Photo: Banyan Tree Bangkok's Apsara dinner cruise.
As the plane lifted off in the direction of Bangkok, I was in a fine
snarly mood. I'd wreally wanted to wrave about W, now despite the
flashy design I was inclined to whine. Caught in a brief rain storm, my
hair had frizzed out and my Cleopatra ‘do now looked like an unruly
pyramid. Warner – who'd dressed up for the W tour – was now wearing
jeans and a red Indians t-shirt, looking like he indeed might be a hog
Admittedly, his threads didn't matter to many Thai gals: since he has
all his teeth, all his hair, both legs and killer blue eyes – the guy
is downright handsome – he stands out in Thailand, where many
love-seeking foreigners are maimed, kinky, bald, losers, in their late
nineties, and/or weigh in at over 400 pounds. As much as I adore the
kingdom, it sickens me how Thai women are so brazen in trying to pick
him up: pharmacists, cashiers, every waitress in every Thai restaurant
we've ever eaten, sneakily try to slip him their number the minute I
look away; a sleazy Air Asia stewardess palmed him a steamy note from
the aisle the month before, and I won't even get into the nearly
pornographic come-ons of a certain Thai housekeeper, who I'd recently
caught crawling on the floor – supposedly vacuuming – while flashing
him looks so wanton they made Jezebel seem tame. I'd been thrilled to
note that women in both Macau and Hong Kong mostly ignored him, but now
we were heading to turf that inflates his ego to the very unbearable
I assessed his outfit again.
You are not wearing that to the Banyan Tree, I hissed.
I'll change at the airport. Would you chill?
I couldn't. I hate to wuss out – but I had no other choice but to
cancel the reservation at Vertigo. Why had I nabbed an assignment for
this rooftop dinner? Why in the course of arranging for Warner to take
shots had I told the hotel what I was doing? Why had I bragged to
everyone in my rolodex that yes, I would be dining there? Why had Gus
Van Sant ever told me about the place? Because now I was going to have
to wimp out. The 76th floor swimming pool freakout at W Hong Kong had
convinced me of that and I shuddered at the memory.
One of the dozen eating spots at Banyan Tree Bangkok. Photo: Steve Warner.
At the airport, Warner ran off to change money, and I approached the
waiting Banyan Tree hostess. The S-series Mercedes Limo was there, the
driver spiffed out in white cap, sharp uniform and white gloves. As we
glided off towards the Banyan Tree, I looked over at Warner – still
clad in his blue jeans and red Indians T-shirt.
There was no time to change, he said sheepishly.
I flashed one of my looks, only to receive a lecture in return.
Melissa, if Brad Pitt showed up in jeans and a t-shirt nobody would care.
You're not Brad Pitt.
It's all about attitude, Melissa.
You're causing me to have a real bad one towards you.
Our sparring continued the whole ride, but inwardly I was envisioning
how I would courteously cancel the dinner at Vertigo and run back to
the airport in shame. As the limo turned into the driveway for the
Banyan Tree, I gazed up at the 61-story building before us -- a lump in
my throat, my stomach knotting up -- as Warner wound up concluding
arguments in his defense.
Look Melissa, nobody is even gonna notice me, much less what I'm
wearing. Nobody will even see us when we check in. You are so paranoid.
And then the Mercedes pulled up to the front, the car door was opened,
and there stood a dozen of the Banyan Tree's top executives and staff.
The general manager. The assistant manager. The head of PR. The media
relations executive. The head of food and beverages. And a half dozen
more– all beautifully-coiffed and wearing the most elegant clothes –
and beaming the sweetest smiles in what was the warmest welcome we've
ever received, and one appreciated all the more since we'd just flunked
out of W's cool school.
Then I remembered my hideous frizzed-out pyramid-shaped hairdo. And
then I looked at Warner – unsuccessfully trying to hide himself and his
red Indians t-shirt behind his camera bag. And then I realized that
they were there to welcome us to the hotel -- and the dinner at Vertigo
– and there was no way I could back out of the rooftop dinner on the
61st floor now.
Except for one thing.
Hope it doesn't rain, said the general manager George as he escorted
us into the hotel. We've had to close Vertigo twenty nights in the
past month because of the weather.
I looked up at the gray clouds hovering on the horizon. Rain! I silently commanded. Rain!
Gray skies, as viewed from the Banyan Tree, promised rain but didn't deliver. Photos: Steve Warner
Frazzled and snippety though I'd felt only minutes before, the tension
dissipated upon entering the spacious lobby, which looks out onto a
tropical garden and where a woman sat lightly tapping on a Thai
instrument that's like a xylophone gone exotic. Hostesses escorted us
up the elevator for the in-room check-in; distracted by their
conversation, I didn't notice how high we were shooting until seconds
later, the elevator opened – on, eek, the 52nd floor, where candles
flickered and the air was scented with sandlewood. Our rooms were
actually club suites – with a tasteful living room where more candles
flickered and incense was burning; on the table stood a bouquet of
orchids, a heaping bowl of tropical fruits, a lemongrass welcome drink
-- and a bottle of wine. Beyond the turquoise Japanese-like screen
sliding door, a lovely mural was painted over the king side bed. The
view onto the Chao Phraya River was fantastic and surprisingly didn't
make me go weak-kneed, as long as I kept my distance.
