Why do Indians like Bangkok? Many reasons. An important one is visas. You don’t need to queue up at a consulate or wait a week for your travel agent to get you a visa. You can just get one at Bangkok airport. (Though, of course, you can get one the normal way before you leave). So it is a perfect destination for an impulse trip. You can decide to take a weekend break on a Friday, take the night flight and be back on Monday without having to worry about visas.
The other, of course, is expense. Bangkok is the one city in the world where Indians do not feel poor. Even the best hotels cost less than their equivalents in India and once you get there, everything is much cheaper than in India: taxis, food, drinks etc. And then, there’s convenience. If you are travelling to the Far East, you will soon discover that there are few direct flights to most destinations from India. You will nearly always have to change planes. The best place to do this is Bangkok because you can break journey for a day without breaking the bank and arrive at your destination refreshed.
Where to stay
There was a time, in the 1980s, when only affluent Indians bothered to go to Bangkok. Then, in the 1990s, as the Thai fever spread, many more of us worked out that it was cheaper to holiday in Bangkok than nearly any where else and travellers on all kinds of budgets headed for the Thai capital. Now the flood of tourists and the increasing availability of hotel options has made life difficult for the kind of Indian who normally stays at Taj, Oberoi or ITC hotels.
With so many options, what is the best bet? There is no simple answer to this question. I love The Oriental, the wonderful old hotel that regularly appears on lists of the world’s best hotels. The Intercontinental is very convenient for shopping.
The Four Seasons has legions of admirers. And the Sukothai is an influential boutique hotel. Then of course there are the chain hotels: the endless Westins, Sheratons, Hiltons, Marriotts, Hyatts, Novotels, Sofitels, etc., some of which offer good deals on room rates. When people ask my opinion, I always qualify it. If they want history and old world service, then they should take The Oriental. If they want to be in centre of the Ploenchit shopping area and near the Sky Train then The Intercontinental. If they want to stick with a high quality chain, then The Four Seasons. I offer all this advice ungrudgingly.
But rarely do I reveal where I usually stay myself. So far at least, it has remained a secret but now that more and more people are finding out about it, I might as well come clean. Nearly everybody who goes to Bangkok has heard of Sirocco, the famous alfresco restaurant with a view to die for that remains Bangkok’s most sought-after restaurant. (Expect to wait at least three days to get a booking).
The well-informed have also heard of the two other restaurants in the complex: Breeze which does Asian seafood and Mezza Luna for Italian fine dining. (Plus there’s Café Mozu which does excellent Indian and Mediterranean food).But what relatively few people know is that there’s now also a hotel in the same building. It used to be as difficult to get into as Sirocco is, but perhaps things have eased up because of the recession. It’s not cheap but it’s not as expensive as say, The Peninsula and it is much, much, better value.
The hotel is called Lebua (after the family name of the mother and daughter who own it) and differs from other equivalent Bangkok luxury properties in the sense that it has no rooms, only suites. So for the price of a room at The Oriental you could find yourself in a one-bedroom suite. For the price of a suite as The Oriental, you could end up in a huge two bedroom suite.
And what suites! Bangkok hotel rooms can be small but the bathrooms at Lebua are so big that you could probably fit a whole Meridian-style hotel room into the bathroom alone. I’ve stayed there four times over the last few months and each time I have marvelled at the size of the suites. They seem like full-fledged apartments, each with its own kitchen area, but have all the luxury hotel amenities that you would expect: DVD players, plasma screens, Bulgari toiletries, fine quality linen, fluffy towels, luxurious bathrobes etc. etc.
On my last stay, presumably because occupancies were low, they bumped me up to a three bedroom suite which was the size of a Malabar Hill flat. A family of, six — or three couples — could have got lost in there! Because I had no need of all the bedrooms, they turned one into a spa room so I could have massages and treatments in the privacy of my suite. It was hard to imagine a more comfortable or luxurious place to stay.
At your service
As amazing as the suites are, the distinctive feature of Lebua is the service. It can be a problem making yourself understood in Thailand, because hotel staff speak only basic English. But at Lebua, English standards are high, staff seem well-educated and efficient and they also have the traditional Thai warmth and charm. In all my stays at Lebua, nobody has ever put a foot wrong. It has never taken more than a few minutes to get anything I need and there have been no service screw-ups at all.
It is, quite simply, a flawlessly run hotel. It also helps that they have amazing guest recognition. Every guest is received personally by the hotel manager or the front office manager and escorted to his or her room. After that the system kicks in; no matter where guests go they will be recognised and greeted by name. And then, there’s the food. You can actually order from any of the restaurants and eat those much sought-after meals on room service. (Plus Indians can get a full Indian menu from Café Mozu). And of course, as guests of Lebua, you are more or less guaranteed tables at Breeze, Mezza Luna and Sirocco.
I’ve seen well-headed Indians looking lost in Bangkok as they line up to check in to their hotels. They are used to being treated well at home but in Bangkok, they are treated the same as everybody else. Though Lebua seems entirely Thai and Japanese run, there are actually two Indians in key posts. Deepak Ohri is the big boss and Nishant Arora is the Director of Food and Beverage. So any well-heeled Indian will be spotted immediately and will get the sort of treatment he would get at a Taj or Oberoi hotel.
This (and the Indian food) makes it the favoured destination for fat-cat Indians. But even if you are not a fat-cat, just somebody who has to go to Bangkok on work, to change a flight or for a vacation and are not on a tight budget, it is hard to see how you could do better than Lebua.
Suites start at $170 a night or about Rs 8,000 or so and then go up. For booking, contact: [email protected]