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Destination: Thailand

Get the most Bangkok for your buck

Elegant hotel rooms can be had for a song. Well, maybe not that cheap, but luxury does come at a price that average travelers can afford.

March 09, 2003|Alan Solomon | Chicago Tribune

Bangkok, Thailand — Standard rates for a room at the Peninsula in Beverly Hills start around $350 a night. Pricey, but not surprising, given that it's one of Southern California's finest hotels.

What would you say if you could get a room at the Peninsula for $160? What if I threw in all-you-can-eat breakfasts from a spectacular international buffet? Or offered to take those scruffy shoes you left outside the door at night and bring them back the next morning, looking like new, no extra charge?

What if I promised push-button curtains on the windows? A five-disc CD changer? A soak in a bathtub with a built-in color TV above the spigot?

Ready to check in? There's a catch. You have to go to Bangkok.

Thailand's economic boom of the early '90s hit a snag in '97, when the value of the Thai baht, no longer pegged to the U.S. dollar, plummeted by as much as 78% against our currency. Much of the Far East and Southeast Asia slumped as well -- a slump that lingers -- but certain segments of the Thai economy were particularly affected.

Hotels were one of them.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the resulting downturn in travel, combined with sluggish economies in the West and Japan, have delayed the market's recovery. Bad news for Bangkok. Opportunity for you.

Some travelers may be uncomfortable taking advantage of other people's crises. Call it the I Won't Be a Vulture Syndrome. But think of it this way: If you don't show up, rooms go empty, jobs are lost and hotels close.

Before arriving in Bangkok, I shopped the Web, keying on eight hotels -- seven luxury properties and one popular low-cost place. Though many travelers want to save money these days, I focused on high-end lodgings because Bangkok, more than almost any other major city in the world, enables the average traveler to afford luxury. It seems that 432,691 Web sites purportedly sell discounted Bangkok rooms, and no, not all were checked for this story. In the end, I did find low prices -- the lowest of which were usually on the hotels' own sites. Occasionally those rates were matched by an outside company, but not often.

At the Sukhothai, the standard published price, also called the rack rate, for a double room is $260. Two discount sites (including Expedia) offered rooms for $199. The Sukhothai's site listed a promotional rate of $145.

The least expensive room at the near-legendary Oriental was $269, only $31 less than the rack rate. Despite pleas from this expert pleader, who used all the flattery in his quiver at the front desk, the Oriental would not offer a larger discount. I didn't spend a night there (I settled for a tour), but I did sleep at the rest.

One tip: If a hotel Web site says a promotion is ending soon before your visit, send an e-mail asking for an extension. The strategy worked for me.

Another tip: Weigh location against price. The prime area is along the Chao Phraya River; here you will find the Oriental, Peninsula and Shangri-La. Shopping and dining are nearby, and the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and other top sights are easily reached by public transit.

The area near the Erawan Shrine is less atmospheric but has great shopping; that's where the Grand Hyatt and Regent are. Still attractive but worn in spots is a stretch along Silom Road, where you'll find Dusit Thani; the area is best for travelers who can deal with local color, urban intensity and engine fumes.

Thinking locals might know strategies that I didn't, I tried a couple of Bangkok travel agencies to see what kind of prices they could get. What did they do? The agents went straight to the hotels' Web sites, as I had done.

The mini reviews that follow are meant to be a sampling of the city's best lodgings, not a comprehensive list or ranking. Star ratings are tricky to define, but if you consider these places five-star hotels, remember that bargains await at the four-star level too, though you may have to survive without aromatherapy or squash courts.

Prices listed here include breakfast but not taxes and service charges. Rates are always subject to change, and the ones cited here were gathered a few months ago. But based on a follow-up Internet check last week, similar rates are still available. Prices may be even lower during the hot months of April through June or the rainy season of September and October.

The hotels, in alphabetical order:

Dusit Thani

Rack rate: $240. Paid: $110.

A functional urban hotel that opened in 1970. Its status may be threatened by the coming of newer hotels and upgrades to competitors, but my room was one of my favorites: white and gold, with plenty of touches to remind you that you're in Thailand.

The views are mediocre; Lumpini Park, across a busy street, is prettier at ground level. The pool is a token effort, but a spa, a gym and, for golfers, an outdoor driving range help compensate.

The neighborhood is commercial and congested but still fairly interesting, with OK restaurants nearby. Well-regarded Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dining is available on site.

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