RIVERSIDE BOUTIQUE HOTEL IN BANGKOK
By Gilles Malaisé
Lodging in a royal palace and receiving a princely treatment is everyone’s dream. “Secret Retreats” anticipated our megalomania, guiding us to one of the most inspirational properties from their catalog of ambrosial hotels, villas, cruises and restaurants.
Spoiled by our three-week stay in the best five-star hotels in Asia, surprising us was a challenge. Yet, we knew that our taxi was driving us to an excellent address: in the heart of the fascinating old Bangkok, near the fragrant and so beautiful flower market, Museum of Siam, Wat Pho, and the Royal Palace. Along the lively riverfront. Our driver almost missed the elegant entrance gate, with a discreet plate indicating “Chakrabongse House” (pronounce “Tcha-Ka-Bong”). No need to ring the bell: the efficient security officers already saw our car on the CCTV, letting it enter into a large courtyard used as a parking lot. A second gate opened to the Gardens of Heaven surrounding one of the most spectacular boutique hotel which we ever visited in our luxury travelers’ life.
An authentic aristocratic mansion, the “Chakrabongse House” stands proudly opposite the small reception office. Built in 1908 by HRH Prince Chakrabongse, it was originally used by the prince and his relatives to attended royal ceremonies in the Grand Palace, and also for picnics and excursions on the river. Later, after the 1932 revolution, it became the residence of HRH Prince Chula Chakrabongse, writer and historian. An illustrious member of the family of the Chakri Dynasty of Thailand, Prince Chula was a grandson of King Chulalongkorn. The only child of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath and his Ukrainian wife, Ekaterina (Catherine) Desnitskaya (later Mom Catherine Na Phitsanulok), whom love story sounds like a true reminiscence of the semi-fictional novel “Anna and The King”.
We have been lucky enough to visit the Chakrabongse House. This was one of our privileges during a tailored made stay. Still a private property, it is closed to the public and owned by Princess Narisa (Prince Chula’s daughter). The living room, cabinets and offices, corridors and large dining rooms feature the travel and sports souvenirs of this jet-setter and renowned car racer. A resident of the UK, he was actively supervising his cousin Prince Birabongse Bhanudej ("B. Bira") White Mouse Racing team. Pictures of his races aboard his ERA car, ancestor of the formula one, are exposed in the living room invaded by precious books. An author, he wrote a respected history of the Chakri Dynasty, and also “Blue and Yellow” (a biography about the race-car driver Richard Seaman), travel books (“First-Class Ticket”), his autobiography and some novels. This litterature is available from the “River Books” publishing house, operated next door by Princess Narisa.
Opposite the Chakrabongse House, lovely Siamese villas have been built to welcome the guests of this mundane and hospitable family. Including celebrities like Aung San Suu Kyi. Since a few years, this secret address operates as a boutique hotel. Besides the exquisite Praya Palazzo, this is from what we know the one and only old Siamese riverside residence offering premium accommodation to the handful of lucky travelers who booked much in advance in one of the four suite/villas, or in the three smaller, yet deliciously cozy rooms.
We must have a good Karma: we could stay in the traditional teak “River View Suite”, with a huge terrace on the Menam Chao Phraya, and a romantic gazebo where our private breakfast was served at sunrise…when the opposite Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) and the Old Palace woke up. Tropical wood, precious silk, and Thai antiques alternate with modern paintings and Knoll Barcelona leather seats. Decorated, like the rest of the villas, by the “maîtresse de maison”, it didn’t make us feel one single minute staying in a hotel. A private house, indeed, it features a large double bedroom, kitchenette, bathroom, study, sitting room and a veranda. It has a direct access to the pier, where a chartered boat tour the hosts from the river to Thonburi most secrete canals and floating markets. The Chakrabongse Villas owns a rare and splendid “Riva” from the 1960s. This is surely the unique hotel in the Kingdom having this magnificent “Rolls Royce of the Seas” at guest disposal.
Each villa is equipped with an individual thermostatic controller for air-conditioning and humidity, TV/DVD with in-house movies, personal minibar, complimentary fax/printing on request, and complimentary Wi-Fi. We liked the wall of windows allowing a cinematographic panorama on the river from our bedroom and living room, and the intimate writing desk which would inspire a novelist. The place is ideal for artists, old-school travelers, and jet-setters, but also for honeymooners. The Chakrabongse Villas specializes in weddings, and the property is regularly hired for very exclusive parties. It is then totally privatized so that guests should not be bothered by the animation. Shouldn’t it be the episodic noise of the speedboats powerful motors, which didn’t disturb us though we stayed in the closest villa to the river, we spent four days in an oasis of silence and greenery. Which impressed us: so close to tourists’ haunts like the Grand Palace, and with popular markets opened day and night all around. The staff was nonobtrusive, though super-efficient. For instance, we sat each morning at the gazebo for our a-la-carte breakfast; five minutes later coffee, eggs, soups, and fruits were brought to our table by a ravishing feminine butler, who never forgot to drop a copy of the Bangkok Post on the table. Service in Thailand is good, everybody knows; but at the Chakrabongse Villas, it is definitely personalized.
Another example of the dedicated service. Upon arrival, we visited the friendly Chef Wat in his cuisine. He inquired about our preferences for dinner: did we like it “pet” (spicy), with lots of coconut milk, did we prefer fish, meat or vegetarian…? We just suggested that “Tom Kaa Khung” (coconut soup with shrimps) is one of our favorites, and let him design the rest of menu. Hired by Princess Narisa to take care of her private hosts and paying guests alike, which means princely, Chef Wat is a living encyclopedia of the Royal Thai Cuisine. He was a technical adviser to the richly illustrated “Riverside Recipes”, featuring the most secrete tips and tricks to help you cook the most sophisticated and fragrant Siamese specialties (it is on sale at the reception and at the River Books shop). The same day, at 7pm, our table had been elegantly set with candlelight in the small sala-style restaurant, positioned in the direction of the Temple of Dawn (for a breathtaking sunset that time). Very exclusive, dining is normally available for the residents only; if the reservation allows (there are only four or five tables), outsiders can visit this highly reputed and romantic place. They pay twice the resident’s bill; which is positively selective…
The lushly, well-kept gardens with centenary trees diffuse the essences of a large variety of tropical flowers. It is magic to enjoy them after dinner, illuminated by guirlands, and animated by the songs of the frogs playing over the fountains and along the large salted-water swimming pool.
The kind of lodging which makes us like traveling, the Chakrabongse Villas is not more expensive compared with an international five-star hotel in Sukhumvit. Warmly recommended!
CHAKRABONGSE VILLAS: 396 Maharaj Road, Tatien, Bangkok 10200, Thailand.
PHONE: +66 2 222 1290 FACSIMILE: +66 2 224 8248
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