Bangkok may be one of today’s most-visited cities in the world, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in the 19th century—when Thailand was still called Siam—the sprawling city of today was just a town carved out of dense jungle at the edge of the muddy river. Then in 1847, a more recognizable Bangkok began to emerge: The Wat Arun temple was completed, and the next year, Wat Pho’s golden Reclining Buddha statue was erected. At the time, the Chao Phraya River’s banks were lined not only with temples but also timber yards and customs houses.
Since the late 19th century, one thing on the riverbank has remained constant: The Mandarin Oriental, a grande dame among Asian hotels. The hotel is in the news again: This December 15, it will emerge from a careful and elegant face-lift, the result of the largest and most expensive (at $90 million) renovation in the Mandarin Oriental brand’s history.
The beginning of the legend
The serene Oriental Hotel got off to a wobbly start. The first records of a guesthouse of that name, operated by two Americans, date back to 1863. A fire in 1865 destroyed 70 buildings along the river, including the original hotel structure. New owners tried to make a go of the rebuilt hotel with moderate success until 1881 when it was purchased by a 29-year-old Dane named Hans Niels Andersen along with his business partner, Siam’s Prince Prisdang.
“It was under Andersen’s ownership that the hotel really started to flourish,” says current general manager Greg Liddell. In 1887, Andersen hired an Italian architectural firm to design the new hotel (which today lives on as the Authors’ Wing of the modern hotel). That expansion is considered the true beginning of The Oriental’s existence as a grand hotel.
The new Oriental was a place of firsts: the first luxury hotel in the country, the first hotel with electric lights, imported chandeliers, carpeted hallways, and Parisian wallpaper; it had Bangkok’s first hotel bar, with an adjoining billiards saloon. Its 12 river-facing suites with private balconies presented an obvious choice for well-heeled travelers seeking a comfortable place to stay.
Over time, the Oriental continued its reign as the place to stay in Bangkok. It even earned the king’s approval: In 1900, King Chulalongkorn began hosting visiting royalty and heads of state at the hotel.
The ensuing decades brought changes in management, but the hotel retained its reputation as the choice place to stay (and be seen) in Bangkok. During World War II, though, the Oriental was seized by the Japanese government and converted into a club for army officers. After the war, it was reclaimed and served as temporary housing for liberated Allied prisoners of war.
The hotel came out of the war a bit worse for wear. Six financial partners, including the American expat silk merchant Jim Thompson and Germaine Krull, a prominent political activist and photojournalist, swept in to purchase the hotel from the government and restore it to its glory. One of the investors’ first prescient acts of resuscitation was to open the Bamboo Bar, still a popular meeting place.
The partners’ continuous innovations and improvements enhanced the Oriental’s reputation. In 1958, the construction of the 10-story Garden Wing required the installation of Thailand’s tallest elevator. That elevator was necessary to whisk guests up to a new rooftop French restaurant, Le Normandie. Air-conditioning—a necessity in Bangkok’s steamy climate—was installed throughout the property in 1976, when the hotel bought adjacent riverside acreage to build the 250-room River Wing.
A civilized refuge for world travelers
The guest register at the Oriental has included names of not simply government officials and figureheads but also actors, musicians, and, most famously, a library’s worth of authors.
In 1923 during a grand tour of Southeast Asia, English novelist W. Somerset Maugham was stranded several weeks at the hotel with a bout of malaria, later working the fever into a collection of travel stories called The Gentleman in the Parlour. Other literary greats like James Michener, Graham Greene, Noël Coward, and John Le Carré have stayed here, and some of the hotel’s finest suites still bear their names.
The hotel’s attraction extends beyond writers, too: Other notable guests have included Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, Eleanor Roosevelt, Audrey Hepburn, Louis Armstrong, Mick Jagger, and Princess Diana.
Along with celebrity guests, there’s also been celebrity drama. In 1983, rock musician Billy Idol allegedly raged through an epic three-week-long bender at the hotel. The noise, scandal, and destruction of furniture ended when, according to news reports at the time, Idol was removed from his suite on a stretcher after management summoned the Thai Army to help evict him.
Finding a balance between past and future
Although recent years have been markedly more subdued, the hotel’s advanced age meant a respectful and extensive refresh was in order. (Its exact age, with all the fits and starts around its founding, has been set at a vague 143-ish years old.) The plans for the current renovation took into account the Oriental’s history and its cultural importance to Bangkok. The Mandarin Oriental brand, which became part-owner of the hotel in 1972, hired interior designer Jeffrey Wilkes, known for his elegant work in luxury hotels throughout Asia. General manager Greg Liddell says that the designer “understands, loves, and respects everything that this hotel stands for.”
Wilkes’s designs for the renovation incorporate elements of Thai culture, the river, and the hotel’s past. For the textiles used in the new look, he’s chosen 294 different fabrics, some woven by local artisans and 189 produced in Thailand by Jim Thompson’s company.
Of the hotel’s 331 rooms, 300 have been refreshed with an interior design that merges traditional Thai elements with modern amenities like Bluetooth speakers, yoga mats, and Nespresso machines. The river views in the guest rooms have even gotten better thanks to new floor-to-ceiling windows, many of which open onto balconies.
All four on-site restaurants have been redesigned and a fifth one added: Kinu by Takagi, the first Thailand venture for Michelin-celebrated Japanese chef Takagi Kazuo. Fans of Le Normandie will be glad to hear that the menu remains intact and only the dining room has been touched. Since the first Michelin Guide for Bangkok was published in 2017, Le Normandie has retained its two Michelin stars by serving fine French food alongside uninterrupted views of Chao Phraya River.
One of the hotel’s most glamorous suites, the Oriental Suite, features Thai silks, rattan furniture, and teak flooring. (It also has a full kitchen and a private dining room.) The renovation included a redesign of the wraparound, 620-square-foot terrace, one of the suite’s opulent amenities. The showpiece of the Oriental Suite’s sumptuous master bedroom has been retained: a spectacular hand-carved canopy bed topped by a gold-leaf pineapple ornament.
“The pineapple has always been considered a superior and important fruit in Thailand,” says general manager Liddell. “It is a symbol of great hospitality, luxury, nobility, and wealth.”
The same thing could be said of the grande dame herself.
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