Published 16 March 1997 Style Magazine 193rd article
Best trend: Michael with Melvin J J Robson and staff of the Oriental (Vanessa Perry)
When referring to the Oriental Hotel Bangkok, people say to me: "The service is so good you never get to press the elevator button!" Even though this is true, it is not a great hotel achievement. Pressing elevator buttons is one of the few things I can do myself. My first sight of the hotel was in an old book; small, colonial architecture, gardens leading down to the Chao Phraya river. Then I saw modern photographs showing two ghastly tower blocks like those East End council flats we see blown up because they are such a blot on public life. When I arrived, my ﬁrst thought was, this is a seriously big hotel. The marble lobby is from the grand-airport school of design. It looks out onto a swimming pool, flowering bushes and horrible enormous buildings across the river.
I had been advised to take one of the authors' suites in the old building, named after visitors such as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and others. Melvin J J Robson, the English manager (Kurt Wachtveitl, the famed general manager had the sense to be on holiday) led me to the Presidential Suite atop the large tower. "You asked for a view," he explained. "The authors' suites don't have one." I later discovered the "old" hotel is attached, siamese twinlike, to the smaller block. The original lobby is used for tea - with cane chairs, two musicians in evening dress on flute and guitar - and shops off it staffed by the rudest assistants I have ever found, which is surprising as most Thais are immensely lovely and charming.
The Presidential Suite had a huge living room, two large bedrooms, a dining room for 12, a kitchen, an enormous hall, two bathrooms, various lavatories and washrooms and a cupboard full of electrical things where our floor butler pressed endless knobs in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the air conditioning from being deepfreeze level. There were terraces all around, with impressive views over an ugly, overbuilt, high-rise city.
My ﬁrst meal was in Lord Jim's restaurant, one of seven places to eat provided by the hotel. Piped music everywhere - the Thais are very fond of that. They even blast it from loudspeakers attached to trees as you walk round their old palaces. There was a nice view of the river terrace, food certainly good, a high-class buffet, service remarkable. You could not sit down without staff holding your chair for you. The moment you neared the end of a Coca-Cola they asked if you wanted another. Good curry, excellent sushi bar, lovely apple flan. I wish there was something like it in London.
My favourite turned out to be their Thai restaurant, the Sala Rim Naam, to which you are ferried on the other side of the river. At night, the terrace, flower bedecked and looking over to the hotel, is a terrific place to eat. There are trees with fairy lights and, inside an adjacent room, a costumed Thai dance troupe. We peeked in to admire, not wishing to join 200 people sitting on the floor. The prawn soup with coconut milk, chicken with lemon grass, and steamed sea bass were all very good. On the terrace over the water is an Italian restaurant and a sort of grand carvery.
The hotel is too large to be my all-time favourite, but it works superbly well. It's just that when I see tour groups in the lobby I feel queasy. After I'd been to Burma and returned, Kurt Wachtveitl, the chief supremo, came back and gave us a lovely dinner on a boat gliding up the river. That was exceptional. All the hotel staff were very good, although there was a mix-up about one of my trips involving cars and helicopters. That night, a titled friend said to me in their China House restaurant: "I heard you making a lot of noise in the lobby this morning!"
"One of my quieter moments, darling," I said, kissing her on both cheeks.
The Oriental has been voted the Best in the World many times by serious magazines. "Best" is a non-word. I prefer boutique hotels, small and exclusive. But as large ones go, you'd he hard-pressed to beat the Oriental. My stay was made particularly pleasant through the immense charm and expertise of Melvin J J Robson, who even guided us into town, at my request, to see things I would not even hint at in The Sunday Times. He also provided me with a list of visitors who had inhabited the Presidential Suite: Richard Nixon, Pierre Cardin, Sean Connery, Michael Jackson, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince and Princess of Wales, George Bush, to name but a few. Just as well I stayed there. They could do with someone important.
Michael Winner must visit the Polygon in Clapham, south London. I am longing to read what he makes of dishes such as rabbit yakitori. My companion had tiger prawns in peanut sauce. Yum, satay, we thought, but no, the sauce was white and how they achieved this doesn't bear thinking about.
N Pisani, London SW4
The seldom satisfied Michael Winner's arrogance is breathtaking. Wealthy and connected he may be, but in other respects he is pitiful. One wonders why you pander to his ego.
Clive Turner, Pinner, Middlesex
Things are bad in Britain, but how about this for lack of service? The upmarket Shangri La hotel in Los Angeles charges $2 (£1.25) to accept an envelope for a guest at the front desk.
Nick Mead, Bel Air, California