After I'd selected the goose down pillows from the pillow menu, the
hostess ran through the many percs of the club suite, among them
24-hour use of the executive lounge (where food, booze and wireless
internet are free); complimentary drycleaning (four pieces a day); a
complimentary 10-minute head and shoulder massage; roundtrip limo to
the airport or a 90 minute master massage, personalized letterhead
stationary, if desired. Someone arrived bearing a ceramic tray with the
welcome gift from the spa -- exfoliating salt scrub; inside the
bathroom were cosmetic bags with wood brushes and fine toiletries, in
the closet hung four robes – two cotton, two satin. At night, sweets
appeared bedside – along with gifts, such as bundles of incense and
Banyan Tree rules in the world of amenities, and I was blissed out
drinking them in. Including the complimentary water – bottles of which
stood in most every corner.
After I dashed off to have my hair de-pyramided at the 21st floor spa,
known for treatments such as rain mist, where you are massaged while
experiencing a sauna/steam room simultaneously, PR exec Bancha – a
personable young gent decked out in a fine suit – and his equally
affable (and well-dressed) colleague Pop led us on a tour, including
of the two-story presidential suite. It was impressive with two living
rooms, a kitchen, and a dining room, and offers such a sweeping,
majestic view of the city that to wake up there would make you feel
like a king, even if you're a woman.
Think of the dinner parties we could have here wouldja, said Warner,
hovering over the long dining room table that stretched out along the
front wall, which was mostly an arching window. I was, however, busy
obsessing about the dinner we'd be having in mere hours on the roof. If
I could get there.
The hotel's been undergoing a head-to-toe makeover – by next year every
corner will have been renovated -- and Pop gave us a preview of a whole
new wing of flashy contemporary suites igoing in. Chic and decorated in
muted gold tones, they epitomized understated luxury – with
well-thought-out design and a sumptousness that was evident but didn't
whack you over the head.
Banyan Tree's new contemporary suites (left) and Presidential Suite (right). Photos: Banyan Tree Bangkok
Heightwise, I was doing just fine. I was beginning to think that maybe I could pull off the dinner after all.
Until, that is, I gazed out of the wall-sized window next to a bathtub, and involuntarily shuddered.
Bancha caught it.
Melissa, he said, looking me straight in the eyes, you're afraid of heights!
Well, a little. Kinda. A wee bit.
But you have a reservation at Vertigo tonight!
And don't I know it. I've been thinking of nothing but for the past month.
I looked out the window again, this time upward. The sky had unfortunately cleared. No sign of rain.
Are you up for it, Melissa?
It was the moment I was dreading. The one where I was going to have to fess up and back out.
But I couldn't.
Well, I certainly hope so.
He flashed me a look both wary, but kind.
I think we better take you up for a trial run.
Yikes. The moment of truth.
Maybe it was the color: a gorgeous and energizing cobalt blue emanated
from the Latitude 59 Bar. For some reason, I didn't have the least bit
of fear there – even though it was on the 59h floor. Then again, it had
Ok follow me, said Bancha, leading me up a curved stairway. Now try the terrace.
I followed him right out on a small open terrace off the bar, barely flinching, and hardly gritting my teeth.
He led me to another flight of stairs, this one entirely open.
Vertigo's right up there, he said. Why don't you go check it out while it's light?
I looked at that flight of stairs, about twenty of them. I'd gotten
this far; those open-air steps were all that stood in my way. I tried
to lift up my foot. It ignored my command. I tried again. But the
psychological barrier was too great.
Bancha, I'll wait to conquer those stairs tonight.
Frankly, I wasn't sure I could do it – and although he reassured me, I knew Bancha wasn't sure I could make it up either.
And that's when I remembered the Chinese Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune kit that I'd bought in the temple in Hong Kong.
I could make it to the 60th floor terrace of the Latitude 59
(left), but the stairway to Vertigo(right) proved daunting. Photos
above and top left: Steve Warner
Back in the suite, I tried out the salt scrub, took a bath with the
scented oils, slipped into a robe, and ripped open the plastic-wrapped
Chinese Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune kit. It was no doubt
psychological – as was my phobia – but I somehow felt calmer and more
confident when I picked up the carved jade pendant on white silver
chain, and the smaller jade carvings on yellow strings (with a guide on
how to tie lucky knots), and the gold card with a picture of a goddess.
Unseen comfort seem to pour out when I opened a small red envelope that
held a tiny packet, with a mantra inside (written in Chinese).
Recalling the promise of the temple saleslady that the kit would
protect me from harm and bring me fabulous fortune, I placed all the
charms in the handy good luck bag of red silk, and slipped the bag into
my beaded evening purse, happy that I'd ignored Warner's scoffs when I
packed it along with several other evening bags. It's too small to
hold anything, he'd chided. Well, it was the perfect size for carrying
the Deluxe Good Luck kit with me to dinner. I slipped on an outfit from
India (that Warner hates) and walked out.
