lebua at State Tower Teaches Luxist You Can Live Well in Bangkok, Too...
When we left off with lebua we were trying to figure out a way to hide out at the company's New Zealand property, Lake Okareka Lodge. That didn't work out, part of the reason being that we were due at the company's other property in Bangkok, and it's difficult to be a stowaway when the commodore himself put you on the ship.
lebua at State Tower hotel in Bangkok is – akin to that of Thailand and New Zealand – an antipodean contrast to Lake Okareka Lodge. Whereas the latter is a grand and solitary lakefront estate, lebua at State Tower is set inside a 67-story concrete pillar, an occasional baobab shot up from the thick tangle of a metropolis usually not more than six stories high. Rotorua, New Zealand, is verdant serenity, Bangkok an assaulting sprawl that tirelessly expands the term "anything goes." We wondered how the same enterprise might deliver this other pole of luxury. Not only did they do it, we left wondering "How come we haven't heard of these people?"
Gallery: Luxist Visits lebua at State Tower
Turns out that many people have heard of lebua (always with a lowercase "l"): if you search for a stay in Bangkok on Expedia, lebua at State Tower and its 4.8-out-of-5 ranking is the first result every single time. On Trip Advisor is it ranked twelfth out of 562 hotels, ahead of marquee names like Sukhothai, Mandarin Oriental, InterContinental, Sofitel. There are many reasons for that, but the one that meant most to us was this: attitude. lebua wants you to feel good. By the end of our stay our go-to line was, "No, stop, you shouldn't have... But feel free to do it again tomorrow."
First, though, the scene: there are at least three different ways to take in Bangkok. The first is at ground level, a base station for skin-crisping heat and I-wish-I-had-gills humidity, manned by 1,001 stories told in scents, sounds, vapors, tchotchkes, and regular side-stepping as you maneuver through the constant humanity.
Back up far enough to begin to take the place in and it's a mélange of urban and human undergrowth: comically compressed buildings and disparate facades obscured by trees, food carts, diners, sellers, walkers, suspended highways, monorail lines, tuk-tuks, cracked sidewalks, and shrines.
The final way is high up above it, on the 56th floor, say, room 5615, and from your conning tower you survey an indefinite ocean of dwellings everywhere you look. Take in the shacks, shanties, tarps and corrugated metal roofs, graffitied concrete ruins and infrequent and oddly ornate temples directly below, snaked through with high blood pressure traffic, and the feeling is "We're going down there?"
That last way is the lebua way, but it's not use being in the clouds if you can't sleep and walk on them as well, no? lebua attends to that with rooms decked out in well appointed functionality. Is it five-star? Not exactly – the hotel isn't brand new, but its furnishings are nice. Just as importantly, if not more so, they are comfortable and useful. We have stayed in some exceptional hotels where the least comfortable areas were the rooms. At lebua, however, our desk was large enough to actually do things on and wasn't placed directly in front of the mirror or the television. We could sit in the chairs and be happy about it. There was enough storage to stash all of our goods. The couch made a perfect partner at the end of a day. And the bed was deliciously sheeted and thoroughly pillowed. And the on-demand movies are free. We know that's not exactly about comfort, but it did make us feel good.
There are 358 rooms on 14 floors (the rest are offices and condominium suites), all of the rooms facing outward, many looking directly out over the Chao Phraya River, and all of them arrived at via exceptionally wide hallways. The impact of a generous corridor must not be underestimated – normally you think nothing of a corridor, and sometimes endure them, because all you're thinking about is the room. And hotels make their money from rooms, so why should they give up suite real estate to make way for a pipeline? Yet while a hallway is a soft point and not a profit center, you spend so much time in it that when it offers you the same luxury you find everywhere else you can relax on the walk back to your door, give up the tunnel vision and subliminal focus on "Just get to the room, just get to the room..." In short, you can relax.
More than half of the lodging is part of the Tower Club. Akin to a Club Floor suite at a Starwood Hotel, the Tower Club gives you a free minibar and access to the Tower Club lounge and its daily, free continental breakfast and afternoon drinks and canapés.
If you book a Tower Club suite at a certain level you get treats delivered every evening. We stepped in our room the first time at 3 am, having come from Rotorua to Sydney to Bangkok, and discovered an ornate delicacy – a sci-fi-looking concoction with macaroons and chocolates perched on pedestals nested among a tangled black latticework. Our first question was "What the... ?" We ate a macaroon and realized the pedestal it rested on was chocolate. So we ate that. And then we realized that the entire latticework was chocolate, set on a bed of white chocolate chips. So we kept eating until a little alarm inside of us rang out, "Eating enough chocolate to recreate the reclining Buddha will make you look like one..." Every night around dusk, for the rest of our stay, artistic sweet and savory dishes were brought to us.
We were in a two-bedroom suite on the 56th floor, and in this particular suite the second bedroom had been made into a massage and spa treatment suite with its own full bathroom. Not all two-bedrooms are set up like so, but we had no complaints. Most of our in-room time was spent recovering and getting ready for another BKK day, but we did snoop around long enough to find a full kitchen and dining table, a living room with a semi-circular couch, round, glass-topped coffee table and entertainment center with a 42-inch flatscreen television, a washer and a dryer, and a balcony for looking down on the river and city. In our room was another large desk, a massive and massively cozy bed, another balcony, enough closet space to rent out as another hotel room, and a bathroom with shower, tub, and Bvlgari bath amenities.
