Get the most Bangkok for your buck

Chicago Tribune

Standard rates for a room at the Peninsula in Beverly Hills start around $350 a night. Pricey, but not surprising, given that it's one of Southern California's finest hotels.

What would you say if you could get a room at the Peninsula for $160? What if I threw in all-you-can-eat breakfasts from a spectacular international buffet? Or offered to take those scruffy shoes you left outside the door at night and bring them back the next morning, looking like new, no extra charge?

What if I promised push-button curtains on the windows? A five-disc CD changer? A soak in a bathtub with a built-in color TV above the spigot?

Ready to check in? There's a catch. You have to go to Bangkok.

Thailand's economic boom of the early '90s hit a snag in '97, when the value of the Thai baht, no longer pegged to the U.S. dollar, plummeted by as much as 78% against our currency. Much of the Far East and Southeast Asia slumped as well -- a slump that lingers -- but certain segments of the Thai economy were particularly affected.

Hotels were one of them.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the resulting downturn in travel, combined with sluggish economies in the West and Japan, have delayed the market's recovery. Bad news for Bangkok. Opportunity for you.

Some travelers may be uncomfortable taking advantage of other people's crises. Call it the I Won't Be a Vulture Syndrome. But think of it this way: If you don't show up, rooms go empty, jobs are lost and hotels close.

Before arriving in Bangkok, I shopped the Web, keying on eight hotels -- seven luxury properties and one popular low-cost place. Though many travelers want to save money these days, I focused on high-end lodgings because Bangkok, more than almost any other major city in the world, enables the average traveler to afford luxury. It seems that 432,691 Web sites purportedly sell discounted Bangkok rooms, and no, not all were checked for this story. In the end, I did find low prices -- the lowest of which were usually on the hotels' own sites. Occasionally those rates were matched by an outside company, but not often.

At the Sukhothai, the standard published price, also called the rack rate, for a double room is $260. Two discount sites (including Expedia) offered rooms for $199. The Sukhothai's site listed a promotional rate of $145.

The least expensive room at the near-legendary Oriental was $269, only $31 less than the rack rate. Despite pleas from this expert pleader, who used all the flattery in his quiver at the front desk, the Oriental would not offer a larger discount. I didn't spend a night there (I settled for a tour), but I did sleep at the rest.

One tip: If a hotel Web site says a promotion is ending soon before your visit, send an e-mail asking for an extension. The strategy worked for me.

Another tip: Weigh location against price. The prime area is along the Chao Phraya River; here you will find the Oriental, Peninsula and Shangri-La. Shopping and dining are nearby, and the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and other top sights are easily reached by public transit.

The area near the Erawan Shrine is less atmospheric but has great shopping; that's where the Grand Hyatt and Regent are. Still attractive but worn in spots is a stretch along Silom Road, where you'll find Dusit Thani; the area is best for travelers who can deal with local color, urban intensity and engine fumes.

Thinking locals might know strategies that I didn't, I tried a couple of Bangkok travel agencies to see what kind of prices they could get. What did they do? The agents went straight to the hotels' Web sites, as I had done.

The mini reviews that follow are meant to be a sampling of the city's best lodgings, not a comprehensive list or ranking. Star ratings are tricky to define, but if you consider these places five-star hotels, remember that bargains await at the four-star level too, though you may have to survive without aromatherapy or squash courts.

Prices listed here include breakfast but not taxes and service charges. Rates are always subject to change, and the ones cited here were gathered a few months ago. But based on a follow-up Internet check last week, similar rates are still available. Prices may be even lower during the hot months of April through June or the rainy season of September and October.

The hotels, in alphabetical order:

Dusit Thani

Rack rate: $240. Paid: $110.

A functional urban hotel that opened in 1970. Its status may be threatened by the coming of newer hotels and upgrades to competitors, but my room was one of my favorites: white and gold, with plenty of touches to remind you that you're in Thailand.

The views are mediocre; Lumpini Park, across a busy street, is prettier at ground level. The pool is a token effort, but a spa, a gym and, for golfers, an outdoor driving range help compensate.

The neighborhood is commercial and congested but still fairly interesting, with OK restaurants nearby. Well-regarded Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dining is available on site.

The Sky Train is a short walk away, connecting with the Chao Phraya River and better shopping. It's the closest upscale hotel to the Patpong District's bustling night market and more exotic diversions.

A promotional rate made this place a bargain. Faced with the prospect of paying full price, I might look around for other options.

