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Iconic Bangkok hotel says hurt by Thai political row

BANGKOK, Sept 8 (Reuters) - The service is impeccable as always, the cakes in the afternoon tea buffet are delicious and the views are fascinating, but Bangkok's iconic Oriental Hotel says it's been badly hit by Thailand's political crisis.

The 19th-century teak and marble hotel, which has hosted kings, presidents and authors including W. Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, is just a few miles (km) from the crowds demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

But the liveried waiters, the wicker chairs with plump cushions, and the soothing view of barges chugging on the Chao Phraya River are a world away from the political row.

Nevertheless, many frightened tourists have cancelled reservations. Only half of the Oriental's 393 rooms remain booked for the next two months, against a projected 70 percent, General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl says.

"The current political crisis would hurt business for a few months before things return to normalcy," he said in a statement.

The hotel, rebranded last week as the Mandarin Oriental, faced losses of 120 million baht ($3.5 million) from the cancellations, he added.

Wachtveitl, who says he has experienced 10 previous coups, said it took the Oriental four to nine months to recover from previous crises, although this interval was getting smaller.

"After the 2006 coup, it was just two months," he said. "Each time, the Asians are quicker to come back."

The political protests are more or less contained to an area around Government House, Samak's official compound, where anti-government activists have barricaded themselves in. A state of emergency has been imposed but there has only been sporadic violence, in which one person has died.

Despite Thailand's turbulent politics and 18 coups since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932, foreigners are almost never affected. Some backpackers living in areas just a few blocks from the protest site say they have been barely aware of the anti-government campaign.

But hotel bookings have plummeted across the kingdom, causing widespread concern in the travel and tourism industry, which directly employs 1.8 million people and brings in 6 percent of gross domestic product.

Some hotels on the southern resort island of Phuket are reporting occupancy rates as low as 10 percent, said Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents.

Hotels in Chiang Mai, the hillside city in northern Thailand, also report many cancellations.

Wachtveitl said knowledgeable tourists were not worried.

"Travellers who know Thailand would still come, just stay away from the protest sites," he said.

At the Oriental's riverside restaurant on Monday, only a few tables were vacant at midday, although many of the occupants were not residents of the hotel.

"It (the protest) has not affected us at all," said an American woman, sipping a rose-coloured drink. "But we don't live in this hotel. We have come to look at the view." (Editing by Darren Schuettler and Roger Crabb)

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