Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok has been welcoming travellers, and particularly writers, for nearly 130 years. Our correspondent delves into the hotel’s prestigious literary history

A postcard of The Oriental, Bangkok 1880

A postcard of The Oriental, Bangkok 1880

‘If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels,’ so wrote Alain de Botton in his much-acclaimed essay, The Art of Travel. If de Botton is right, then for many travel writers, that quest is never ending. Exotic locales present even more delicious dilemmas, challenges and emotions: a richness of life and freedom, as much as alienation and adventure. Under such circumstances, literary creativity seems to come alive. Miles from their habitual environments, writers are able to see through different eyes; their observations become sharper, their minds ever more curious.

Joseph Conrad, 1923

Joseph Conrad, 1923

William Somerset Maugham travelled great distances in his life, including spending protracted periods in Asia. In his semi-autobiographical work Of Human Bondage, the writer’s yearning to break free of his homeland is unequivocally summed up: ‘He wanted to go to the East; and his fancy was rich with pictures of Bangkok and Shanghai, and the ports of Japan: he pictured to himself palm trees and skies blue and hot, dark-skinned people, pagodas; the scents of the Orient intoxicated his nostrils.’

Noël Coward, 1936

Noël Coward, 1936

Through the centuries, Thailand has been one of those places where the visitor has naturally felt at ease. The endearing warmth of its gentle people and a culture of hospitality have led travellers to return time and again to its shores. In the late 19th century, when travel was far from the sedate pleasure it is today, some of the world’s greatest travel writers and novelists visited the kingdom, then known as Siam.

His fancy was rich with pictures of Bangkok; the scents of the Orient intoxicated his nostrils  
- William Somerset Maugham

The Oriental in the 1940s

The Oriental in the 1940s

Writers such as Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham would lead the way in their quiet observances and astute character portrayals of the life of expatriates and locals. Novels such as Conrad’s Lord Jim and The Shadow-Line, or Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, all describe the beauty, loneliness and exotica of the Far East, a way of life far from the banality of 19th-century Britain, fuelling claims by American author Barbara Hodgson that the British peoples’ passion for adventure was in part because of this literary zeal. ‘No other country produced as many books on the subject.’

Conrad, who in his first post as captain brought the ship Otago into port in Bangkok in 1888, later writes his memories of the wondrous city in The Shadow-Line. ‘One morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.

A letter from John Le Carré

A letter from John Le Carré

John Le Carré, 1980

John Le Carré, 1980

‘There it was, spread largely on both banks… an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.’

Barbara Cartland, 1928

Barbara Cartland, 1928

Such visions of splendour would bring countless voyagers to Siam, and Bangkok in particular, with its swift river and proximity to the sea, became a frequent stopping-off point for Europeans travelling between the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore.

However, until the 1880s, decent lodgings were by no means easy to find. In Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (which inspired the musical and film The King and I), British governess, Anna Leonowens arrives by boat up the Chao Phraya river and having no place to stay, she asks the captain about a small hotel standing next to a building with a French flag. She is quickly told: ‘That is a seamen’s lodge. Not quite the place for a lady to stay.’

King’s Palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight…  
- Joseph Conrad

Ironically this particular seamen’s lodge of 1862 is today, one of the greatest hotels in the world, The Oriental, Bangkok. Benefiting from a breezy riverside location close to the diplomatic missions of the day, The Oriental had, by 1876, already thrown off its previous insalubrious associations and reinvented itself as one of the grand hotels of the Far East.

Through its near 130 years of existence, its grandiose colonial facade has greeted travellers, dignitaries and indeed literary figures, some of whom like British spy novelist, John le Carré, penned novels from the rooms and suites. Others, like Noël Coward simply imbued the riverine views, declaring:  ‘It is a lovely place and I am fonder of it than ever.’

Like so many, the Chao Phraya river caught the imagination of Coward. He later recalled how he spent his evenings: ‘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.’

We arrived like tramps and were treated like kings. I do remember we drank a lot of Champagne  
John Le Carré

A steam launch on the Chao Phraya in the 1890s

A steam launch on the Chao Phraya in the 1890s

Not surprisingly, Coward chose to take his pre-prandial refreshments in the evening. He would later write a song that deplored the infamous British habit of going out at the height of the day, something he particularly disdained. His comical lyrics would sum up his disgust: ‘In Bangkok at twelve o’clock they foam at the mouth and run! But Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!’

Coward, together with some of The Oriental’s most celebrated literary patrons from Gore Vidal to Frederick Forsyth, are remembered in a series of suites, each decorated in a style that reflects the author’s own personality.