Warner gave my outfit a funny look and opened his mouth, then wisely
closed it. The charms were indeed working like a charm, and my trust in
their powers only increased when one of the hostesses suddenly appeared
in the hallway. Love your outfit, she said.
Warner loved the executive lounge, he noted, as we stepped into the
elevator. He'd been up there for the previous hour working on the
Internet, eating caviar and drinking scotch.
How many girls gave you their numbers so far? I asked.
He looked mystified. None. Everybody was real friendly – they all
called me 'Mr. Warner,' but they're really professional here. It's
obvious the staff is very well-trained.
The elevator opened on the 59th floor, and we climbed the covered
stairs, following my previous walk-through. We crossed the terrace of
the Latitude 59 Bar. And there we were -- at the foot of the open-air
stairs that led to Vertigo. I pulled my bag close. And I walked up the
Vertigo at last. Photos above and below: Steve Warner
Oh my god! said Warner, as we were seated at the table – happily in
the center of the terrace, not too close to the rails, so I wouldn't
have to fret about fork-dropping from these heights. This is so cool!
Wow! Amazing! He grabbed his camera, and began taking shots, running
up and down stairs that connected the different levels on the terrace,
yelling over at me, This is so incredible!
It was, I had to admit, truly exhilarating – the setting creating a
euphoria that I've rarely felt. The lilacs of twilight were deepening,
turning into magentas and purples, the inky black of night was just
beginning to trickle down over the skyline that spread out below like
twinkling jewels. An unusual mix of diners was being led to the tables:
formally-dressed older couples in jackets and evening dresses,
jean-clad hipsters, young couples in love, tourists from East and West,
well-heeled locals; a table of gay Thai men celebrated a birthday to
our left, a musician from Ireland and his family dined to our right.
And everywhere, everybody was wowwed, swept away in the adrenaline high
of hanging out at that height.
Suddenly the soft breeze turned into a gust, rustling the white table clothes. A drop plunked down on my hand. Then another.
Don't rain! I commanded. And thanks to my good luck charms, the rain stopped.
Then the procession of food began, each plate arriving under silver dome, each course matched by wine.
The feast opened with a salad of warm goat cheese, smoked duck and pecan, served with a delicate Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.
Fantastic! declared Warner.
A puree of butternut squash was presented, the dome pulled off with
panache by the waiter, who laughed at our expressions when we noticed
that the bowls contained only cubed squash. And here is the rest, he
announced, gracefully pouring in the creamy soup from small silver
Yum! announced Warner.
For the main course, he opted for sirloin steak, served with an
Australian Shiraz/Cabernet, while I went for the roasted Wild Tasmanian
Salmon, matched with a glass of Chardonnay from New Zealand.
This is the best dinner I've ever had in my life, Warner cooed. For
me, it was the most perfect, from the beautifully-prepared food to the
awesome setting to the impeccable service, which was the finest wed
experienced in years.
After dessert -- a luscious baked cheese cake drizzled with fruit
coulis and served with Australian Brut -- I walked over to the bar to
check out the view from the highest point of the terrace, passing the
table of Thai men en route, and wishing happy birthday to the birthday
boy. When I returned to the table, Warner looked odd.
What's the matter? I asked.
Somebody finally gave me their number.
Who? I scanned the crowd trying to assess which gal had been waiting
for my brief absence from his side to numerically fling herself on him
The birthday boy, he said glumly. I thought you'd enjoy that.
Those charms did indeed have special powers.
The amazing dinner now over, Warner wanted to return to the executive
lounge for a nightcap. But I lingered on the rooftop, perching at the
bar, where I ordered a glass of dessert wine. As I peered down at the
glimmering city of Bangkok below -- the sky train that appeared a
miniature toy set and the cars that looked like tiny gold bugs in
toothpick-thin streets-- as I ignored the fact that a frail metal rail
was all that separated me from a half-mile tumble of doom, my thoughts
turned to director Gus Van Sant. I tipped my glass in the direction of
Portland, silently thanking Gus was directing me here. And then I
tipped my glass in the direction of Hong Kong, silently thanking the
temple for providing the charms that helped me conquer my fear.
It wasn't until I returned to the suite that I noticed my beaded
cocktail bag was still on the bed, the magic charms still wrapped in
the silk bag tucked within. Looking at the bag slung over my shoulder,
I realized I'd grabbed the wrong purse.
Steve Warner photos: Copyright Steve Warner, 2008.
Travel writer and author Melissa Rossi is gallivanting across Asia researching the next book of her What Every American Should Know
series for Plume/Penguin Books. The fifth volume of the series, about
the Middle East, comes out in December 2008. Photographer and mapmaker
Steve Warner, who indeed is Kansas-born (although he isn't a hog
farmer), is traveling across Asia with Rossi.