Colonial influences: the Mandarin Oriental Hotel spa. Mandarin Oriental Hotel executive suite.
Dining on the terrace.
The spirits of literary greats permeate these halls, writes Catherine Marshall.
There’s an elephant in the room – and it’s made entirely of chocolate. It carries on its back a saddle wrought from confection, and inside the saddle is a load of exquisitely crafted chocolates. Propped against a miniature easel beside the elephant’s flank is an edible painting of Bangkok’s legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
I bite into the painting; it is deliciously sweet, but leaves a vaguely subversive taste in my mouth, too, for I’m standing inside the very building that I have just – metaphorically – eaten. From my suite high up in the hotel’s River Wing extension I can see the Chao Phraya River snaking languorously past the hotel terrace and meandering back towards Bangkok’s northern outskirts; the sun is beginning to sink and its rays briefly glaze the coffee-brown waters of this city thoroughfare.
The riverboats churning through it can’t have changed much since 1887, when expatriates and local aristocrats gathered here to celebrate the opening of this establishment, built in place of the original Oriental Hotel.
Grand and neoclassical, it was seen as an appropriate addition to the city of Bangkok, which by then was the fast-growing capital of Siam, as Thailand was then known, the only country in south-east Asia spared colonial rule.
But colonial influences abounded then and still do today, in the golden teak bells that hang from the vaulted ceiling in the lobby, in the white wicker chairs and lazily whirring ceiling fans in the Authors’ Lounge, in the stationery that has been embossed with my name and placed on a writing bureau overlooking the river, and, of course, in the chocolate elephant that stands on the dresser and carries in its regal bearing the memory of a time long since past.
Sitting at my bureau with its leather and teak accents, its pens and gold-stamped paper, and all of Bangkok lying sprawled outside my window as inspiration, I can easily conjure that intellectual, jasmine-scented past. The new hotel attracted visiting writers from the West who would drink gin and tonics on the terrace and imagine into being the characters who would populate their novels.
John Le Carre completed The Honourable Schoolboy here, W. Somerset Maugham recovered from malaria in one of the cool, soothing suites, and Ernest Hemingway ever-faithfully propped up the bar.
For my own part, I took afternoon tea in the Authors’ Lounge, sitting amid the ghosts of all those legendary writers as I drank my specially formulated oriental brew and nibbled tiny quiches and croissants. I could picture Joseph Conrad sitting in the corner just over there, and Dame Barbara Cartland holding court across the room, a pot of creme brulee held between her jewelled fingers. The lounge had felt like the repository of an intriguing literary history, for it takes up much of the first floor of the original wing at whose opening all those expatriates and aristocrats could be seen rubbing shoulders back in 1887; today, the upper level has been commandeered by four heritage suites named for Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and James Michener.
Their books are squeezed among countless others on shelves in the library, which is tucked just off the lounge and doubles as a reading room for guests who wish to linger.
The hotel’s later additions, separated from the original building by richly scented tropical gardens, are also appointed with suites bearing the names of literary patrons: Gore Vidal, Jim Thompson, Wilbur Smith.
But this theme is not just a marketing gimmick, for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel pinned its literary colours to the mast in 1979 when it co-founded the South East Asian Writers’ Awards (also known as the SEA Write Award).
I had briefly browsed the library at afternoon tea, but decided that too much cerebral activity was sinful in a city so attuned to the importance of holistic well-being. So I caught a teak barge – used to shuttle guests – to the other side of the river, where an annex contains the hotel’s health centre, jogging track, Thai cooking school, the Sala Rim Naam restaurant and the serene, wood-panelled cocoon that is the Oriental Spa.
Here, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s spa wellness manager, Neelam Khatri, explained that the establishment sought to maximise their guests’ experience by combining traditional massage with Ayurvedic consultation, yoga and meditation. Khatri’s gentle voice, the scent of oils and steamy Thai fruit tea and the abiding silence were already inducements to a somniferous afternoon, but I believe I may have actually slumbered when my therapist gently delivered a signature aromatherapy massage.
Reawakened, I had returned to my suite. And now here I stand, high above Bangkok, observing a city transformed by darkness and the glitter of electric light.
The writer was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok and Qantas.
The Mandarin Oriental, 48 Oriental Avenue. Qantas flies to Bangkok from Sydney daily. Phone 131313, see qantas老域名.au.
Rates for a superior room start at $362 a night. See mandarinoriental老域名/bangkok.
Attentive yet unobtrusive staff; daily bowl of tropical fruit with a card explaining its origins; the personalised invitation to attend cocktails; welcoming treats such as that chocolate elephant.
Watching those expansive riverside windows being cleaned somewhat spoils the romance.
Dinner at the hotel’s five-star Sala Rim Naam restaurant. Set across the river from the main compound and housed in a beautiful Northern Thai-style pavilion, it delivers a rich sensory experience of Thai cuisine.
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