Sightseeing is OK, but you get a warm, fuzzy feeling when the hotel operator calls you by name. You can't wait to wake up in the morning for room-service breakfast and sleep better at night in ironed Egyptian cotton sheets. You'd never break into your 401(k) to stay at a famous luxury hotel -- Four Seasons George V in Paris, say, or Burj Al Arab in Dubai -- but that doesn't mean you don't dream about it.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bangkok hotel: A photo caption accompanying Sunday's Travel section story about Bangkok hotels described a photo as showing guests by a swimming pool at the Shangri-La Hotel. The pool pictured is on the roof of the Buddy Lodge on Khaosan Road. —
I was dreaming about it a few months ago while flipping through the issue of Condé Nast Traveler magazine that featured the results of a reader poll on the world's best hotels. The Asia list caught my attention. Eight of the highest-rated hotels were in Bangkok, second only to Hong Kong, which had nine places that rated five stars.
On a lark, I priced rooms in both places. At the time, the least expensive double at the fabled Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong cost $552 a night; in Bangkok, the Peninsula was $275. The Four Seasons in Hong Kong? $514. But in Bangkok? $281.
In every case, the rates for five-star hotels in Bangkok were substantially lower than in Hong Kong and sometimes on par with those at three- and four-star hotels in New York and London.
So, how good could places in Bangkok be?
Late last year, I went there to assess. Here's what I found.
THE PENINSULA BANGKOK
Apparently, the taxi driver who picked me up at Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport didn't focus on the address I gave him, because when we approached the Peninsula he said, "Oh, wow, you booked here?"
The Peninsula Bangkok, part of an elite hotel chain with headquarters in Hong Kong, is housed in a skyscraper that looks unimpressive when you approach by car. That's because the automobile entrance is at the back door; the hotel actually fronts on the Chao Phraya River, with two low wings on either side of the main building. An alfresco cafe and orchid-festooned Thai restaurant face the waterfront, along with a pier.
From there, guests who want to sightsee are carried to the busier east side of the river by a fleet of elegant hotel barges.
When I arrived, the Peninsula's liveried doormen pressed their palms together, bowed, then took my luggage. A front-desk clerk gave me a little loop of jasmine and walked me to my room on the eighth floor, where my bags soon magically reappeared.
The room had a sitting area, desk and plush bed with a console of switches like something at Cape Canaveral for operating the lights, TV, air conditioning and draperies. At the far end of the room were a sliding glass door opening onto a balcony above the river and the entrance to the changing room and bathroom.
The décor was tasteful but muted, with a few Thai accents including celadon vases, but nothing flashy. It reminded me of a family friend's Upper East Side apartment, the same building where Jackie Kennedy Onassis lived.
I had an aromatherapy massage at the ESPA Spa, the Peninsula's only false note. It shares congested locker rooms with the health club. And although the massage was good, I must have slipped between the cracks because the masseuse was 30 minutes late.
Afterward, I dined at the riverfront Thiptara restaurant, beginning with a delectable shrimp and grapefruit salad, followed by barbecued chicken in coconut sweet-and-sour sauce.
When I woke up the next day, I had only to reach for the console by the bed to open the drapes, revealing the morning show on the Chao Phraya, plied by long, low cargo barges, high-speed motorboats, lumbering water taxis and hotel ferries.
The room-service waiter who brought me breakfast didn't just roll in the trolley, he also volunteered to bring me hot water and lemon when I told him I had a cold.
At the three-tiered swimming pool -- my favorite in Bangkok, with peak-roofed, wooden lounging cabanas that have ceiling fans and Thai murals -- an attendant asked whether I wanted the sun or shade and how long I planned to stay. Then he chose a chaise positioned according to my preferences, factoring in the changing angle of the sun.
In the end, the Peninsula reminded me of why I dream about staying at luxury hotels. It's the craving for a place where everything is in perfect working order -- sort of the way I envision heaven.
THE ORIENTAL BANGKOK
The Peninsula and the Oriental gaze jealously across the river at each other. They are similar, but the Oriental has something the Peninsula doesn't: history.
