The Oriental Hotel

22 Jan 2007

Ask any Bangkok resident to recommend to foreign visitors what are the absolute ‘must sees’ in the City of Angels, and you should not be surprised to hear, alongside spectacular sights like the Grand Palace and Wat Po, The Chao Phrya river and colourful Chinatown, the name of The Oriental Hotel. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that The Oriental is any kind of ordinary hotel. Rather it is a landmark institution in the Thai capital. Founded 130 years ago, it has been transformed from a simple riverside lodging house for itinerant ship’s captains and adventurous nineteenth-century travellers into a beacon of luxury living that has repeatedly brought it international awards as quite simply ‘the world’s best hotel’.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that The Oriental is just renowned among jet-set travellers and visiting celebrities. From the moment it was built,The Oriental became a symbol of the status of Bangkok as a fast-growing capital of the only independent country in Southeast Asia never to fall under colonial rule. And ever since, it has been the crucial meeting point for the movers and shakers of Thai society – not just bankers and businessmen, but royalty, aristocrats and politicians too.

Although it seems difficult to imagine today, back in the mid-nineteenth century, every emerging Asian nation was symbolised around the world by its ‘grand hotel’. Singapore had Raffles, Penang the Eastern & Oriental, the meeting place in Rangoon, capital of Burma, was The Strand, traders to China checked into Macao’s Bella Vista, while the only place to stay in Colombo, capital of the then Ceylon, was the grandiose Galle Face.

Thailand, with its cautious approach to diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, developed slower than its neighbours, and Bangkok was not one of the usual ports of call when travelling the trade routes of the Far East.

But that all changed when European entrepreneurs decided to create the luxurious Oriental, and Bangkok automatically became a more important destination. In 1885, the British added most of neighbouring Burma to their ever-expanding colonial empire, a Danish trader, Hans Niels Andersen, commissioned an Italian architect, Signor Cardu, to create a grandiose building, which still stands today, albeit in the shadow of a towering new wing. No richness had ever been seen in Siam, outside the royal palaces, and The Oriental, under the flamboyant management of an eccentrically-named French manager, Georges Troisoeufs, was immediately a success.

Unlike some hotels whose reputations are linked, for example, to visiting kings and queens, Hollywood celebrities or outrageous pop stars, The Oriental has built its place in history firmly on a literary foundation. Put simply, this is an idyll for writers to come for peace, relaxation and inspiration.

Visitors today just have to walk into the atmospheric Author’s Lounge, housed in the original Oriental building, to be transported back to an atmospheric colonial epoch when the hotel was a favourite stop-off for writers like Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Graham Greene. Sipping tea in a rattan armchair beneath the low hum of a wooden ceiling fan – there are no longer Indian punkah wallahs tugging hand fans – it is worth turning the pages of one of Maugham’s books, which give a wonderful description of 1920’s Bangkok:

I was in Bangkok. It is impossible to consider these populous modern cities of the East without a certain malaise. They are all alike, with their straight streets, their arcades, their tramways, their dust, their blinding sun, their teeming Chinese, their dense traffic, their ceaseless din. They have no history, no traditions. Painters have not paintedthem … But when you leave them it is with a feeling that you have missed something and you cannot help feeling that they have some secret that they have kept from you.

In more recent times, the legendary manager of The Oriental, Kurt Wachtweitl, has played host to a newer generation of itinerant literati – Gore Vidal, James Michener, Barbara Cartland, Norman Mailer – and a certain well-known British writer.

‘I always had a dream,’ explains Mr Wachtweitl,’that one of our famous visiting authors, John Le Carre, would create a script for the actor Alec Guinness in the role of British spymaster George Smiley and set it at The Oriental. Of course, we would win an Oscar with the audience agreeing that never before had a Le Carre been better done – or in a better setting!’

No one is more associated with the success today of The Oriental than its ubiquitous director, but Wachtweitl is equally sure that his own success is due to the 1,000 strong Thai staff that cater to the every whim of the hotel’s guests. He loves to tell guests that, ‘In my 39 years as GeneralManager of The Oriental – a journey of life – work became, over the years,a hobby. I often say, ˝The hotel is my mistress˝. Luckily, my wife adopted this motto over the years without making a fuss or leaving me!

