Authors in the East

The Chao Phraya River flows opaque and powerful through Bangkok, a working river if there ever was one. Merchant ships once wound their way upstream from the sea to unload coal and take on rice and teak wood, and even today a few bright yellow colonial buildings and a customs house remember East meeting West here in the capital of Thailand. In 1876, along the banks of the river, a humble guesthouse opened and would become the first luxury hotel in what was then the Kingdom of Siam. While it remains one of the premier stays in the City of Angels, the Mandarin Oriental has taken on a curious reputation that puts the “storied” in its history.

Humble Origins
In the late 19th century, a 29-year-old Danish ship captain named Hans Niels Andersen checked into a 20-room hotel with basic accommodations. Having seen modern properties such as E&O and Raffles in other Asian ports, he saw a business opportunity. In 1881, he bought the property and hired an Italian architect to renovate it. At the time, even running water was considered luxurious, and the updated rooms also came with imported furnishings and décor. Electricity, a rarity outside the king’s palace, came to The Oriental a few years after completion; the first lights, held up by Italian bronze statues, are still there, keeping vigil at night along the riverside. After completion, King Rama V himself visited and found it suitable for special foreign guests of the Grand Palace.

An early guest in 1888, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish sailor for the British merchant marine, arrived to take on a captaincy, and Captain Andersen offered him Room 1. We know the sailor now as Joseph Conrad, legendary author of such classics as Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. And so it was that Conrad became the first on a list he would never know about: a litany of literary guests.

Authors at Large
A translucent ceiling above the central courtyard keeps out the heat and potential
mosquitoes that English writer W. Somerset Maugham once groused about as a guest. He was recovering from malaria so probably not in the best of moods. Maugham preferred his martinis made with Tanqueray and Noilly Prat vermouth, served in a glass rinsed with Benedictine. The staff kept track of such things for returning guests — and still do.

Conrad’s room has been incorporated into an eponymous suite, and that original building is now the Authors’ Wing, a part of a larger, modern complex. Even non guests can take traditional afternoon tea here, nibbling on gorgeous bites and sipping selections from a menu of blends that rivals most restaurants’ wine lists. Rattan chairs and tea tables place guests in cooled elegance before the grand staircase, under the….


By Kevin Revolinski


This is an excerpt from the latest issue of Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine. To continue reading, click above for a digital or print subscription.


Kevin Revolinski has lived abroad in Italy, Panama and Guatemala, writing for Rough Guide guidebooks, Caribbean Travel & Life, Chicago Tribune, and Wisconsin State Journal, as well as a memoir, The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey.