But you don't have to stay at the hotel to experience this; the Oriental's spa is open to hoi polloi. You might stay at a hotel right beside the spa, just opened by -- you guessed it -- the Peninsula Group. The standard of finish at the Bangkok Peninsula is similar to the Hong Kong Pen -- the bathrooms are precisely the same -- but the lobby and public spaces are less luminous. (Thai architecture in general favors darkness.) All rooms have river views, and the view itself is preferable to the one from the other direction: It's like seeing Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights. Many have expressed reservations about this hotel -- it's considered to be on the "wrong" side -- but I disagree. Crossing the river never loses its thrill. Ah, and the price. This year, you can take advantage of various packages concocted to celebrate its opening -- a "superior" room is down from $240 to $175.
The wily millionairist will stay at the new Pen, get rubbed down at the Oriental spa, and have lunch at the Oriental's Thai buffet next door at the Sala Rim Naam -- a truly spectacular spread, and a fantastic bargain at $12.
Another alternative, if you don't mind staying somewhere a bit removed from the river, is the Sukhothai Hotel (011-662-287-0222). Insiders have long preferred the Sukhothai to its more hyped brethren. Part of the reason is the design -- vaguely Asian, but not so specific that you could easily guess what part of Asia you're in. It's all very lovely: a sophisticated business hotel in teak and granite, served up with a dash of Asian fusion. The building's exterior is nothing to get excited about, but the best rooms open onto an interior court, planted to resemble a rice paddy. The unbelievably expansive bathrooms have teak floors and oversize bathtubs. This hotel caters mostly to men in suits -- the location is handy to the city center, if less dramatic than the river bank. But I would happily stay there as a tourist. A superior room is $230; suites start at $320.
If you like the Thai statuary that punctuates the public spaces, you can visit the Fine Arts shop, just off the lobby. The shop is one of the few places you can feel safe buying antiques in Bangkok. The Fine Arts has the ambience of a museum and offers authenticated pieces from $350 to $450,000. The savings -- 40 to 60 percent -- are substantial in the wake of the currency crisis. Most important -- since Bangkok is lousy with forgeries -- this shop stands firmly behind its merchandise; if you take a three-ton Buddha home and have it carbon-dated, you won't be unpleasantly surprised (and if you are, Fine Arts will take it back).
You're wondering about that albino water buffalo. Was I lying? Did I indeed enjoy a schvitz with Dame Albright's goons? Patience -- we're getting there.
If you're going to travel to northern Thailand, you don't have many choices when it comes to superior hotels. In fact, you have one -- the Regent Chiang Mai (011-6653-298-181), in Chiang Mai. This area has traditionally appealed mostly to backpackers en route to the Golden Triangle, where they smoke opium with village headmen before being shot by Burmese renegades. The Regent offers a somewhat different experience.
I have never, in more than a decade of travel writing, encountered a hotel as lavishly landscaped as the Regent Chiang Mai. The hotel has managed to re-create a vast rice field, complete with farmers, pavilions (in which you will sleep), and highly convincing water buffalo. One of these buffalo is a nice pink albino.
Madeleine Albright never makes it to the Regent; Saddam Hussein has other plans for her. Her advance personnel, however, have already staked the place out, and I have an engaging conversation with them over beer in the open-air Jacuzzi. They aren't actually goons, by the way -- they're nice, intelligent, clean-cut guys (who could probably take you out with a single blow to the solar plexus).