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
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
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)
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
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 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.