The Oriental Hotel is a piece of Bangkok’s fast diminishing historical landscape; an oasis of calm in one of Asia’s largest cities. Thai people sometimes leave these colonial buildings to fall apart, a legacy of superstition about bad memories, or tear them down to build gleaming new towers for commerce and hospitality – yet The Oriental has remained.
Although greatly changed since it first opened over 130 years ago to welcome the first intrepid and privileged visitors to the mysterious and colourful Kingdom of Siam, part of the structure from 1876 remains.
Making the breathtaking journey up the river Chao Phraya, past ancient villages, guilded temples and humble rice fields these 19th century travellers would finally rich the kingdom’s capital and the delights of The Oriental.
The small colonial style portion that remains is now christened the Author’s Wing in recognition of the illustrious members of the literati that have called this place home at one time or another including the famous Pole Joseph Conrad (many of my generation studied ‘Heart of Darkness’ at school); who in turn inspired Somerset Maugham to come to Bangkok’s Oriental in the 20s (he wrote a children’s Siamese adventure as well as a travelogue here). Other notable literary guests included Noel Coward; John LeCarre; Ian Fleming; Graham Greene; Norman Mailer; Paul Theroux; Barbara Cartland…and the list goes on!
We have been fortunate enough to call this home whilst in Thailand, and it has been our sanctuary from the summer humidity and unrelenting traffic of the city. Despite the 1950s Garden Wing and the 70s addition of the River Wing and numerous further enhancements and refurbishments over the decades, this place retains a grace, elegance and sense of history that is a glorious antedate to the colour, noise, and heat just metres from its entrance Now part of the prestigious Mandarin Oriental group (thanks to the pairing of Hong Kong’s Mandarin and Bangkok’s Oriental), the property is probably the best address in town.
Traditional high tea is served daily in the light filled atrium of the Author’s Lounge, whilst opposite across the river in the hotel’s stunningly restored Teak Mansion one can enjoy some of the city’s best Thai food including the summer treat of fragrant ice rice.
An American, who came to Thailand after the war (and interestingly was one of the partners that put up the money and energy to restore The Oriental after it was ransacked and looted by the Japanese during the war), Thompson set about to restore the fortune’s of the Thai silk industry. Not only a man of immense energy and determination, he also had a flawless aesthetic. In the 1950s he created his own Xanadu, a private home (Jim Thompson House) in the capital using traditional materials, yet reflecting his personal taste and style.
The stunning property includes six teak houses purchased from across Thailand and relocated here, including a large reclaimed teak family house. Thompson’s exceptional flair transformed these buildings into the most amazing private residence and setting for his impressive collection of Asian art and artefacts. Thompson mysteriously went missing during an Easter break with friends in 1967,while on holiday in the Cameron Highlands, a northern Malaysian resort. His property is preserved and gives inspiration to us all about how powerful it is to be surrounded by beauty every day.
Yet Bangkok is not just romantic, elegant properties; it’s also TukTuks to Limousines; LadyBoys to Royal Kings; sex shows to concert performances; street side massages to 5 star pampering; pious monks to high-powered businessmen! It’s a city of some seven million people that is all things to all people. This part of our adventure has restored my passion for Asia.
I adore the food; love the elegant, humble people; am seduced by the splendour of the historical architecture; and can’t get enough of the
The last time I felt like this was when I first went to Malaysia. I’m now eager to return again to Asia and discover more and venture into Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Arriving at Bangkok’s airport we were quickly initiated into this colourful place; no sooner had we got into the airport taxi than we realised we were in another world. Dangling from the car’s ceiling were charms, trinkets and pictures of the Thai king, jostling for space with Buddhas and foreign bills from international clients of the driver that had arrived from each corner of the globe! Not a square centimetre of the vehicle’s interior was left undecorated or unadorned.
Yet in such stark contrast to this brash part of Thai culture is the magnificence and awesome craftsmanship of the nation’s temples and palaces. For those first 19th century visitors to Bangkok, arriving from Europe, Siam must have been a delight – an unforgettable destination full of flavour, colour and extravagance.