© Patrick Bingham Hall
High-end hotels in Southeast Asia that are redefining where you get your shut-eye
On a recent tour of Southeast Asia, I set myself the arduous task of sampling high-end hotels in three different cities. Seeking to confirm my own private prejudice that the region offers the most innovative and efficient accommodations in the world, I visited a palace in Bangkok, a vertical garden in Singapore and a classic luxury hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
Madame Kamala Sukosol sat at the centre of a long teak table in the middle of a venerable high-beamed teak house explaining how her family’s new Bangkok hotel, The Siam (thesiamhotel.com), came to be. But I had a hard time concentrating, so distracted was I by Madame.
“We’d had this piece of land on the river. My father bought it 40 years ago as a place to tie up his boat,” the 72-year-old matriarch said as I was blinded by the gold breastplate she wore over her silk brocade tunic. “And this piece of land was just lying there. So we decided to build a nice hotel to add to our chain.”
For a tiny woman she has a majestic presence and a commanding voice variously pitched to intimidate a cabinet minister — or purr out “The lady is a tramp.” Madame is also a famous Thai jazz singer.
The industrial-size emerald that weighed down her right hand spoke of Southeast Asian show biz glamour as well as of extensive real estate holdings.
The Sukosol family owns five Thai hotels; the Siam is nestled riverside in Bangkok’s leafy Dusit district, home to the Hi-So (high society) and members of the royal family. The Siam is boutique-size: only 39 suites and villas, with a $40-million price tag.
Bangkok’s other five-star properties are in the heart of the 24/7 circus that is central Bangkok. A half-hour private launch ride from the hurly-burly, The Siam’s a world apart; the kind of place where the hotel and not the city becomes the destination.
Once checked in, you’d be a fool to leave. A discreet, white-walled palace, The Siam’s suites give onto a bright, glass-ceiling courtyard that shelters a black granite fountain as big as the Ritz. The colour palette’s Art Deco black and white, and original pieces from the 1920s and 30s adorn the lobby and grand staircases as well as sparkling vitrines that house Madame’s invaluable terra-cotta and porcelain collection.
Kamala Sukosol left the interior design to her pop-star/movie-star son Krissada — Bangkok Loco, The Adventures of Iron Pussy — whose informed collection of Thai memorabilia, from cigarette cards to 1930s movie magazines, decorates suite walls. Plum-coloured love seats and pale green walls soften the black-and-white motif and there are enormous high beds, free-standing sarcophagus-sized elliptical baths that glow like alabaster, 4.5-metre-high ceilings and tall windows that look onto the busy Chao Phraya River.
Suites at start at $540 per night; two-story villas with private pools go for about twice that. Dinner at Chon Thai (or Thai spoon) is essential, with the chef serving up northern Thai specialties, which are more subtly spiced than their fire-breathing southern cousins.
For those who’d rather have an abs-of-steel workout, the hotel has its own Muay Thai boxing ring. And did I mention the mini-French cinema, with turn-of-the-20th-century velvet seats? Or the superb green-tiled infinity pool that glows as brightly as Kamala’s emerald?
The vertical garden
When Singapore’s Parkroyal on Pickering (parkroyalhotels.com/pickering) opened earlier this year, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper applauded its blurring of “hard architecture and soft landscapes.” The 367-room hotel, which is curvilinear in form, offers 15,000 square meters of greenery, most of it growing up or hanging down from ledges and balconies, so that guest rooms seem to float in a luxuriant green bower. It also accounted for the small man in a boilersuit beyond my window assiduously and yet discreetly weeding my balcony.
Designed by the Singapore-based WOHA architectural firm, the building has already won the World Architecture News’ Hotel of the Year Award for 2013, and has also garnered a gold medal for its balance of luxury and sustainability. In the world of high-end hotels, the combination of the two terms can feel like a particularly risible oxymoron. I once stayed in a five-star hotel that urged its guests to reuse their towels for the environment’s sake. I counted 22 light fixtures in the bathroom alone.
