Michael Pickering returns to Bangkok to find the five-star hotel scene much changed.
Not having been there for 20 years I return to find Bangkok is mostly as Bangkok was – loud, traffic-strewn, dynamic, brash cross-cultural and very, very big.
It’s soon apparent, however, that one thing that has changed drastically in the intervening years is the luxury hotel scene. Plush new establishments boasting stunning rooftop bars, world-class restaurants, in-house spas and rooms straight out of Belle magazine seemingly sprout by the month. If proof were needed how ultra-competitive it has become, the involvement of no less than French fashion icon Christian Lacroix as the “hotel stylist” of the Sofitel So in the city’s heart should be enough.
Described as Bangkok’s first “urban design” hotel when it opened in early 2012, I experienced the result of Mr Lacroix’s collaboration with architect Smith Obayawat and five top Thai interior designers when I stayed in the impeccably located property opposite the city’s “green lung”, Lumpini Park. Sofitel So’s interior is inspired by the five elements – the 238 guestrooms and suites are divided into “Water”, ‘Earth”, “Wood” and “Metal”-themed décor, while “Fire” informs the look of the main restaurant, Park Society on the 29th floor. Our stay in an Earth element room was the appropriate introduction to the hotel’s chic, design-led ethos, while a tour of the other rooms revealed that unlike many of its Bangkok competitors, Sofitel So offers guests a highly individual in-room experience to go with state-of-the-art connectivity (the Apple Mac Mini provided in all rooms, for example).
The accoutrements of any contemporary design hotel worth its salt are all here – the So SPA and So FIT area over two floors to cater to guests’ wellbeing and relaxation, the Water Club with an incredibly refreshing pool overlooking the park, the Hi-So rooftop space with private cabanas for intimate drinking and dining while overlooking the city lights, and, for choco-holics, the must-visit Chocolab on the lobby level – a café-boutique specialising in Bangkok’s finest chocolate creations.
Beyond its essential funkiness, however, Sofitel So’s killer app, as it were, is its location. Whether you’re in Bangkok for business or pleasure, its spot at the corner of Rama IV and Sathorn Roads makes it perfectly accessible to some of the city’s most popular attractions – the Silom entertainment district, the shopping at MBK by the National Stadium, the National Convention Centre, the Royal Palace, the BTS Skytrain and more.
For a similarly fashionable albeit quite different hotel experience in Bangkok, visit Hotel Muse across town a-ways in the upmarket residential area of Langsuan Rd, Lumpini. Mixing the clubby Western decadence of a London or New York Hotel from the early 20th Century with the golden age of travel as epitomised by King Rama V-era Thailand, this invitingly hedonistic hotel lives by the phrase “passionately independent”. The supporting evidence can be found in the Medici Kitchen & Bar Italian restaurant in the basement, with a genuine Tuscan presiding over the food, and a New York-like speakeasy on the 24th Floor which recreates a 1920s atmosphere for guests and cool Thai kids through a cigar room, a soundtrack of jazz standards (interspersed with techno beats) and a dark, plush décor of drapery, velvet and leather. Naturally enough in Bangkok 2013, there’s a rooftop bar with precipitous views of the bustling surrounding streets and buildings.
The Muse’s 174 rooms and suites are luxuriously appointed, mixing signature European details with ornate Asian motifs. The traditional Thai dishes at the 19th floor Su Tha Ros (“the Thai way”) restaurant, meanwhile, were some of the best I sampled while in Bangkok.
The Thai capital is often looked on as a quick stopover on the way to elsewhere, be it Phuket or Paris, but the continuing evolution of its top-end hotels – covering a gamut from the old-world service and facilities of the big hotels like the Mandarin and the Four Seasons through to the more idiosyncratic, contemporary offerings of Sofitel So and Hotel Muse – increasingly make Bangkok somewhere you could happily get lost in for a little longer before making the connecting flight.