Hot Nights At The Oriental Hotel
The story I wish to tell did not happen recently but concerns a problem all visitors face when they arrive in Thailand. The human body cannot bear big differences in temperature. I have read a travel book where the author said “when you disembark
at Don Muang you feel like a lobster thrown into a pot of boiling water.”
After arrival in Bangkok you have to decide: Do you want to be steamed or do you want to shiver in air-conditioned rooms and never get used to the heat.
The Ex-PM of Singapore said once that he could think best at a room temperature of 18 degrees. My brain works differently. It feels most active at 27 degrees. In my condo in Pattaya I have placed thermometers in different parts of the rooms. Only when the majority of them comes close to twenty-nine degrees I turn on my air-conditioning. If I go out I take a light woollen jacket with me, to pull over in air-conditioned buildings. I enjoy the warm climate of Thailand. But of course the body needs a certain time to adapt. I know that other people have different body-thermostats. So this is quite a personal story.
The story begins in one of the last years of the Vietnam War. I was in Europe on the eve of my yearly trip to Hong Kong. My travel agent called me and said she had a promotion from Singapore Airlines that would allow me to fly first class to Bangkok and stay three days / two nights at the Oriental Hotel. The price was nearly the same as one way tourist class. Of course I agreed.
At that times Singapore Airlines was still new in the business, and it had made a not very tasteful entry into the market with an advertisement where the Singapore Girl said "Fly me."
The Oriental Hotel did not mean much to me. All I knew was that Somerset Maugham had sat there and collected material for his Asia ghost stories. So it should be a nice colonial hotel.
Normally I do not need more then two or three hotel-stars under my pillow. But the one thing I am crazy for are old colonial hotels. Nowadays we call them Heritage-Hotels. My absolute favourite was the "Repulse Bay" at the south side of Hong Kong Island, which has been torn down to be replaced by serviced apartments.
I had never before flown first class. In the old days you paid for a tourist class return ticket from Europe to East Asia the same amount as for a brand new Volkswagen Beetle. How is the relation now? Maybe thirty tickets for a new car. That is progress, and it brings money to the Land of Smiles.
At the airport waited a second generation Boeing 747 for me, the first model to have seats in the upper deck. I was led there to the first row where I was invited to use the two seats right of the aisle. Man, there was leg room. If I stretched my legs I still could not touch the cabin front. The two seats I indulged in occupied as much space as six tourist class seats.
I sat in the very beak of the bird. Only a thin sheet of metal separated me from outer space. Between my head and the next star in the universe, the alpha centauri, there lay miles and miles of empty space. That gave me a feeling of grandiosity, I had never had in a middle seat of the economy class. But I also saw that the pilots sat in the most exposed part of the plane, so that it was in their own interest to bring the bird down safely.
The service in the cabin was unsurpassable. Every twenty minutes a Singapore Girl brought me some small delicacy to eat. I would have liked this to go on for the whole night, but I decided to sleep, as I always do on these long flights.
So I ate one of those sleeping pills the British soldiers swallowed on their surprise flight into the Falkland war. These pills cause a sort of “anterograde amnesia”, which means that when your body begins to function again your consciousness still stays asleep.
So the first thing I can remember after falling asleep was a dignified middle-aged “boy” leading me into my reserved room in the Oriental Hotel. It was a big room, very nicely furnished. But it was not a Heritage room. While the hotel claimed to be one hundred years old, this room was all new. Instead of a window there was a glass wall on one side of the room facing the Chao Phraya river, which was nearly completely covered by thick green weeds which floated upstreams. A wonder of nature? No, the play of the high tide in the gulf.
“How do you open this window?” I asked.
“You cannot open it.”
“You mean there is no window I can open?”
“I had not been informed in advance that you offered your guests windowless rooms.”
“These are our best rooms.”
“You cannot demand from me to stay in this kind of cage. Maybe you can help me to find a room in another hotel where they have windows.”
“If this is so important to you, sir, maybe we have a solution for you, but not as comfortable as this.”
He led me to another wing of the hotel which had the right heritage look. He opened for me a split level mini suite with a sitting ensemble downstairs and a steep stairway leading to the upper level, where there was a king-size bed, the entry to the bathroom and a balcony. I tried immediately to open the door of the balcony, and the door was not blocked. But it was very hot outside.
On the balustrade of the upper room there stood a white metal box of the kind you find in inexpensive Bangkok hotel rooms. I knew how to handle this kind of air-conditioning. I was completely happy.
In the evening I met people “who know”. It is easy to make contacts when you stay at the Oriental Hotel. I learned from them that in Thailand the opium trade had been a monopoly of the army, the navy and the air force for a long time, but this mess had been cleaned up recently and now everything was kosher. This is a story I heard repeated many times in the following years, so “recently” seemed to be a movable time mark.
When I returned to my bedroom I turned on the balcony lamp. It was August and I expected the lamp to be darkened soon by thousands of flying insects attracted by the light. But not a single wing carrier came. That encouraged me to put a chair on the balcony. It was a quiet night, there was no street with traffic noise under me and I
heard the ripple of the waves of the Chao Phraya River, where the water pest now was floating in the other direction.
The next morning – after breakfast at the open air River Terrace – I asked for a guided tour through the oldest part of the hotel, the Author’s Wing which held big suites named after famous writers who had stayed at the hotel.
I do not think the furniture was selected by the authors themselves – the novelist Joseph Conrad had anchored in the Chao Phraya in 1888 – but the hotel had tried successfully to adapt the furniture to the different personalities of famous writers.
The Somerset Maugham suite reflected the fascination of this author by the mysteries of the East.
The Joseph Conrad Suite was very old-fashioned. I do not know much about his private life, only that he once set sails hastily in Mauritius when he was proposed to marry the daughter of a sugar baron. On his double bed there was a kind of teakwood barrier between the two halves of the bed, which would have made it difficult to exchange caresses with another person. But this has been changed now, as I see in the internet. It seems that the guests paying $US1,200 a night didn’t want to be that old-fashioned.
The most comfortable bed stood in the James Michener Suite, just a plane playfield, on which the author could place quite a number of BGs, if he felt the urge to read to them one of his books.
What I miss today is a Christopher G. Moore Suite. Maybe they name their suites only after writers who have actually stayed at the hotel. But here we have an author who is tightly connected to Bangkok and who could help to arrange the furniture after his personal taste. I would love to see that.
I was very impressed by this tour.
This was my second day in the Oriental. I stayed in one of the most famous hotels of the world, but I couldn’t make use of most of its amenities.
I wanted my body to learn to stand the heat. So all the air-conditioned facilities were off limits to me. What could I do? I spent all the day on a deckchair at the swimming pool, reading a goose pimple raising detective novel. Every time I felt hot I sprang into the water and swam a few rounds. In the evening I ate at the River Terrace under deep flying clouds – the food was excellent. Later I returned to my balcony. Still no insects dancing, but one thirsty fellow found his way into my whisky bottle. What a kind of an addict was that?
In the night I shut off the air-con completely and did not sweat in the heat of the night. So I had made the best of my stay at the Oriental Hotel. I was back home in the East.
I cannot afford the grandeur of a night at The Oriental, but I have dined there a few times – always at the kind invitation of others. It is class, all class.