‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves… And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.’ So suggests Pico Iyer, the renowned essayist and novelist whose perceptive observations about global culture have been informed by a lifetime of ceaseless wandering. Born in England to Indian parents and now a resident of Japan, the prolific writer has established himself as an authority on the art of travel, criss-crossing continents to far-flung places, from Tibet to El Salvador, Iceland to Ethiopia. Back in the early Eighties, though, it was one trip in particular that changed the life of the 26-year-old journalist, giving him a taste for the exotic and a yearning to discover alien worlds. Iyer’s destination was Thailand; his point of entry, Bangkok.
The Venice of the East may not seem the most obvious literary port of call, yet many of the greatest writers in the English language have journeyed to Thailand for inspiration as well as rejuvenation, often as part of grand tours or adventures around South East Asia. Indeed, Iyer follows in esteemed footsteps, joining a long list of celebrated authors, playwrights and journalists who have been amazed, disgusted, overwhelmed and delighted in equal measure by the heady sights, sounds and smells of the Thai capital. As the Bangkok-based writer John Krich has observed in Time: ‘Bangkok engulfs but never enervates, forever energising those who forgive its excesses.’ Little wonder, then, that creative minds have fed their imaginations here, drinking in the cornucopia of life thronging among the palm trees, steamy streets, gilded temples and the waters of the mighty Chao Phraya River.
Barbara Cartland in 1971
For such voyaging scribes, a visit to Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok has become akin to a rite of passage. Since it is here, in a prime riverside location, that visitors with literary links have come to find shelter, rest and refreshment for 125 years, creating a tradition that is preserved in the very fabric of the hotel. Just as Iyer recalls ‘depositing his luggage with a towering Sikh doorman at the Oriental’ during his first visit to the city some 30 years ago, others before and after him have beaten a path to this writers’ home from home. Perhaps this literary association is inevitable for a legendary hotel with origins that can be traced back
a decade earlier than its official founding date of 1876. After all, the Oriental (as it was called at the time) is seamlessly interwoven into the history of modern Bangkok.
For voyaging scribes a visit to Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is a rite of passage
W Somerset Maugham in 1942
Grand hotels made their debut along Asia’s main shipping routes throughout the second half of the 19th century, but Thailand’s cautious approach to diplomatic relations meant that Bangkok’s hospitality industry developed at a slower pace than some. Travellers were a relatively rare sight in the 1860s of Siam, as the country was then known. The crowning of King Rama V in 1868, however, ushered in a significant period of modernisation and reform during which time the kingdom embraced certain Western ideals while also successfully resisting domination by colonial powers. As Bangkok grew from a stopover for trading ships between Hong Kong and Singapore to a port of international importance in its own right, the Oriental’s privileged position made it the principal rest house for foreign seafarers in Siam.
The Somerset Maugham Suite
Such humble beginnings – as a simple boarding house – would soon be left behind when Danish proprietors Messrs Andersen & Co commissioned an Italian architect to design a new building befitting the hotel’s burgeoning popularity. Marked with an announcement in the recently launched Bangkok Times, the Oriental enjoyed a grand opening on 19 May 1887, greeting foreign and Siamese dignitaries with a stately two-storey façade that left bemused locals wondering about the practicalities of a rarely seen second floor.
Fittingly, it was during the proprietorship of Hans Niels Andersen, a retired captain, that the hotel made its first literary association. Admired for the richness of his English prose, often used to narrate harrowing adventures at sea, Joseph Conrad spent 16 years in the British merchant navy before becoming a full-time novelist. Of Polish descent, he had worked his way up to the post of officer, with experience of sailing around Asia, when, in 1888, he was unexpectedly offered the command of a small ship anchored in Bangkok. Hurrying to replace the Otago’s previous captain, who had died suddenly, Conrad, upon reaching the Siamese capital, discovered that his new crew were in urgent need of recovery, suffering as they were from all manner of tropical illnesses. While waiting for rest to be taken ahead of the ship’s voyage to Singapore, the newly appointed captain became a frequent visitor to the bar of the Oriental, swapping stories with other regulars. ‘We talked of wrecks, of short rations and of heroism… and now and then falling silent all together, we gazed at the sights of the river,’ he reminisced in Falk. Although he would not return, the memories of setting sail from Bangkok to Singapore remained firmly in Conrad’s mind, providing a source for moving stories such as The Shadow Line.
