A home away from home

A home away from home

Mandarin Oriental's only guests during Covid-19 lockdown reflect on Thailand's hospitality industry and their delightful stay amid the global healthcare crisis

A home away from home
Due to Covid-19, long stay guests at the Mandarin Oriental, Joel and Daniele Bull, have made the legendary hotel their home away from home for over seven months. Pornprom Satrabhaya

For British couple Joel and Daniele Bull, the novel coronavirus pandemic has in its own strange way become a blessing in disguise. Originally booked to stay at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok for about six weeks, the pandemic led them to prolong their stay indefinitely.

Expecting the pandemic to simmer out within a month or two was wishful thinking on their part, as it has now been over seven months and counting that they have been residing at the legendary 5-star hotel.

Of course, their stay has been nothing short of memorable so far.

The well-travelled elderly couple were the only guests Mandarin Oriental had left when lockdown measures were imposed. Despite this and the fact that 45 to 50 staff were working in rotating shifts during this period, the hotel's management decided to leave no stone unturned in offering the Bulls a memorable time -- living up to its reputation which spans 144 years.

The Bull couple are long-stay guests who have become regulars at the hotel since the 1980s. Along the years, they have formed a genuine attachment and appreciation for Thailand, Thai people, and the hotel staff in particular which has made them feel cherished and well looked after.

This played a pivotal role in their decision to stay on at the Mandarin Oriental during lockdown following the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases, despite fervent efforts by their adult children to have them return home.

"In the service industry, everyone tries to please us because that is their job. However, in Thailand, it's just not this hotel but many others as well which offer excellent service. Nothing is too much. Instead, everything is well-balanced," said Joel, 82.

From the very beginning, the couple found Thais in the hotel industry to have an innate ability to offer service from the heart and "put aside worries and concerns of their own to focus on making the experience their guests have memorable".

"We have visited lovely places around the world, however, when we come here, which is almost every year, it is just pleasantly different. In the last five years or so, we have stayed for six weeks in Bangkok. While most of our friends are surprised why we want to spend this much time in Bangkok, we do so because the hotel we stay in is really like home for us. Everyone makes us feel like part of a family," added Daniele 76.

One of the most memorable experiences the couple had during the lockdown was during Joel's 82nd surprise birthday party. Back home in England, they would have celebrated his birthday with their three adult children and nine grandchildren. However, in Bangkok, Joel was unaware that the Mandarin Oriental staff were setting up a birthday party of a lifetime for him despite the lockdown and curfew impacting their ability to make the event happen on a grander scale.

The hotel's restaurant manager Subpasit Phachum prepared red T-shirts with Bull written on them for the couple and the rest of the staff to wear during the evening celebrations. There was a table set out with a heart and candles and a big screen that Joel was told would be for karaoke as both the hotel manager and he enjoyed singing.

In the middle of lockdown and curfew, the hotel staff managed to arrange Joel's birthday party by kicking off the event with family, friends and hotel staff wishing him happy birthday via Zoom. Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

"All of a sudden on the screen came our friends and family via Zoom video conferencing. I could have cried as it was my 82nd birthday. The [hotel] staff that were under lockdown in their homes also came on Zoom and were waving and wished me a happy birthday.

"There were altogether 40 people. It was a very special moment," said Joel.

The couple said the reduced number of staff during the lockdown created a homey ambience as everyone was dressed casually. And they were also confident in staying in Thailand because the country is safer compared to the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, it took them only a short while to get used to the new normal.

"After coming downstairs each morning to the sound of music and guests and visitors going about their business, the first day of lockdown was like pin-drop silence," said Daniele. "We looked around and the lobby was empty. There was no one at the reception or the pool. It was similar to the film Home Alone. It was kind of eerie as if everyone had left without telling us.

"When the realisation hit that we were under lockdown, we both were on the same page where we wanted to be. This was our safe haven and we didn't feel the rush to return home. What we did not anticipate was that Covid-19 would last this long," she added.

During their lockdown stay, the couple spent much of their free time indulging in their favourite activities. While Joel enjoyed outdoor sports activities with the hotel crew, Daniele did arts and crafts in the hotel's public space and their room.

Another memorable experience for the Bull family came when China House restaurant organised a dinner for them at The Verandah during the lockdown.

"They know how I love Chinese food," remarked Daniele. "This experience still makes me teary-eyed. They made dinner all the more special by not just serving my favourite dishes but bringing the experience of eating at China House to The Verandah.

"Bringing this into perspective, I would like to add that the management was very good because people were on 14 days of quarantine at the time. Yet, the staff made sure that everything was done according to regulations. This is why we felt safe because we knew everyone was being checked."

On a different note, when asked to suggest how to best address the huge impact Covid-19 has had on Thailand's tourism industry, Joel admitted it was important for Thais to travel within the country to generate much-needed tourism revenue at a time where no international tourists are being allowed in.

"Until the Covid-19 situation gets under control globally, tourists may not be able to return," said Joel.

Service from the heart

One of the Mandarin Oriental's longest-serving staff members, restaurant manager Subpasit Phachum has been acquainted with Joel and Daniele Bull for years -- so much so that the couple have nicknamed him Mark Wahlberg after the American action hero, due to what they believe is a resemblance he shares with the actor.

"The hotel gave us the option to volunteer, and I, together with a group of other staff, took turns being there for them [the couple] during this period. Of course, the thought of staying at the Mandarin Oriental in itself was a welcoming thought," he said.

"Having the opportunity to serve just Mr and Ms Bull was another reason I agreed," he added. "They are a wonderful couple and a delight to be around. They treat everyone like family and everyone at the hotel loves them. They are genuinely interested to know every staff member. In their past visits, I could not spend a lot of time with them because I had other guests to attend to. However, this time we had a lot of fun together and at times even forgot that we were in the midst of a pandemic."

In the 40 days Subpasit stayed at the hotel, he played a huge part in not just making Joel's birthday celebrations a success but also seeing to it that each day they created memories to share when they return home.

"Actually, I had the idea of having a boat carry a sign saying happy birthday which he could see while standing at the pier. However, it was lockdown so the idea didn't make a whole lot of sense," he said.

"As for the birthday party, getting the T-shirts ready in time for the celebrations became an issue. However, we managed to get them done in time. Their happy smiles made up for all the work that went into preparing this event."

Sharing yet another memory from lockdown, Subpasit recalls fondly how the staff strung together a garland made of frangipani flowers for Songkran, instead of jasmine flowers which are usually used because they were out of stock and the only flowers that could best replace them were frangipani that grew in the vicinity of the hotel.

"The entire country was under lockdown so we had to just learn to improvise whenever needed. In the end, what mattered was that they both enjoyed themselves. Our main concern was their well-being. Our hospitality was a pure form of service that came from the heart."

Do you like the content of this article?