When Edmund Jenkins visited Bangkok recently, he knew he had to stay at the Mandarin Oriental.
“It’s an icon of luxury and sophistication,” says Jenkins, who runs a German tour company.
Sure, rates start at $470 a night at the historic hotel, but he says it’s worth the money. The staff is extra attentive, the facilities are first-rate, and the recent upgrades, such as a new wellness center and spa, make it a must-visit resort.
“There’s also a state-of-the-art fitness studio where you can maintain your fitness regime while enjoying panoramic views of the river,” he says.
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok also has two Michelin-starred restaurants and an authentic Thai dining experience with a cultural dance presentation that draws visitors from around the world.
Oh, and it also has a little competition.
The Mandarin Oriental has ruled Bangkok’s hotel scene for more than a century as the city’s standard-bearer for luxury. But new upscale hotels have come on the scene lately, and there are about to be even more. Several high-end properties are under development in Bangkok that could cement the city’s reputation for luxury accommodations.
What’s new with Bangkok’s luxury hotels?
- The new Fairmont Bangkok Sukhumvit is scheduled to open next year (rebranded from the Grand Mercure Bangkok Windsor) in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district. In keeping with Fairmont’s luxury concept, it will feature several specialty restaurants and bars, a rooftop bar, a swimming pool, a fitness center, a spa and wellness center.
- Rong Phasi Roi Chak Sam, which will transform the old Custom House next to the Mandarin Oriental into a luxury hotel, is expected to be completed next year, according to the developer. The new hotel will reportedly also offer function rooms, meeting rooms, and restaurants.
- The new Grand Nikko Bangkok Sathorn, the latest property from the Hotel Okura Group, is expected to open in 2025. The new property is located in the Sathorn district, an area known for its expats and embassies. It will have 405 guest rooms, an all-day dining facility, a teppanyaki restaurant and a restaurant serving general Japanese cuisine.
Bangkok’s hotels are part of a transformation
Bangkok’s hotel scene started to undergo a massive transformation in 2018, according to observers. That’s when developers began to realize that there was an appetite for more luxury accommodation and meeting spaces in the Thai capital. At the same time, it began to shed its image as a backpacker’s paradise as budget travelers moved to other cities in Thailand, such as Phuket and Chiang Mai.
That led to a boom in luxury hotel developments, which included projects by Anantara, Four Seasons, Capella and independent upscale properties like The Siam. The focal point for these resorts was the riverfront, but luxury hotel developers did not limit themselves to that popular area.
There’s also a lot of variety, say lodging insiders.
“Some of the luxury hotels, you go there to be seen,” explains Nick Downing, general manager of The Siam, a boutique luxury property on the river. “Others will offer a more private experience.”
Hotel experts say there have been two waves of luxury hotel development. One started before the pandemic and included some of the new properties I featured in my story about Bangkok’s latest luxury properties. Some of them opened just as the world started to shut down, so they are now regaining their momentum.
A second post-pandemic wave of new luxury hotels, set to open in 2024 and 2025, is starting to come into view. And many Bangkok hotel insiders are wondering how the market will respond. Are there enough luxury hotel rooms? Too many? And how will this affect the incumbents?
A careful renovation at the Mandarin Oriental
The Mandarin Oriental was part of the first wave, having undergone a 10-month renovation project that was announced in 2018. The project enlarged the guest rooms, reducing their number from 338 to 301, but adding 16 new suites. Every room has a view of the Chao Phraya River. The property wanted to stay true to its heritage as the very first Oriental Hotel, according to Patty Lerdwittayaskul, a spokeswoman for the hotel.
“We told the designer, Jeffrey Wilkes, please don’t make this look like a new hotel,” she adds. “We have a lot of regular guests and fans, and they’ve been here since they were young. We don’t want them to come back and feel like this is a new hotel.”
They needn’t have worried. The new Mandarin Oriental stands in sharp contrast to the new luxury hotels in Bangkok. Its original building, opened in 1876, is a carefully preserved landmark that welcomed renowned writers such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Wilbur Smith when they visited Bangkok. And the Mandarin Oriental is divided by the river, with the main hotel on one side and the spa and several restaurants on the other. A private teakwood shuttle ferries guests across the river and to the new Iconsiam shopping megaplex.
Just next to the hotel side of the Mandarin Oriental, is the Customs House, one of the new luxury hotels under construction. The Mandarin seems unconcerned about the project, and with good reason.
When it comes to creating a leading luxury hotel, a new building or a renovation is a good start. The Mandarin Oriental sets itself apart from other newcomers with its traditions (like afternoon tea) and a well-trained staff that makes guests feel as welcome as if they were staying with family. On a tour of the property, the staff greet visitors with a genuine hello and a smile. They are attentive without being overbearing or making you feel awkward. That’s something that takes years to develop, and some luxury hotels never quite manage to pull it off.
For the newcomers, getting to that point may be the real challenge.
The outlook for luxury hotels in Bangkok
A decade ago, a discerning visitor to Bangkok had only a few real choices for luxury accommodations. But today, there are plenty of interesting options, and not just along the river. In the next two years, Bangkok will welcome even more luxury properties, which could fundamentally change the city’s reputation as a destination for budget travelers.
The question is, will these new hotels become havens of tranquility in a city that is still known for its next-level traffic and infrastructure challenges? Or will these new developments lead to more modernization and improvements, altering the essential character of Bangkok? We’re still years, perhaps decades, away from the answer.
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