My arrival in Bangkok seems an inauspicious one: after flying sleepless through the night, I find myself at the back of a stubbornly unmoving line, waiting for a visa-on-arrival at 5am. Really, it’s only the fact that this is my first trip to Thailand that helps me maintain my composure. And it’s a good thing I did. I have an overnight stop at The Oriental in Bangkok before I head to my main destination, its sister property in Chiang Mai, and if the limo that finally glides me to the hotel is any indication, I’m in for a very decadent four days.
The Oriental is a famously historic property, and I did my homework to stave off the awe I’m right in anticipating. It’s set by Chao Phraya, otherwise known as the River of Kings, which was once the city’s central thoroughfare. In the second half of the 19th century, the grand hotels along the shipping routes of Asia become famous oases of luxury, and The Oriental (originally a seamen’s lodge) was no exception. After the king approved The Oriental as an abode for visiting royalty, every official state visit henceforth was booked at the hotel. From this point on, the history and development of The Oriental was inextricably tied up with that of Thailand, hosting countless state dignitaries and celebrities and changing hands numerous times through the world wars.
I’m happily placed in the historic Authors Wing, which is spread about the hotel’s most charming nook — the Authors Lounge. The lounge is popular for its afternoon tea, and wandering through the crowded tables, I eye mouthwateringly tall layered platters of cake. The Oriental’s had a long association with the literary world: Joseph Conrad frequented its bar during his two-month stay in Bangkok; Somerset Maugham was a guest several times; other visitors included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, and Iris Murdoch. My personal butler (how often do you get to say those words?), Thavorn, leads me up to the James A. Michener suite. Overlooking the river, the room is all understated elegance: glowing Thai silk curtains and furnishings, sinkably-soft down pillows, greenery filtering in through white sheers. The gleaming bathroom features a rainwater shower, a bathtub that begs to be tried, and little black pots of lovely-smelling toiletries. The old-world charm is tangible, and Michener’s novels are stacked on a writing desk overlooking the pool, making the writer in you want to take up a pen and a long-term residency.
However, lunchtime presses down on me, so I head instead to China House. Recently renovated, the interiors of this colonial-era building have been transformed into 1930s Art Deco Shanghai style, with sensual dim red lanterns, rich silk curtains and dark polished ebony. Flawless dishes arrive in succession: deep-fried taro dumplings, so light they melt in the mouth; dim sum; tender pan-seared tenderloin; crispy wasabi prawns; rice with salted fish and egg; and red-tea ice cream.
After lunch, I meander over to the ferry dock and slide into one of the hotel’s charming boat shuttles: digestion, today, will take place at The Oriental Spa. I’m not a big fan of massages — but then, you could say it takes that much more to impress me. I decide a traditional Thai massage is the natural and best way to go. A soft-spoken masseuse leads me down to a large treatment room divided into a bathing section and a walled-in area enclosed by mirrors. Lying on the floor mattress over the next two hours in what feels like a session of power yoga, I realise just how unfit I am: my body is stretched and contorted into all manner of uncomfortable-bordering-on-impossible positions. But there is no oil used, a major plus point; and I am impressed by the sheer strength packed into the slim, graceful arms of my masseuse. As I ferry back over the river, I actually understand that dreaded spa-happy word: ‘rejuvenation’. It feels like the start of the day ought to have; my eyes are bright, my mind clear, my travel aches just a muscle memory. So, I think, that’s what it’s all about.
Later that evening, I find myself sitting at the Riverside Terrace, watching the tour boats glide down the swiftly moving river. The air is pleasantly humid, and it’s scented by the charred smell of the nightly barbecue. And I realise what makes The Oriental special: despite being extravagant, it’s never ostentatious. And there’s real pride in its history — it’s a living aspect of the hotel, as if the structure were an individual who has gracefully lived through a very eventful century. Not only do I make wishful plans to return some day, I also understand why the hotel has such a high retention rate for their staff. Why would you ever want to leave this place?
Leave, however, is what I must do, for the heart of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai. Nothing — not the hotel’s website or even the grandeur of The Oriental — could prepare me for the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. Just as the inimitable style of The Oriental could only have been shaped by a range of varied owners, each nursing and modifying the building from the 19th century to the 21st with a vision of its future, Dhara Dhevi could really only be a creation of one man — and with an entirely different purpose. The two hotels complement each other perfectly: after you’re done with the brilliant city-allure of the first, Dhara Dhevi is the natural choice for a retreat in the most literal sense. Tucked away from Chiang Mai city, its 60 acres actually recreate its own mini-city. The hotel’s founder, Suchet Suwanmongkol, developed the idea of an ancient city that reflected the culture of the 13th-century Lanna Kingdom, of which Chiang Mai was the seat of power.