To be constantly successful, you become, with age, a strange kind of human being.You have to go your own way, you can’t always listen to your bosses, your wife. I just hope people are kind to me, and call me a manager of the old school.’ Wachweitl is sure that the real secret of the success of hishotel is the staff themselves. ‘The Oriental is about dreams and illusions,with a particular charm that has almost disappeared – the ˝Old Siam˝. Thai employees bring this charm to life with their warm smiles. Fortunately, we don’t have to train our employees in these details, the Thai culture itself takes care of what our hotel is all about – a place with feeling. Whatever our staff do for a client comes first of all from their hearts.’

It is rare when a hotel really lives up to expectations and lavish plaudits – repeatedly voted best hotel in the world, preferred address of dignitaries and movie stars, extolled by guide books. But The Oriental could be the exception that proves the rule, as actually spending a night here really is a unique experience. The tiny building that housed the original Oriental remains untouched, transformed today into the atmospheric Author’s Lounge, while the main building has mushroomed into a modern 350-room facility that combines friendly service, elegant furnishings and a unique olde-worlde atmosphere that contemporary hotels can never duplicate.

Catch The Oriental’s ferry across the river and you arrive at a state-of-the-art spa that has won almost as many awards as the hotel itself. If you pass through the lobby at lunchtime, you won’t be able to miss the tall, distinguished figure of Kurt Wachtweil, who stations himself here everyday to personally greet clients and visitors. And no hotel in Bangkok can rival the quality and sheer variety of the Oriental’s different restaurants, which offer visitors a gastronomic ‘tour du monde’.

Norbert Kostner comes from a mountain village in the Italian Tyrol, and he presides over all the Oriental’s restaurants as Executive Chef. The flagship restaurant is Le Normandie, as opulent as a royal dining room, andserving French cuisine that approaches a three-star Michelin level. Pretty well all of the world’s most renowned chefs have guest-cooked here at sometime, including Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Georges Blanc, Anton Mossiman and Alain Senderens.

In fact, it is quite difficult to imagine that you are sitting down for dinner in tropical, exotic Bangkok, when the Normandie’s menu features dishes like ‘Noisette de chevreuil a lapoire caramelisee et aux champignons du marche, sauce aux groseilles’, ’Sole meuniere, confit de foie gras d’oie, salade de haricots verts’, or a dish that perhaps gives away Chef Kostner’s Italian origins, ‘Ravioli de champignons, sauce au cafe et tomates sechees’.

For those looking for authentic Thai cuisine, there is the palatial Sala Rim Naam, over on the other side of the Chao Phrya. For those intrigued by delicious recipes like a spiced salad of banana blossoms with prawns, or curried shrimp paste with coconut cream and deep-fried catfish, then next door to the restaurant is the Oriental’s award-winning Thai cooking school. Chinese cuisine is served in a beautifully restored colonial villa, The China House, while more modern fusion cuisine influenced by contemporary Australian and acific Rim chefs is served in the bright, modern Lord Jim restaurant.

Whether staying in the hotel or just coming in for a look round, no one should leave The Oriental without having a Singapore Sling in the Oriental’s famous Bamboo Bar. As its name implies, this is an elegant 1940s-style lounge lizard cocktail bar, the kind of fantasy place where you’d expect to see Humphrey Bogart at the bar sipping a Martini and Ella Fitzgerald crooning away at the microphone.

Make sure to have a good look at the pictures hanging on the wall.
Although The Oriental has a valuable collection of sepia photographs of Thai royalty dressed up in sumptuous costumes and crowns, in the Bamboo Bar you can spot a wonderful old photo of the present King of Thailand, an enthusiastic jazz musician, sitting next to another King, none other than Elvis Presley.

John Brunton, a journalist and photographer, was born in London and lives between Paris and Venice. He has published a number of gastronomy and photography books.

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