BANGKOK - I follow Etienne de Villiers through the flower-filled lobby of the legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok — the most welcoming entrance in the industry — and up a staircase to the property’s mezzanine.
The hotel’s amiable director of public relations directs my attention to a corner where dated black and white photos are grouped together like an art gallery display.
Most of the people in the faded portraits are easily recognizable; literary giants Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Barbara Cartland, Tennessee Williams and James A. Michener look back at me from the hotel’s Wall of Fame. Each were honoured guests of the hotel, which opened circa 1876 when it debuted on the shores of the Chao Phraya River under the name The Oriental. Many of the hotel’s posh suites are now named in honour of the famous authors.
Although Hong Kong-based Mandarin Oriental Group has owned the Bangkok landmark since 1974, most locals still refer to the property as simply The Oriental. In Bangkok, you see, The Oriental is as much a part of the city’s history as the Grand Palace.
Now that The (MO) Oriental is getting ready to celebrate its 140th anniversary in 2016, de Villiers is being kept busy “going through the archives and dusting off old pictures” so modern-day guests can appreciate the property’s treasured past.
“It’s been a fascinating experience for me,” says the native South African, “because the research has really made me appreciate what this hotel means to the Thai people.”
What makes MO Bangkok so special, besides its award-winning 5-star-plus service and world-class amenities, is its (unofficial) recognition as the country’s “diplomatic hotel,” a distinction bestowed upon it when Thailand’s revered Royal Family decided to house honoured international guests at The Oriental. On December 17, 1890, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn paid a private visit to The Oriental to assess the ability of the hotel to host royal guests. The King was so impressed that he decided to accommodate Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, who became Tsar in 1894, at The Oriental in April 1891. It was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between the legendary hotel and Thailand’s Royal Palace. In 1976 Her Majesty Queen Sirikit officially opened the hotel’s River Wing.
Above: The Oriental was a place where the great writers of the world would hang out when in Bangkok.
But no matter if you’re a head of state, a member of royalty, a Hollywood heavyweight, or just a commoner like me, everyone is treated the same at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, which has been touted as the world’s Best Hotel by many industry-leading magazines like TraveLife.
In preparation for its milestone birthday, Mandarin Oriental is sprucing up its prized Bangkok property — right now, the hotel’s historic Author’s Wing, the original building, is being totally renovated for the big bash.
The Author’s Wing opened when Thailand was still called Siam and The Oriental was the place to stay and be seen for the literary set, whose writings were not doubt inspired by the hotel’s colonial charm and grace.
One part of The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok that has already been refurbished — in 2014 — is the legendary Bamboo Bar, where the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few, have been seen sipping the Bamboo’s famed cocktails and listening to some sultry jazz and blues late into the night.
The biggest change to the seductive Bamboo Bar, according to de Villiers, is the addition of bamboo.
Above: The famed Bamboo Bar was totally remodeled and looks better than ever.
“There was very little bamboo in the bar but now I’m happy to say the Bamboo Bar truly is bamboo,” says de Villiers, who adds that bamboo is used extensively throughout the bar. Chairs, wall and ceiling finishes are made of bamboo, the bar’s Thai silk cushions are adorned with bamboo prints, the mirrored ceiling is framed in black bamboo, and rattan ceiling fans give the bar that colonial feel. In addition, some of the bar’s original black rattan armchairs have been restored and replicas of rattan seating shown in early 20th century photos created. An aged leather chesterfield-style banquette and colonial-style wingback armchairs are additional period furnishings that have been included in the refurbished Bamboo Bar, and tiger skin prints have been retained on bar stools and some armchairs.
“Our objective was to weave the past into the future. Old friends will recognize familiar pieces throughout the space that create a real sense of place,” says Amanda Hyndman, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s general manager.
The Bamboo Bar actually opened in the hotel’s renowned Author’s Wing in 1953 but because of its popularity was moved to its present location in the River Wing.
Above: The Bamboo Bar is where many of the world's greats have enjoyed an adult beverage.
The bar’s award-winning mixology team is one of the best on the planet but guard the secrets of the room’s signature cocktails like they were the crown jewels.
After enjoying several of the Bamboo Bar’s new Flavour Cocktails during my visit, I can personally attest that they are among the best drinks I’ve ever enjoyed and no doubt will become legends of their own very shortly.
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s award-winning spa (the best anywhere) remains one of its biggest draws, and its unique cooking school — where guests learn to appreciate the history, traditions and quality of Thai cuisine — is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Fine dining is a tradition at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and the property’s legendary restaurants — like Le Normandie (French cuisine), Lord Jim’s (seafood), The China House (modern Cantonese), Ciao (Italian) and Riverside Terrace (international) — remain some of Bangkok’s most sought-after reservations.
For a true Thai culinary experience at the hotel, though, nothing beats The Oriental’s famed Sala Rim Naam restaurant, where diners are treated to perfectly cooked and presented Thai specialties while being entertained by traditional dancers wearing the colourful dress of their ancestors.
There’s no doubt The Oriental is getting better with age thanks to the loving care of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
For more information or to get rates at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, go to http:// www.mandarinoriental.com/Bangkok / The best way to get to Bangkok from Canada is via Hong Kong with either Air Canada or Cathy Pacific. Both airlines offer daily service to Hong Kong.