BANGKOK hotels, much like those in Hong Kong, are the life of the town. They are important meeting places for locals and visitors and provide a refuge from the heat and pollution in the streets. The legendary courtesy of the Thai people is a key element in the generally high standards of service, and guests in the best Thai hotels genuinely do feel like guests rather than merely customers - at least until the bill arrives. Without doubt, the best-known hotel in the Thai capital is the Oriental. It commands a magnificent view of the Chao Phraya River. In addition to luxurious accommodation, the Oriental's food and beverage outlets are among the smartest in town. Lord Jim's, the hotel's seafood restaurant, and the Normandie Grill are well patronised by locals and the Bamboo Bar is one of the town's most popular watering holes. Offering strong competition to the Oriental and sharing the advantages of its riverside location are the Shangri-La, which has recently opened a luxurious new wing, and the Royal Orchid Sheraton. The Shangri-La has 808 guest rooms, 60 luxury suites and 12 bars and restaurants. The new Krungthep wing is designed to offer a higher degree of privacy and has its own entrance, reception area, restaurant and bars. Each room has a balcony looking out over the wing's own swimming pool. Pleasant though the riverside hotels are, getting from them to the heart of the business district through Bangkok's near-permanent traffic congestion can be a time-consuming process. Fortunately, several fine hotels are located more centrally. The Bangkok Hilton, adjoining Nai Lert park, combines the advantages of a central location with a delightful garden setting, which is ideal as a place to unwind after a difficult day out in the streets. The Dusit Thani Hotel, opposite Lumpini Park, is a large concern with 498 guest rooms and 32 suites, including the Landmark deluxe rooms, which, at 56 square metres, are the biggest in Asia. The service is distinctively Thai, but the efficiency is very much international. The Dusit also boasts several fine restaurants, notably Benjarong where food is prepared in the tradition of royal Thai cuisine passed down from the households of the Sukhotai, Ayuthaya and Rattanakosin monarchies. Benjarong means five colours and the restaurant is named after a style of porcelain reserved in Thailand for royal and ceremonial use. Only a short distance away on Rajdamri Roa is the Grand Hyatt Erawan, next to the Erawan shrine. One distinctive aspect of this 400-room hotel is a superb collection of contemporary Thai art, totalling 1,850 pieces and displayed in both the guest rooms and the public areas. Spasso, the Grand Hyatt's Italian restaurant and nightclub, is one of Bangkok's most fashionable night spots. Also enjoying a central location are the Regent, the Meridien, and the Imperial. A new and fashionably popular property is the Sukothai, a luxury hotel run by the Beaufort Group. Elegantly laid out with simple but no-expense-spared decor with an emphasis on marble and expensive woods, understated quality is the Sukothai's style. Other less expensive options include the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, the small Mansion Kempinski, the Tawana Ramada and the Montien.