The outskirts of Bangkok

The outskirts of Bangkok

Chedis of the Four Kings at Wat Po, Bangkok

Chedis of the Four Kings at Wat Po, Bangkok

The Barbara Cartland Suite is delicately pink – though the British romantic novelist was reported to have written a letter saying that she feared it ‘may not be pink enough’; the John le Carré Suite has a gentlemanly air about it, in greys, khakis and greens; while the Somerset Maugham and Coward Suites are dutifully flamboyant in splendid Thai silks.

Though Joseph Conrad never stayed at the hotel – his paltry captain’s wages only allowed him the pleasure of drinking at the bar – a suite bears his name, and the hotel’s newly-refurbished seafood restaurant is still called Lord Jim’s.

The Chao Phraya river and Noël Coward (inset)

The Chao Phraya river and Noël Coward (inset)

Pico Iyer, a novelist and writer based in Japan, was invited on two occasions to talk at the annual Southeast Asian Writers’ Awards (SEA Write) that are hosted by the hotel. Being a dedicated fan of Maugham, he was quite moved to find himself staying in the suite dedicated to the great writer. ‘I have been following Maugham on the page since I was a boy – no travelling companion has been more loyal or more enlightening – but I never expected to stay in the room consecrated to his memory.’ Reflecting on his impressions of the suite, he wrote: ‘silk, silk, silk, in a hundred different shades, beckoning one into a sort of lotusland of the senses’. Well before Iyer made it into the top echelons of modern writers, like many underpaid journalists, he longed to stay at The Oriental. He shyly admits that he sometimes left his luggage at the hotel while seeking less affluent lodgings.

We have drinks every evening watching the liver-coloured water swirling by…
Noël Coward

Jerry Westerby, John le Carré’s underworld hero in his 1977 novel The Honourable School Boy – a book le Carré completed at the hotel – has a different strategy; he tips the front desk to secure a fake room bill that he can flaunt to his colleagues. Le Carré, now in his seventies, remembers his arrival at The Oriental at the end of a hard overland journey down from Laos, then still gripped by insurgency. He arrived somewhat dishevelled with his guide and companion, HDS Greenway. ‘Arriving at The Oriental was almost unreal. We were still practically out of breath (or I was) from the…occasional hazards of our journey. We arrived like tramps and were treated like kings. I do emphatically remember that we drank a lot of champagne.’ Le Carré – like Iyer – stayed in the Somerset Maugham suite; it was some years later, after strings of best-sellers, that the hotel decided to name a suite after him.

Khun Ankana in the late 1940s

Khun Ankana in the late 1940s

In a hotel with such a long history it is rare to find first-hand recollections of visiting literary figures. But at the tender age of 84, the inimitable Ankana Kalantananda (Khun Ankana), who will soon celebrate 60 years working with the hotel, can vividly recall the visits of the last century’s great writers.

Maugham, she confides was very social and always out at parties. Coward, she admits, she saw once or twice. However, Dame Barbara Cartland visited Thailand numerous times and spent many hours with Khun Ankana. Some years after Cartland’s first stay, she produced two novels based in Bangkok: Journey to a Star and Sapphires in Siam; the latter dedicated not just to The Oriental, but also to Khun Ankana, whose name is given to the novel’s feisty heroine. In the book’s dedication she writes that Ankana is a ‘very important and charming part of the best hotel in the world’. Remarkably, In Sapphires in Siam, Cartland picks up the very same impressions of the city as Conrad had written of exactly a century earlier, the radiant architecture and the river’s bustling commerce.

The Noël Coward Suite at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok

The Noël Coward Suite at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok

‘The yacht moved upstream and they saw the mangroves, the tall feathery bamboos, and the stately palm trees interlaced with lianes and gigantic creepers…There were fishing craft of all sorts…children paddling their small canoes…diving into the steamers’ wash calling and laughing and waving…the Marquis could see the gold of the Temples flashing in the sunshine, and the multi-gabled roofs of the Palaces…the picturesque buildings with their gilt-horned roofs and the pinnacled pagodas seemed overwhelming.’

With the Thai capital undergoing massive changes, few landmarks remain constant. The palaces, the river and The Oriental, are three such historic gems that remain unhindered by modernity, each one leaving a deep impression on travellers through the ages. The Oriental has grown from a small riverside inn into the ‘grande dame’ of hotels. It has sheltered, nurtured and welcomed guests providing a traveller with a home-from-home; a quiet retreat where they can reflect on their journeys in tranquillity.

Thailand today still twinkles with that iridescence that has been capturing the imaginations of authors and travel writers since Conrad first docked on the banks of the Chao Phraya; no doubt The Oriental, Bangkok will be appearing on many more pages yet to come, an embodiment of Bangkok past and present.

Back To Top

Related Articles