The Oriental was established in 1876, about the time Anna was waltzing with the king of Siam, and in the ensuing years, the hotel earned a reputation as one of the world's best. It was especially popular with the English-writer crowd that included Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Noël Coward.
Nothing remains of the original colonnaded Italian Renaissance Revival building. But if you walk through the glitzy contemporary lobby, you end up in the Authors' Lounge on the first floor of the restored oldest wing of the hotel, a yellow and green-trimmed colonial-style building that dates to 1887.
With its potted bamboo, white wicker and vintage photos of Thai royalty, the Authors' Lounge is a divine place for high tea.
The traditional afternoon set begins with a little scoop of green lime and gin sorbet, followed by a three-tiered silver serving tray full of delights: miniature scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, salmon and cucumber finger sandwiches, shortbread cookies, English fruitcake, berry tartlets.
After tea, I went to my room on the 15th floor. At 430 square feet, it wasn't as spacious as the one at the Peninsula and its view wasn't as nice. But it was more elaborately decorated with silk pillows, Thai paintings and other traditional crafts.
Shortly after I walked in, a butler appeared and asked whether he could unpack my things. I declined, embarrassed by my ratty clothes.
When I went out to explore, I found Bangkok's old Assumption Cathedral, the French Embassy and handsomely restored O.P. Place shopping center on the same alleyway as the hotel. There was more street life than on the Peninsula side of the river: fruit stands, silk shops, tailors, Thai tourists wearing yellow polo shirts to honor the king and a queue of tuk-tuk tricycle taxis whose motors sputtered.
Even in the cooler month of December, Bangkok is like a perpetual hot flash, so I retreated to the Oriental's infinity lounging pool. Together with a 25-meter lap pool, it is cupped in the garden on the river side of the hotel.
Nearby, guests catch hotel ferries that cross the Chao Phraya to the Oriental's lovely garden annex, where there is a full range of resort facilities: a health club with tennis courts, a jogging track and yoga classes, a Thai restaurant and dance theater, beautifully appointed cooking school and sumptuous spa.
My flawlessly executed body wrap started with a tamarind-honey scrub and sesame-milk mask.
The unguents made me hungry, so I recrossed the river and took a table at the Riverside Terrace, which serves a lavish dinner barbecue buffet for about $70 a person. There were salads, Arabic meze, a made-to-order sushi station and tandoori oven. Chefs grilled prawns and crab and carved a big joint of roast lamb. I ate as much as I could, eyed a chocolate profiterole but gave it up.
When I returned to my room, my bed had been turned down. A bookmark, placed on my pillow, bore a quote from Somerset Maugham: "Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of habit."
Tourists passing through Bangkok may be happiest in a hotel by the delightful Chao Phraya. But for high rollers who want to be closer to the city's business districts, there is the Sukhothai.
The standard room I had reserved wasn't available, the front-desk clerk told me, so I was upgraded to an executive suite that had two bathrooms, a living room and a desk with an Internet port, fax machine, speed dials on the phone for Sprint and MCI and a drawer full of office supplies.
Sitting there like the chairman of the board, I looked past the sitting area to a 32-inch flat-screen TV that swiveled 360 degrees, meaning I could watch "CSI: Miami" reruns from my workstation or from the regally appointed, achingly comfortable king-size bed beyond.
The décor was all cinnamon-colored wood and silk in bronze and olive green, mirrored panels I kept walking into and beautiful Thai terra-cotta reliefs. Everything was cool, masculine and powerful, right down to the bathroom's extra-long tub, tapered at head and foot, with a headrest, golden taps out of which water gushed and a little rubber ducky to unlock the child in the chief executive.
Rooms at the Sukhothai are set around a water garden off the lobby and shopping arcade. When I went exploring along a maze of corridors, I found pacific reflecting pools decorated with Southeast Asian statuary and a lobby bar lined by old Thai temple doors. There's a Sotheby's on the second floor, a swimming pool, a smallish health club and a new spa where a pedicurist used a bamboo fan to dry my freshly polished toenails.