Slight correction: when we were in the hotel and not getting ready for another day or recovering from the last, we were trying to figure out how we could eat more food. lebua at State Tower holds five restaurants (in order of expense and formality: Mezzaluna, Sirocco, Breeze, Café Mozu, Lobby Bar & Lounge) and two bars (Distil, Sky Bar). In fact, the restaurants are how lebua started – the CEO, Deepak Ohri, was brought in to fill an unused space, and they did so well that he built the hotel around them.
These aren't inexpensive restaurants, though. Don't pay attention and you can easily run through a meal for which the receipt might be the only thing you don't find easy to swallow. But the food is first rate, without qualifiers – it's not first rate for Bangkok, it's simply first rate. During one meal with Deepak Ohri we asked about restaurants at two other nearby hotels, the Peninsula and the Mandarin Oriental. He replied that he didn't want to comment on them himself, but he would buy me dinner at both places so I could decide for myself.
The ambiance was nice at the Bangkok Peninsula's Terrace Cafe – save for the smell of liquid petroleum gas the river boats were burning through – but the meal was regrettable. Sure, we only went once, but the mistakes made were the thoughtless oversights of amateurs, like bad service and thoroughly overcooked meats, not honest mistakes that can happen anywhere. And we spent Peninsula money for the privilege.
Dinner at the Mandarin's Lord Jim was excellent, the atmosphere, the food and the service. The Mandarin's clientele, though, occupies a somewhat traditional and narrow bandwidth. If you reside in that spectrum, it's perfect, however even if you don't you will still have an outstanding evening – we were attended to like royalty.
The range of lebua's clientele, on the other hand, is wider, for partly obvious reasons: five different restaurants in close proximity. Mezzaluna diners, probably more formal than those at Breeze and definitely more formal than those at Café Mozu, can all end up at Distil or Sky Bar.
The very nature of the hotel's guests adds another element. As one lebua employee told us, Bangkok will build another high-rise if there is one leftover tourist, so the city has far more capacity than it does visitors. That means lebua, with prices that begin on an accessible level, and with commanding spots on Expedia and Trip Advisor, has guests that range from backpackers – very well behaved backpackers, mind you – to businessmen and upper class families. You will find all of them mingling throughout.
To the point, though: lebua's restaurant experiences are excellent. When it came to food and nightlife the only reason we needed to leave the hotel was to don our diving helmet and lower ourselves into the Bangkok's various culinary eddies and bump-'n'-grind pools. Otherwise, delicious was never more than an elevator ride away.
But what made lebua at State Tower special for us? The way it comes together. Ohri said the hotel is dedicated to providing the same experience for every guest – once you leave your room, everyone is equal. For instance, he won't shut down Sirocco for private events because "There are other people who want to eat here." When Bombay Sapphire did a shoot at Sky Bar, they had to do it after the bar was closed.
There are hotel employees stationed outside every elevator, who greet people getting off with a slight bow and "Sawadee ka/kap," and call cars for people getting on. Other than on your own room floor, you can't go anywhere in the hotel where someone won't be there to assist you or make sure you're all right.
Our experience was of nothing but friendliness, and within three days we almost couldn't go anywhere without being addressed as Khun Ramsey. We asked lebua's online marketing manager who handled our invitation, Mark Shrives, how everyone knew who we were. His answer: "I don't know. I didn't send a memo that said 'God is coming,' if that's what you're asking.'" That is what we were asking. That kind of attention isn't for everyone, but if you do appreciate it you don't need to spend a fortune to get it at lebua.
It was the kind of fluid interaction between different areas of an institution that lets you know that the entire establishment is based on a philosophy – the same kind of five-star philosophy that the a well established brand such as the Mandarin Oriental embodies, where you discover that people you can't remember ever having seen before know who you are. It is the imprint of Ohri's idea throughout the thing, the idea being that the best luxury can be for everyone.
How do we know this? While being driven around the city one day we needed to get a tie, and our hotel driver asked "Do you have a meeting?" We replied yes, "With the boss," thinking he'd have no idea who the boss was or not be interested. He immediately asked, "You're meeting Khun Deepak?" in a tone that wasn't "Oh...", but was "You're meeting the man who created all of this," with a bit of pride. It's details like that that make us go, "Aha. We've found something..."
There were only two things we took issue with, one of them not even really an issue: elevators can take a minute or two to reach your floor if you're high up, so we learned to leave a buffer when departing for appointments. The slightly more intrusive thing was our shower, which decided to dispense hot and cold water at intervals only it could determine. But that was it.
lebua hasn't invented the nice hotel – there is a healthy number of nice hotels in Bangkok alone. What lebua has done, and convinced us it has done when we entered the engagement skeptical, is made a hotel that is well appointed, inviting everywhere, and, dare we say it, almost egalitarian – not only are all of its guests created equally, but every is treated as, and rewarded with, the best, equally. That's our kind of humanism, and from now on, whenever we're in Bangkok, lebua is our kind of hotel.