946 Rama IV Road, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; 011-66-2236-9999, fax 011-66-2236-6400, bangkok.dusit.com.

Grand Hyatt Erawan

Rack rate: $270. Paid: $159.

The lobby, which has the intimacy of the monster rail station Mussolini built for Milan, sets the tone. My pale green room was practical but office-like, with dark wood and glass and chrome dominating. Fresh flowers and a fruit plate added color.

A nice pool and deck area are compromised by the roar of street traffic (though rooms are quiet). Guests have access to a spa, tennis and squash courts and a jogging track. The unexceptional view is of the Royal Sports Club and a hospital.

The good breakfast buffet, which included excellent dim sum besides the usual treats, wasn't officially included in my $159 rate, but I got it by begging at check-in. Dinner at Spasso, the house Italian restaurant, wasn't worthwhile.

The location has little street life, but the lower-level arcade is good, and excellent shopping lies nearby. Sky Train is a block away. Business travelers and anyone piling up Hyatt points will be OK here.

494 Rajdamri Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand; (800) 233-1234 or 011-66-2254-1234, fax 011-66-2254-6308, www.hyatt .com.

Oriental

Rack rate: $300. Lowest offer: $269.

I didn't check in because the price didn't fit my luxury-for-less theme. But the Oriental is a Bangkok icon, and hotel personnel insisted that deals are offered, but quietly and mainly to returning customers. I toured the rooms -- spacious, fresh and light, amazing for a hotel where some parts date to 1876.

The ambience is unquestionably Thai, but modern features include CD players with Bose speakers. A butler serves all guest rooms. Suites (from $720) are dazzling.

The views of the Chao Phraya are great. Unexceptional pools come with a serious spa and gym, plus squash and tennis. There's even a cooking school. The top-rated Le Normandie is probably the only Bangkok restaurant requiring jacket and tie for men.

The Oriental has boats that link to the Sky Train and is adjacent to a colorful old commercial district.

Lobby access is carefully monitored, and there's a dress code -- all tolerably snooty. If you come back, the staff will call you by name all over the building. If your taste runs toward the classic, this is the choice.

48 Oriental Ave., Bangkok 10500, Thailand; (800) 526-6566 or 011-66-2659-9000, fax 011-66-2659-0000, www.mandarinoriental.com.

Peninsula

Rack rate: $280. Paid: $160.

The beautifully appointed guest rooms are subtly Thai -- and designed with business travelers in mind. (If your CEO pines for a live-in office, this could be the prototype.) Huge pillows, huge comforter, huge towels.

Toys galore: a five-disc CD unit, bathtub TV, three phones, push-button curtains, a huge desk with built-in fax. The views overlook the Chao Phraya and the Oriental and Shangri-La hotels across the river.

A fleet of spiffy river shuttles (including one to the Sky Train) makes up for the inconvenient location. The hotel's remoteness -- plus walls around the compound -- gives a weird sense of isolation.

The lobby is woody and dark, almost grim. It feels like a corporate boardroom even when musicians play piano, violin and bass during afternoon tea. (The dress code is a factor.)

The handsome tiered pool and deck are good for laps and naps. The spa, fitness center and tennis also are options.

I enjoyed Mei Jiang, the hotel's Chinese restaurant, but passed on the $138 African abalone.

333 Charoennakorn Road, Klongsan, Bangkok 10600, Thailand; (800) 223-6800 or 011-66-2861-2888, fax 011-66-2861-1112, www.peninsula.com.

Regent

Rack rate: $300. Paid: $178.

Opened in 1983 as a Peninsula, this hotel has long been managed by Four Seasons and is expected to drop the Regent name before summer.

The fun begins with a knockout lobby, with lots of flowers, Thai statuary, and walls and ceiling highlighted by colorful murals and traditional designs.

The mood carries over into the guest rooms' fabric headboard murals and Thai silk accents. My view was of an agreeable tropical courtyard.

The lovely, large pool is set in a quiet garden. A full health club and spa are on site.

Street life is limited. Guests will find a Sky Train station at the door, plus superb shopping in a nearby arcade.

The antipasto spread at Biscotti, the Italian restaurant, was incredible. I also enjoyed a Thai dinner in the Spice Market. The breakfasts here were the trip's best.

Newspapers (up to five, included in the rate) arrive as ordered. Another nice bonus: no surcharge for express (four-hour) laundry. Friendly service starts with a greeting in the lobby and never stops. This is perfection -- and worth the $300 rack rate.

