Tsampa (Tibetan barley flour) body scrub and Tibetan chimes for chakra clearing.
Opposite, the Peninsula built its Spa in a lovely garden building reassembled from old northern Thai houses. Oozing luxury in treatments, service and style, it encompasses classic Asian and European therapies. One highlight is the relaxation room with chaise longues equipped with iPods and mags.
The airy pampering rooms overlooking the garden courtyard at the downtown Dusit Thani are named after the mythical Thai garden of heaven. Devarana Spa builds upon its Thai holistic repertoire with more unusual treats like Indian head massage using medicated oil, and creative body indulgences using ingredients like chocolate.
Nearby, the Metropolitan maintains its contemporary minimalist aesthetic at Shambala Spa, with Spartan, white-on-white treatment rooms. Offering just a handful of purist treatments, the emphasis is on quality, not quantity or novelty. In-house Shambala home-spa products make a popular souvenir or gift.
Dining in the confines of a hotel, in other cities, evokes all the cachet of a buffet. Not so at Bangkok’s hotel eateries, where bright culinary stars cook some of the city’s most rarified food.
No visit to the city is complete without strolling through Bangkok’s original ‘Grand Hotel’, the Mandarin Oriental.
Dress smart casual for riverside cocktails, or dress up for elevated experiences like Le Normandie, an ode to a bygone, Escoffier-inspired era, or high tea in the fabled, white-wicker Author’s Lounge.
Just downstream, the Shangri-La, offers Angelini, a cavernous Italian restaurant that showcases seafood, pizzas and wine, or Sala Thai, refurbished teak pavilions serving Thai classics by the river. Across the Chao Phraya, the Peninsula serves premium Cantonese at Mei Jiang, Pacific rim fusion in Jesters and a spa sub-menu in the villagey Thai eatery Thip Tara.
Somewhat sexier, the Metropolitan shakes chic cocktails at the Met Bar, a branch of the London legend. Nearby, atop the Dusit Thani, retro architecture meets modern French cuisine at D’Sens (p100), which is an offshoot of the Michelin-starred Pourcel brothers’ fine dining empire.
Sunday brunch is an institution. The Sukhothai is as famed for its chocolate and champagne at the Colonnade as for its much-awarded haute-Thai restaurant Celadon, elegantly poised in pond pavilions. The Sheraton Grande started a trend for multi-outlet Sunday brunch, involving Rossini, a baronial-style Italian, and Basil, a suave setting for modern Thai delicacies. The Four Seasons also spreads its buffet between slick steakhouse Madison, sedate courtyard café Aqua, and the Spice Market, which resembles an old Siamese bazaar.
All river hotels have shuttle boats, but you get a lengthy cruise to the JW Marriott Bangkok for the jazz brunch at Trader Vic’s. It also runs the pick of hotel dinner cruises aboard its converted teak rice barge, Manohra Song.
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Single rooms can often sleep two, while doubles may have two double beds. Some beds could even sleep three. So ask to view rooms first.
In guesthouses and cheap Chinese hotels, rates can vary widely by the room’s size, or whether it has a fan or air-conditioning, and en suite or shared bathrooms.
We rate hotels by price for a standard double room: Deluxe, from B7,000, Expensive, B3,500-B6,999, Mid-range, B1,200-B3,499 and Budget, under B1,200. Rates given are for high season (November-March), but off-season discounts can be huge. Given Thailand’s recent travails and a glut of swish new openings, getting a deal is easier than ever.
Big hotels add service and VAT (known as ‘plus plus’ or ‘++’). All hotels included in our guide have air-conditioning, unless we mention fan-cooled rooms. Thailand’s ban on smoking in all public buildings includes hotels, but permits hotels to have some guest rooms that allow smoking. Bangkok has a habit of snaring visitors, and if you decide to stay longer, monthly rates start as low as B10,000, with studios and apartments from B13,000. At the other extreme, discreet motels charge by the hour.
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Booking in advance avoids traipsing around suitcase-unfriendly Bangkok streets. The better hotels fill up at busy times, but you should always be able to find a room. Rates at major hotels may be higher if booked within Thailand.
The Thailand Hotels Association (www.thaihotels.org) provides information and reservations, and has a stall at the airport. Other good online booking sites are www.asia-hotels.com/thailand, www.asiarooms.com, www.hotelthailand.com, www.sawadee.com and www.tripadvisor.com. For hostels run to IYHA standards, contact the Thai Youth Hostels Association (0 2628 7415, www.tyha.org) and check www.hostelworld.com, which also lists good guesthouses.
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