About a week ago, Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist and The Professor invited the Diplomat and I down to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya. Being assured of the literary history of the place, coupled with the fabulous Bamboo Bar with its live Jazz and fine dining at Ciao, we could hardly turn down an invitation; so, having secured a babysitter for Isla, we all hopped in a taxi and took the 5km, 45min Friday rush hour ride due west to the 1879 hotel. Being the five star hotel landmark in Bangkok for such a long time has assured that its patrons include the likes of Neil Armstrong, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Kissinger, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana (and a host of others). What really caught my attention was the fact it seemed to be a literary destination for some of the greatest authors in English Literature. The likes of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, John Le Carre, Tennessee Williams, Graham Greene, and Joseph Conrad have left their literary presence on this graceful example of Thai architecture. In fact, their sojourns have become such a part of its history that an Authors’ Wing is available to stay in: the highlights being a Reading Room, Author’s Afternoon Tea Room, elegant atrium and dining halls, and bedroom suites – these each being monikered with various literary notables.
The place has been greatly expanded since its earliest days: technology and updated fixtures have merged with the original walls; but the original hotel remains at the heart of the complex. With its white-washed walls, pristine marbles, whispering carpets, epic portraits and landscapes, glittering chandeliers…it is a noiseless place. Artistic cadence, class, elegance, erudition, intelligence, taste….all walk quietly through each room with the wide-eyed tourist. It is simply refined, as though you are in a library where sipping on a cool cocktail and discussing the literary aspirations of anyone is the only way to behave. I could easily see why so many have come here to escape the noise of Bangkok and to allow creative genius to work.
That said we were here to eat by the Chao Praya and eat we did. At least two amuse-bouche were supplemented by four or five bottles of Cliquot. A double helping of sweet chocolate delicacies came after we had gnawed through a lemon sorbet extravaganza that had the Cordon Bleu chef trained maestro (the other moniker of Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist) purring in his patisserie apron. In between, the kind of Michelin star main courses and starters you’d both expect and appreciate. Suffice it to say, the meal and company was excellent. However, what had me hopping up and down with ants in my pants was the literary sirens I could see peeking out of the shrubbery opposite the dining area. Just before I got to it I spied the Oriental Sister residence at the Authors’ Wing Garden. These particular sisters are domestic mynah birds, capable of mimicking human sounds and speech (they call to people in the Thai gender specific greeting, apparently), which have been in residence since about 1997.
The atypical statue of a Venus-inspired, classically-posing lady was the lamppost shining a welcome to this particular Narnia (although her light wasn’t actually on). With camera in hand I strode towards the silence of the old part of the Oriental Hotel. As I have come to expect in these cultural places, there was no one there and I was able to slip through a slightly ajar french window, passing through an ante-atrium and easing into the creamy coolness of a a vestibulum that was about twenty feet long by eight feed wide. Its perimeter was framed by loafing chaises and a couple of languid day-chairs, each separated with delicate side tables (picture the ivorial elegance of some colonial wicker furniture coupled with teak round tables resting on a magnolia marble floor). The walls had glass faced, ornate framed maps of Siam and places of historical significance in Thailand. I retreated back to where I had come in (assuming I entered through the west facing door), turned to the east and stepped into a dining room that was bare save for a huge mirror on one wall and an ornate, woven south-east Asian rug. There was another room directly opposite this mirror, about twice the size, with the same mirror on the entrance facing wall.
This mirror, as you can see, whilst not quite floor-to-ceiling was certainly full length, its polished surface held in place with gold leaf and lattice work. There was an abundance of cherubim. From here I returned to the first “dining” room and walked on through (heading east) into the central atrium of the original hotel. It was simply stunning. Cool walls, a polished marble floor, symmetrical white curving staircases, white wicker furniture, downlit portraits of the Kings of Siam, each framed in identical gold leaf. In the centre a startling splash of red – a plant I still know not the name of – on a circular mahogany table. The central hall, open to the full height of the hotel, had, in each corner, trees that rose from floor to ceiling. Two storeys high, they wept at their apex, cascading down with soft branches and leaves towards the reflective floor. Below them, in vast earthy cauldrons, sat broad-leafed shrubs. The staircase that rose symmetrically on both sides met at a semi-circular balcony. Around the base looped a bower of white carnations and roses.
This staircase was the entrance way to the Authors’ Suites (Residents only)…I had come too far now to be dismayed, so, undeterred I stole up the left stair, emerging onto a landing. It was naked save the deep pile carpet and a long piece of tapestry with a story running the length of one eighteen foot end wall. Think Bayeux Tapestry. Each corner had a quarter-circle balcony for any aspiring Juliet to gaze down on her Romeo as he lugged in the heavy suitcases. A sneaky glance round the corner showed a corridor running around the central atrium with bedroom suite doors fairly even paced. Author’s names on each door. Back downstairs a quick sashay through the Atrium led to a corridor of high-class hotel boutiques, which tunneled (like being in a golf club) all the way back to the hotel’s opulent main entrance.
Having realised I had spent a good 20 minutes away, I returned to dinner. A little later, Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist steered us to the hotel’s “The Bamboo Bar.” Buried in the centre of the hotel it was modernized in 1953 by Madame Krull (Managing Director of the Hotel at the time). She introduced the concept of it being a destination venue for musical taste. The theme is of a jungle, the bar of rattan and teak. In recent decades, its position as the oldest bar in Bangkok, has seen it host a shopping list of celebrities, and the live music in there, coupled with a huge variety of cocktails, continues to ensure it is a destination. Here’s a quick sample of the live band that night, led by “La-Dee”, whose vocal power and Jazz subtlety, had our own personal Jazz supremo applauding both enthusiastically and with a well-honed ear for quality.
Here’s a quick audio snapshot as as ended a song. To give you a flavour so to speak.
It was growing late and we knew we were just round the corner from the infamous lebua at State Tower where the climatic scene for The Hangover II was filmed. It’s located at 1055 Thanon Silom. A quick five minute walk took us to the drop off entrance and we got into the elevator to the 63rd floor (not the highest I have ever been building-wise. To date that remains the “Windows on the World” restaurant on the 107th of now-lost North Tower in NY). The view of Bangkok is spectacular. Photos are not permitted save at the bar which is crammed with tourists. Most of those were twenty-something farang whose next destination was inevitably Thanon Khao San. No one seemed to care about the hotel history. Its place is now solely as “The Hangover II hotel”. We had gone up there to briefly hear another Jazz singer friend of Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist but she had left a few days earlier; replaced ably by a new Canadian on a 6-month musical sojourn and the backing band who had been there for about twelve years. They seemed to have a weary view of the hotel’s current audience…drunken backpackers, loud shouting, endless photo flashes, and frivolity. Here’s the current view..
By now it was pushing midnight, Isla beckoned us homeward and we hopped in separate taxis to our respective destinations. A night of exquisite food, great company, wonderful jazz, literary culture, and an understanding of how Hollywood can change the perception of place. If you ever find yourself this way, go to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, even if just for Jazz at The Bamboo Bar – it’s worth the trip.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?