155 Rajadamri Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand; (888) 201-1806 or 011-66-2251-6127, fax 011-66-2253-9195, www.regenthotels.com.

Royal

Rack rate: $26. Paid: $26.

The Royal is the lone midscale lodging in my group. A disclaimer: The rate I paid was for a single; doubles are a whopping $38.

The lobby is fairly large but dark and tired, like an old post office with a disorganized front counter. Cabbies buzz around a tour desk, hustling fares. A gift shop sells mostly junk. The two restaurants are uninviting.

But the clerks are friendly and helpful. The rooms -- with a full marble bath, refrigerator and cable TV -- are sizable, bright, clean and comfortable.

The pool is small but well maintained. Massage and snooker tables are options too. Don't expect much of a view.

The breakfast buffet is surprisingly good. Food stands and simple restaurants await around the corner, and the Grand Palace is a 10-minute walk away.

The Royal is popular with European backpackers, who see it as a splurge. For the price, it's not a bad choice.

2 Rajdamnoen Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand; 011-66-2222-9111, fax 011-66-2224-2083.

Shangri-La

Rack rate: $250. Paid: $138.

The Shangri-La proves that "Vegas-elegant" need not be an oxymoron. The large reception area and the busy lobby lounge have a buzz that's reminiscent of the Mirage, thanks to the muted lighting and live jazz act.

The hotel sits along the Chao Phraya near the Oriental and has the same great views. But unlike the Oriental and the Peninsula, the atmosphere is resort-like. The pool deck, set on the river, is free-form with lots of palms and other greenery. A health club, spa and squash and tennis courts also are on site. (If you're inspired, there are cooking classes too.)

Rooms are fine (even finer with a $40 upgrade). They have traditional Thai artwork and teak furnishings. My unit had three phones, voicemail and other features one expects at a luxury hotel.

Riverside dining at the Salathip is a treat. The old commercial district, with its noodle shops and other cheap food options, extends almost to the hotel's driveway. For trips farther afield, the Sky Train station is steps away, as are river shuttles.

Business, leisure, families -- this place would feel right for any occasion.

89 Soi Wat Suan Plu, New Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; (800) 942-5050 or 011-66-2236-7777, fax 011-66-2236-8579, www.shangri-la.com.

Sukhothai

Rack rate: $260. Paid: $145.

The most handsome guest room of the lot: a vision in pale jade green, bronze and white, decorated with teak furnishings, sandstone statues, wall-mounted carvings and silk highlights.

On the desk, business mixed with pleasure in the form of a fax machine and six super-sinful chocolates. The wood-floored bathroom had a fabulous shower and a separate tub, yellow rubber ducky included.

My view was a pleasant grid of gardens and ponds stocked with goldfish. The health club opens to a rectangular pool long enough for laps and surrounded with plenty of sunning space. The spa is separate.

The lobby is small and serene. A corridor leads to shops, a bar and a restaurant that hosts a great breakfast buffet. Two other restaurants -- the Thai-spiced Celadon and new, Italian-flavored La Scala -- are fine destinations.

Thai artwork aside, the overall feel of the place is upscale Japanese country club, which I mean as a compliment. My only complaint: The hotel is set in a land of office towers. Grab a cab and go exploring, or you'll think you're in Houston.

13/3 S. Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120, Thailand; (800) 223-6800 or 011-66-2287-0222, fax 011-66-2287-4980, www.sukhothai.com.

*

Head east

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, direct service (at least one stop, no change of planes) is offered by Northwest and Thai Airways; connecting service (change of planes) is offered by All Nippon, China, EVA, Korean, Singapore and United airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $762.

GETTING AROUND:

At the airport, skip the kiosks and hawkers near baggage claim selling rides into the city. Instead get into line for a standard metered taxi. They're just as clean (air-conditioned too) and will get you downtown for about $7. Hotel limos are $20-$40.

In central Bangkok, metered taxis will get you almost anywhere for $2-$3. The Sky Train rail system opened in 1999; for less than a buck, these comfortable cars zip you along routes that link hotels and attractions -- or get you close enough to finish the trip with a walk or quick taxi ride.

WHERE TO EAT:

Many top restaurants are in top hotels, and they charge top prices. The concierge or bellman almost always steered me to places with good food at lower prices. Street food abounds but comes with the usual precautions. Among them: Be sure it's fresh and hot, and avoid salads and ice.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Authority of Thailand, 611 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90004; (323) 461-9814, fax (323) 461-9834, www.tourismthailand.org.

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