The Parkroyal’s greenery isn’t only for show: it lowers air conditioning costs by shading glass walls and, in place of corridors, exterior walkways needn’t be cooled at all. Rainwater is collected and reused; the elevated “sky gardens” connecting the hotel’s three towers as well as a 300-metre-high Garden Walk are solar-powered.
Rooms feature natural materials — bamboo, grass-cloth wallpaper — and colours — pale greens and yellows, light greys. LED bulbs and solar panels lower energy costs by 20 percent. And everywhere you go, there’s the soothing sound of running water, from fountains and waterfalls scattered throughout the hotel and from narrow channels that stretch along the exterior walkways.
The fifth, and my favorite floor, is given over to an infinity pool where you’ll feel like you’re lap-swimming across Singapore’s future-forward cityscape. A window in the well-equipped weight room offers similar views, while the St. Gregory spa invites you in for a nice parafango mud wrap (volcanic mud mixed with paraffin). I went for the visible brilliance facial and emerged 90 minutes later with a much smarter face, not to mention a lighter wallet. I then repaired to one of the giant poolside birdcages where I practiced my Bird of Paradise yoga moves, ruffling my tail feathers and… okay, so I made that last bit up, but the birdcage-sun beds are real.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention breakfast, which is served in a high-ceilinged glass-walled space and offers — I counted, and tasted — a selection of American, English, Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Indian dishes, all deliciously appropriate to this multicultural city-state.
A superior room at the Parkroyal on Pickering costs about $280; an Orchid Club Room on the executive floor is $345 and gives you access to the Orchid Club Lounge where complimentary breakfast and evening cocktails are served against a stunning 360-degree view of the city and its greenery.
The Park Hyatt brand is known throughout the world, a standard of reliability and comfort. No matter what city you find yourself in, no matter what continent, you know at the end of the day you can go back to Hyattland, order a club sandwich and catch CNN as you eat. But international hotel chains, in their pursuit of luxury, can often sacrifice authenticity and any connection to the city that surrounds them. At the other extreme, some hotels decorate their premises with an outlandish display of colour that can all too easily teeter into kitschfest.
The Saigon Park Hyatt (saigon.park.hyatt.com), rated the top hotel in Vietnam for 2013 by Condé Nast Traveler, neatly sidesteps these pitfalls. Its District 1 location, the very busy, pulsating heart of Ho Chi Minh City, provides a magnificent setting for a hotel that’s a sparkling gem.
In an informal survey conducted my first day there, I concluded that everyone in District 1 is 17 years old, has an 46-centimetre waist and a flame-red motor scooter. When crossing the street can be a hair-raising extreme sport — my technique is to close my eyes and run for the other side as a thousand scooters weave round me — you want a little insulation, a soupçon of stability when you get back to your room in one rattled piece.
The Park Hyatt looks like a great white Cunard liner momentarily parked behind the wedding cake of the French colonial Opera House while its passengers pop in for the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. The capacious lounge off the lobby could be a grand saloon with louvered French windows, golden walls and leather-upholstered chairs, a pianist tinkling “Mountain Greenery” in one corner.
Its 244 rooms and suites are beyond serene with walls the shade of freshly poured Darjeeling and a distinct absence of frou-frou; instead of layers of draperies, there are translucent pull-down shades and louvered wooden shutters to keep out the sharp sunlight.
The narrow corridor running from bedroom to bath is flanked by a built-in storage unit and a large glass-enclosed shower and soaking tub. Third-floor rooms and suites are especially coveted because you can nip out the French doors into the large courtyard garden and 20-metre-long outdoor pool. District 1’s buzzing brouhaha can’t be more than 50 metres away and yet there’s the sensation of being in enchanted, sound-proof place.
A standard suite costs around $310. Don’t miss the ricotta pancakes at the in-house Opera restaurant.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.