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Bangkok: Hotel with a colourful history

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Jill Worrall's trip to Bangkok took place ahead of the recent unrest.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has declared Bangkok an area of 'some risk' and is currently advising New Zealanders to exercise a very high degree of personal security awareness in the city.

The River Terrace and the Chao Praya River at dusk. Photo / Jill Worrall
The River Terrace and the Chao Praya River at dusk. Photo / Jill Worrall

Tidying up before one's room is "made up" is probably a clear indication of not being a natural at luxury hotel living.

Five-star hotels rarely figure on my itineraries so I don't often have the opportunity to put my theory to the test. However, a few weeks ago I was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, where there are supposedly three staff per guest room. No wonder then, that no matter how well I straightened up my room before heading out into the sultry summer air of Bangkok, the room fairies still seemed to find ways to work their magic.

The Mandarin is considered one of the world's best hotels and has many awards to back up this claim, and service is a vital part of attaining such a reputation. So, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find the metro ticket I'd used to mark my place in reading material replaced by an elegant bookmark, or my dusty looking leather sandals buffed to a sheen they are unlikely to achieve again. I still kept tidying up each morning but did reflect that, given the chance, this lifestyle could be easy to get used to...the little dessert treats that arrived at 5pm, the fresh tropical fruit each day, the three daily newspapers and the literary quote on my turned-down bed last thing.

Could I persuade my husband that this degree of service should be maintained at home?

It's all very beguiling, of course, but not unique. However, what sets the Oriental apart is that it is a hotel with a colourful glamorous past. For the travel romantics among us, this gives the hotel an edge above the parvenus of the luxury hotel trade such as the gleaming towers of Dubai.

The Oriental is 134 years old and on the site of the first hotel to be built in Bangkok. That building was subsequently burnt down and rebuilt and then in 1876 the Oriental, the country's first luxury hotel, was built on the site. To ensure its success, the owners lured the chef and butler away from the neighbouring French consulate. One of the owners was Louis T Leonowens, son of the Anna made famous in the film the King and I - a still non-PC film with many Thais.

By 1890 the Thai king declared the hotel fit for visiting royalty. The first monarch to stay there was the then Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia (later to become Tsar) in 1891. During the Second World War Japanese Army officers were stationed here, which led to a complete sacking of the hotel by Allied forces later.

The beginning of the hotel's return to its glory days began post-war when six people each contributed $US250 to buy it. One of the original proprietors was Jim Thompson, the American credited with reviving the Thai silk industry.

The hotel was the first two-storey building in the city and the original building is incorporated into the present complex. If you have the money you can stay in one of four author's suites (prices start at about $US1300 a night) in what is now known as the Authors' Residence, or at least take afternoon tea in the Authors' Lounge, a garden atrium that links the residence with the more modern parts of the hotel.

The four suites are named after authors who regularly stayed at the Oriental - Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham (who once recovered from a bout of malaria here), Noel Coward and James Michener.

Maugham's suite is swathed in deep red silk, with two single four-poster beds, a wood-panelled dressing room and a bathroom with a clawfoot bath.

Conrad apparently wrote Heart of Darkness while staying at the hotel. How much of an effort was it to shut out the life and light of the Chao Praya River in front of the hotel to produce such a dark and brooding book? New Zealand visitors will do a double take when they notice one of the other suites is called Otago - not named after the province however, but a ship once captained by Conrad.

Other authors who frequented the hotel and who have suites named after them include Barbara Cartland (whose rooms are apparently very pink), Gore Vidal, Graham Greene, Wilbur Smith and John le Carre. These are in the garden wing behind the Authors' Residence. No two are the same, but all have spectacular views of the river. It would be an inspirational place to be left to write but I am not sure how much work I'd get done...there is so much to distract, from the long-tail boats zipping past, the stately progress of the rice barges, and if you're on the right side of the building, what's going on in the French consul's front garden.

The Oriental's riverside terrace is a favourite place for guests and visitors alike, with its ringside view of the river action. Noel Coward apparently loved the terrace where he would watch "the liver-coloured water swirling by and the steam tugs hauling rows of barge upstream against the tide". You can walk down the curved path through the luxuriant garden shaded by palms to the front of the Authors' Residence too. Then there's the Bamboo Bar where there's live jazz every night and beside a shop specialising in Havana cigars.

But my favourite pace of all is the Authors' Lounge, where light diffuses from the atrium's glass roof onto white rattan furniture with deep cushions covered in white and green fabric. Tropical greenery overflows from urns and an enormous bowl of deep red orchids sits beside the two curved staircases that lead to the Authors' Suites.

While I had iced tea (there are about 15 tea varieties available) and chocolate mousse cake, a guitarist plucked and strummed his way through Segovia and waitresses in Thai silk dresses glided past. Afternoon tea was obviously popular with hot and bothered shoppers in cropped pants and t-shirts. I can't imagine some of the hotel's most famous guests, who apparently included Sophia Loren and Princess Di, being impressed. But then they probably didn't straighten up their beds and put all their clothes away either, so who was I to criticise?

Jill Worrall travelled to Thailand courtesy of Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She stayed at the Sukhothai and Mandarin Oriental hotels.

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