Former literary guest James A Michener (with the hotel’s then PR manager)
So iconic is the Authors' Lounge at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok that the image of its sedately sweeping staircase, white rattan furniture, decorative fretwork and verdant palms is inextricably bound together with the modern history of the Thai capital. Synonymous with the laid-back elegance of a bygone era, the lounge remains at the historic heart of a hotel that this year celebrates its 140th anniversary.
From its origins as a seamen's guesthouse on this riverfront plot all those years ago, the evolution of The Oriental – Thailand's first hotel – into one of Asia's most famed grandes dames began in earnest in the 1870s.
A decade later, under the erstwhile management of three Danish entrepreneurs, the basic accommodation was rebuilt and unveiled to Siamese society, with a two-storeyed design by Italian architects demonstrating the vogue for buildings influenced by Western styles. Part of this handsome Italianate structure remains today in the form of the Authors' Wing, which has retained its late-19th-century charm. It is no wonder, then, that its famed residents' lounge has served as the lynchpin of a newly completed and much celebrated renovation project, which restores the Authors' Wing to its former splendour, while giving the adjacent Garden Wing a fresh lease of life.
The hotel in its early incarnation as The Oriental in 1880
Such has been the sensitivity shown to the Authors' Lounge that regular visitors will barely detect any change to the cherished colonial aesthetic. It has just the smallest of updates – a touch more punch on the green-hued Thai fretwork, a tad more detailing on the staircase's handrail – which seek to reinforce the authenticity of this popular space: the hallowed meeting ground for afternoon tea in Bangkok.
However, for its restorers, P49 Deesign – Thailand's foremost interior design practice – the lounge was instrumental in creating a stylistic rhythm for the rest of the renovation. Speaking on behalf of the Bangkok-based studio, Carl Almeida says he and the company's other partners valued the world-renowned identity of the Authors' Lounge so much that it provided the design cue for the other parts of the hotel that they were commissioned to reimagine. Its essence, he elaborates, 'is the relaxed yet sophisticated ambience of days gone by.'
As part of the restoration, the four Heritage Authors' Suites on the first floor of the Authors' Wing have now become four lounges on the ground floor, named in honour of the famous literary names who once stayed at The Oriental – Joseph Conrad, Noël Coward, W Somerset Maugham and James A Michener. This effectively extends the Authors' Lounge experience into adjoining private libraries and terraces conceived for the pleasure of all guests. Underscoring The Oriental's long-rooted association with these famed writers, the new ground-floor salons provide intimate, accessible backdrops for archived materials to be viewed while sipping tea.
Erstwhile guest Noël Coward
W Somerset Maugham, one of the hotel’s most celebrated past guests
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok's General Manager, Amanda Hyndman, has lead the effort to curate the property's extensive archive of images, related art and memorabilia, augmenting and allocating pieces to befitting spaces that can evocatively bring the hotel's history to life. In the Noël Coward Lounge, for instance, you can be enchanted by his paintings, books and manuscripts, and by his famous quote about the Chao Phraya River and its 'liver-coloured water swirling by', which is engraved on the walls.
Another secluded ground-floor spot, named Khun Ankana's Study, pays pictorial tribute to the hotel's longest-serving employee – the inimitable Ankana Kalantananda, who joined in 1947 and became Guest Relations Manager. It also displays signed copies of works by some of the literary greats who have previously checked in. Indeed, the Authors' Lounge and the new sequence of sympathetically designed salons are now home to a revived collection recalling the great and the good who have given their patronage to the property, including guest speakers of the Southeast Asian Writers Award, which is hosted here annually. The whole floor additionally benefits from an enhanced sense of flow to the stunning gardens beyond, organically connecting the Authors' Lounge to the alluring riverside frontage.
A vintage luggage sticker depicting the hotel and its 1876 origins
Ever mindful of The Oriental's heritage, Hyndman and her team, in collaboration with P49 Deesign founder and CEO Vipavadee Pao Patpongpibul, carefully considered how the first floor of the Authors' Wing should be utilised now that the four Authors' Suites had effectively become the ground-floor lounges. Which raised the question: with such a sensational aspect over Thailand's River of Kings, surely there could not be a more appropriate location for a Royal Suite? Measuring 600 square metres – a size that makes it one of the largest suites in Asia – the newly instated presidential abode glows with a 'white, light and fresh' palette, as P49 describes it, and has been created as a 'hotel within a hotel' to occupy the wing's entire first floor.
A bedroom in the new Ambassador Suite
Colonial character abounds in the colour scheme, the wall panelling and in the furniture lines of this magnificent suite, which can be configured to six bedrooms. There are also contemporary comforts and luxuries associated with a stately residential home. A rich, yellow-gold accent in the living and dining rooms enlivens the understated grey-white scheme, while crystal chandeliers sourced from specialists in Italy and Austria add an opulent touch. A regal purple, meanwhile, provides a contrast in the master bedroom, a picture of chic elegance that has walk-in closets and an en-suite marble bathroom that is adorned with a sumptuous double vanity unit finished in stencilled gold leaf. In addition to the master bedroom, there are two bedrooms offered by the adjoining Ambassador Suite and a further three separate en-suite rooms – each with a pantry – suitable for a guest's entourage.
The new resident's lounge, named after Joseph Conrad
Even the most discerning of travellers will be impressed by the spaciousness of the living areas, not least the dining room that comfortably accommodates 12 guests and is served by a fully equipped kitchen featuring state-of-the-art Gaggenau appliances and a luxurious bar. Designed with its own private lift, security system, study, and business, fitness and spa facilities, as well as butler service, the Royal Suite takes every consideration of a presidential party into account.
As with the ground floor, the art displayed across the first floor strongly references a sense of place, and the life and times of those illustrious patrons who have an association with the hotel. Hence the Royal and Ambassador Suites proudly showcase a fascinating set of historical images, including pictures that capture the European travels of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn back in 1897 and, decades later, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit opening Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok's River Wing in 1976.
Perhaps, though, the crowning glory of the Royal Suite is the reinstatement of an original open balcony, which affords an unparalleled view over Bangkok's majestic river. By contrast, the connecting Ambassador Suite offers a genteel, cosseting conservatory from where to soak up the panorama. This enclosed, Victorian-inspired glass structure, defined by hanging foliage, is the perfect place for the Suite's guests to sip cocktails, made by the butler at the residents' bar, as the sunset begins its mesmerising light show on the water.
While restoration has been the overriding mantra in the Authors' Wing, the newly configured Garden Wing delights with an improved sense of space (notably, the doubling of previous room sizes) and enhanced functionality. Here, the Authors' Lounge is again the muse, this time for the 12 Garden Rooms and 12 Garden Suites – the latter complete with river-facing balconies – yet with detailing that is less ornate, softer and more modern.
Encapsulated by P49 Deesign as 'contemporary design inspired by a period', the gentle glamour of the Garden Wing is derived from a timeless colour palette layered with dark wood cabinetry, seating cocooned in Jim Thompson silks, tactile wallcoverings and rugs, and silver-leaf finishes on several pieces of furniture. With rooms offering direct views to the external landscape, and clusters of historical pictures decorating walls, the wing's revitalisation elevates the property's accommodation offering without losing the all-important connection to the hotel's heritage.
Elsewhere in the Garden Wing, local residents and frequent guests may notice the subtle and elegant rejuvenation of the renowned French dining restaurant, Le Normandie. Among the striking new features are handcrafted chandeliers and a wine cellar. Also as part of the Garden Wing's rejuvenation, four Spa Studios on the first floor have welcomed two Thailand beauty exclusives: the much-lauded services of Bastien Gonzalez, whose Pedi:Mani:Cure Studio is sure to be a hit with Bangkok's high society, and science-based brand QMS Medicosmetics.
The living room of the Royal Suite in the Authors’ Wing
En route to the Spa Studios (which are ideal for those too pressed for time to enjoy the wellbeing therapies provided by The Oriental Spa), visitors are invited to immerse themselves in The Oriental Journey. This permanent exhibition of celebrity images, vintage advertising and royal gala invitations chronicles the personalities who have at one time called Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok their Thai 'home from home'.
Once a memorable visit or stay at your 'home from home' draws to a close here, there is no better way to commemorate the occasion than by selecting evocative souvenirs and mementoes. A meander from the main lobby to the Authors' Lounge reveals a new and improved shopping arcade, featuring a Jim Thompson store and an Oriental Boutique that marks the hotel's 140th anniversary with a signature range of collectables.
With the painstaking restoration of the Authors' Wing and classy reinvigoration of the Garden Wing complete, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok remains assured of its unique identity. After all, its former glory is revived and intact, and its facilities and comfort upgraded with just the right modern touch.