But the Sukhothai's best amenity is its Celadon restaurant, ensconced in a handsome, low building surrounded by lotus pools.
I sat by the window studying a menu that was filled with impossible-sounding combinations I wanted to try (deep-fried cotton fish with green mango). I chose blue crab in curry sauce with saffron rice. Businessmen at the next table were enjoying their meals while discussing mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures.
THE FOUR SEASONS BANGKOK
I had high expectations for the next hotel because I had visited the Four Seasons Chiang Mai last spring and found it blissful. But the Four Seasons Bangkok is a city hotel without the magic of the northern Thai hill country.
Its magisterial entrance, bordered by statues of kneeling elephants, is across from the Royal Bangkok Sports Club on wide Rajadamri Road, canopied by the elevated light railroad, or Skytrain. It's convenient to shopping centers and other international hotels, including the InterContinental and Grand Hyatt.
The clerks at registration spoke perfect business English, without the shyness and hesitance that characterized the service at the Peninsula. Together with the information desk for people on Princess Cruises, I felt as though I was in a big, impersonal Western chain hotel, albeit a ritzy one.
The high-ceilinged white lobby with marble balustrades around the mezzanine and a combo playing old Western standards seemed an irresistible place to lay down my shopping bags and order a Maker's Mark Manhattan on the rocks with a twist of lemon. The waitress said they didn't have Maker's Mark, so I had to make do with a Belvedere martini.
Again I was upgraded -- though I did not identify myself as a travel writer -- from a standard to a deluxe room off a corridor running around one of the hotel's courtyards. It had a rich wood-lined entryway and an inviting king-size bed with a Thai mural for a headboard and a blood-red silk runner -- nice but not distinctive.
I caught some late-afternoon sun at the large, rectangular pool in a manicured enclave at the back of the hotel, then had a 60-minute Thai massage in the health club for about $40. The 90-minute version offered at the spa cost about $100.
The regimen started with a stint in the club's lemon grass-scented steam room, followed by the kind of massage you can't get anywhere but in Thailand. A petite body worker, poised on the table, did things to my lower back that I could feel in my fingers.
Dinner in the hotel's Spice Market restaurant followed. It was a Thai classic starting with beef, chicken and shrimp satay. Then I dived into the dish of pad Thai I had been craving since I arrived in Bangkok. It was excellent.
Afterward, I slept like a baby, although the next morning I was disappointed to have to choose between juice and fresh fruit when ordering the continental room-service breakfast.
THE SHANGRI-LA HOTEL
At places like these you get spoiled, critical and demanding, even when you know you're getting a good deal, as I was at the Shangri-La, where my double cost $195, a little more than half the price at the Oriental.
Nevertheless, I glared at the front-desk clerk when she told me the only available nonsmoking room on a high floor had two queen beds instead of a king. The décor was generic, and the bath was just a bath, with no luxurious features. A sign said if I wanted a makeup mirror, I would have to call housekeeping.
The Shangri-La is in a pair of high-rise buildings on the east side of the river, near the Oriental. A portrait of Thailand's king encased in bright gold greets guests in the lobby, which is huge and busy, with the air of a convention hotel.
If you went straight to your room and didn't look around, you wouldn't know that the far building, reached by a long, curving shopping arcade, is much more luxurious than the main one. The Krungthep Wing, as it's called, has its own bucolic swimming pool and Chi Spa, where I had a dreamy facial.
By dinner time, I was feeling less fussy and a meal in the riverside Salathip restaurant further improved my mood. The restaurant is set in a traditional wooden building surrounded by romantic verandas where guests watch breathtakingly costumed Thai dancers perform between courses -- in my case, prawn with chili dip to start, followed by peppery sautéed duck.
The next morning by the pool, reality sank in, partly because my last five-star day in Bangkok had dawned, and because I started talking to an English couple living in Shanghai. They loved the Shangri-La and always spent Christmas holidays here. You just can't beat it for the price, they said.
The price. Now I remember. It has to do with that thing you must pay when you check out.
When I looked at it that way, the Shangri-La rose to the top.
Actually, when I looked at it that way, all of Bangkok did.