Touring the hotel later, I’m showed how all the elements of an ancient city are in place. There are two levels of moats and fortified walls; a central ceremonial lawn; a palace (the spa cannot be called anything but); villas or palaces for nobility (such as myself); farming villages, gardens and rice fields run throughout; and a market (hotel shops) completes the picture. If it sounds a tad surreal, it feels even more so. The hotel is so vast you need a ‘buggy’ to get around. Here, the Colonial Wing would be considered ‘new’ history in the face of the “living museum” that is Dhara Dhevi.
And it’s nice to leave behind the colonial history and delve into Thai culture, which is lovingly rendered in the villa sections. These are all fashioned Thai-style, built on stilts with brick and wood as the construction materials. My suite, for instance, can more accurately be described as a small house. The luxurious ground floor for daytime lounging opens into a sprawling terrace that dips into vast rice-paddy fields beyond. Above, a sumptuous bedroom with windows at every corner leads into a Jacuzzi and open-air shower. I feel spoiled already — and I like it. I’m so spoiled, in fact, that I’m almost dismayed to find out that I don’t even have the best of it — this is mid-range in the hierarchy of the fabulous life. There are massive two-bedroom villas tucked behind mini-forests; teakwood pavilions set amid tropical gardens with private pools; there’s a royal suite that looks like the gated kingdom itself.
Although Dhara Dhevi is no different from The Oriental in its plethora of offerings, I feel reluctant to do very much. I cancel my Thai cooking class and entirely forget I’ve booked a seat on the shuttle to the Night Market. I only visit one of the restaurants, the lovely Thai Le Grand Lanna, where I enjoy prawns with plum sauce and an authentic red-curry chicken, and finally try the infamous mango and sticky rice (most delicious). After all, this villa of mine is begging me to make the most of it. My four-poster bed invites me to nap twice a day; I watch the rain fall over the paddy fields one evening; the next afternoon I lay out on the deck with the book I’ve been ignoring for weeks.
But no visit to Dhara Dhevi would be complete without a few sessions at its spa. This palatial haven took 150 artisans three and a half years to complete. From the seven-tier lobby to the 25 treatment rooms, it’s incredibly ornate, thousands of wooden carvings adorning its soaring roofs. Here, the sybaritic atmosphere, access to the most expensive resources, and combination of traditional Thai and Indian healing systems are what make this centre unique. I embark on my personal Ayurvedic treatment, based on a breakdown of my body type and an extensive analysis of my specific ailments. In the hands of yet another gracious masseuse, I melt under the most pleasurable treatment I’ve ever had. What feels like a soft stone is actually a pack of specific herbs and rice dipped periodically into a personalised blend of hot oil and rubbed systematically over my body. The best part is the oil smells great.
The next day, I’m right on time for my final massage, a speciality of the region. Tok Sen, or Lanna Massage, involves massaging warm herbal oil along my pressure points, which are then lightly pounded by a tamarind-wood gavel. Sounds painful? Well, both my Thai massages involved a certain amount of pain, and perhaps weren’t as soothing as the Ayurvedic treatment, but that’s a very relative evaluation — like comparing my villa to a royal suite. It’s the kind of judgment that’s only possible in a place like this, where it’s a question of super versus superior luxury; where whole cities are created for the pursuit of pleasure. This may not be the real world for most of us, but it’s certainly a convincing and gratifying illusion.
Getting there: Many Indian carriers now fly to Bangkok, including Jet Airways and Indian, but you can also get good deals on Thai Airways: approximately Rs 22,000 return including one stopover in Thailand. There are several daily flights from the capital to Chiang Mai, which is a 55min flight; the airport is 15mins from the city and hotel.
The hotels: Both The Oriental in Bangkok (+66-0-26599000, and its sister property, Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai (+66-53-888888, are fabulously luxurious hotels with enough attractions to keep you busy for your entire time in either city. The 393 rooms and suites at The Oriental are divided into several sections and types; a single River Wing room starts at US $370 per night; and rates go up to $2,550 for an Oriental Suite. At Dhara Dhevi, a Colonial Suite starts at $385 per night, and rates go up to $6,000 for the Royal Residence. Website: www.mandarinoriental.com
What to see & do: It’s a good idea to spend a few days in Bangkok so that you’ll have enough time to explore both the hotel and a bit of the city. Definitely don’t miss the gourmet experience at The Oriental — from its room service to the French Le Normandie and the seafood-special Lord Jim’s, every dish here is delightful.
In Chiang Mai, you might find it hard to pull yourself away from the hotel, so make the most of its shops and two pools. The hotel shuttle travels into the city thrice daily, so you can visit the shopping malls, night market, or some of the famous and beautiful Lanna-style temples, such as Prasing and Wat Chedi Luang Waraviharn Amphor Muang.