The lounge in the Authors’ Wing
This early literary guest is honoured in more ways than one at the present-day Mandarin Oriental. There is the quintessential seafood restaurant, Lord Jim’s, named after one of Conrad’s seafaring heroes. And in the famed Authors’ Wing, where the hotel’s 19th-century edifice has been carefully preserved, guests can elect to stay in the Joseph Conrad Suite. In fact, the colonial-style wing, with its stunning white atrium lounge, is home to four heritage authors’ suites. Alongside Conrad, W Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward and James Michener are each remembered in living quarters decorated to reflect the personalities of their namesakes. The flamboyant Maugham and Coward suites are suitably sybaritic, dressed in gold and silk – magenta for the former, peacock blue for the latter – while antique furnishings and an enviable river view afforded by a terrace grace the Conrad residence. Books and photographs also help to summon the spirit of the respective authors.
The awards symbolise MO’s affinity with the literary world
King of Siam, Rama V
The entrance of Somerset Maugham, Coward and Michener in the Oriental’s story coincides with its continuing evolution during the 20th century into the grande dame it is today. By the early 1900s, the hotel had been selected as the preferred host for culturally significant events that brought a taste of the West to Siam, including an exhibition of Fabergé jewellery and a ballet performance by Nijinsky. Then, in 1923, as part of his Far East travels, the successful playwright and novelist W Somerset Maugham came a calling, booking a room after a train journey from Chiang Mai. Delirious with a serious bout of malaria contracted during the Burma-to-Siam leg of his tour, he later recalled how manageress Maria Maire had almost evicted him for fear that he would die in his room and ruin her business.
Author James Michener’s letter to the hotel in 1978
Somerset Maugham’s wry account of his Far East trip, The Gentleman in the Parlour, paints both a flattering and at times oppressive picture of Bangkok. He complains of the overwhelming heat endured during his stay at the Oriental – although he was able to make good use of time spent recovering from the damage caused by hungry mosquitoes. ‘And because I had nothing to do except look at the river and enjoy the weakness that held me blissfully to my chair I invented a fairy story.’ Somerset Maugham would return two years later for a far more pleasurable episode, and his patronage of the hotel continued until 1960, the year of his 85th birthday. Initially discovering Bangkok in 1929, another popular English playwright, Noël Coward, quickly came to appreciate the beauty of the Oriental’s waterfront site, one that would keep him returning to enjoy pre-prandial refreshments. ‘There is a terrace overlooking the swift river where we have drinks every evening watching the liver-coloured water swirling by and tiny steam tugs hauling rows of barges up river against the tide. It is a lovely place and
I am fonder of it than ever.’
Since the Thirties, the hotel’s literary credentials have been assured, with eminent writers, including Graham Greene, Barbara Cartland, John le Carré, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, all welcomed as guests. Le Carré fondly remembers being ‘treated like a king’ during one sojourn, while completing a novel on another; Cartland based two novels in Bangkok after her first stay, even naming one of her heroines after an Oriental employee; meanwhile, the multitalented Kukrit Pramoj, a distinguished Thai novelist and journalist who also served as the country’s Prime Minister, was the reason Marlon Brando travelled to Thailand and the Oriental – the pair had been good friends since starring together in The Ugly American. In recognition of their accomplishments, the hotel’s River Wing contains a number of authors’ suites bearing the names of these contemporary writers.
The Oriental Hotel in the early 1900s
Paul Theroux – who first visited Bangkok in 1968 to find the city evoked by Somerset Maugham, Coward and Greene before him – is yet another world-renowned author who has experienced the Oriental’s unique brand of hospitality. But he, along with the great James Michener, William Golding, Iris Murdoch and Pico Iyer, enjoys an additional literary bond with the hotel. For they are among a small group of luminaries who have attended the prestigious SEA Write Awards (also known as the South East Asian Writers Awards), as guest speakers.
Author Pico Iyer
Launched in 1979 to encourage and recognise the creativity of writers in the Association of South East Asian Nations, the SEA Write Awards is a practical and poignant symbol of Mandarin Oriental’s affinity with the literary world. Marked annually with a presentation and gala dinner held at the hotel, presided over by a member of the Thai royal family, the special occasion gathers awardees selected from up to 10 countries by a committee of their own peers, each having submitted an original work of fiction with particular relevance to their nation. Professor Edwin Thumboo, award-winning Singaporean poet and guest speaker at the 2011 presentation, sums up the significance of the event, which rewards winners with a commemorative plaque, cash prize and week-long vacation at Mandarin Oriental. ‘Any award with so distinguished a history, grown over more than 30 years in a region as richly diverse and vibrant as ours, must have much in its favour. It has built up invaluable legacies through the works of individual writers whose generative power continues to nourish national literatures as they feed the wellbeing of a people, of a nation.’ Some of the past winners are captured in a series of photographs displayed in a large album found in the hotel’s SEA Write Suite.
The Joseph Conrad Suite
As the SEA Write Awards has become the region’s foremost literary accolade, so the hotel’s reputation for nurturing and celebrating writing talent has been ensured. For if it is the preserve of our great authors to immortalise the human experience on paper, then it is Mandarin Oriental’s good fortune to play a small part in this journey.