Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok has been welcoming travellers, and particularly writers, for nearly 130 years. Carla Sommers delves into the hotel’s prestigious literary history
Photography by Corbis, Getty images and Khun Ankana
‘If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels,’ so wrote Alain de Botton in his much-acclaimed essay, The Art of Travel. If de Botton is right, then for many travel writers, that quest is never ending. Exotic locales present even more delicious dilemmas, challenges and emotions: a richness of life and freedom, as much as alienation and adventure. Under such circumstances, literary creativity seems to come alive. Miles from their habitual environments, writers are able to see through different eyes; their observations become sharper, their minds ever more curious.
William Somerset Maugham travelled great distances in his life, including spending protracted periods in Asia. In his semi-autobiographical work Of Human Bondage, the writer’s yearning to break free of his homeland is unequivocally summed up: ‘He wanted to go to the East; and his fancy was rich with pictures of Bangkok and Shanghai, and the ports of Japan: he pictured to himself palm trees and skies blue and hot, dark-skinned people, pagodas; the scents of the Orient intoxicated his nostrils.’
Through the centuries, Thailand has been one of those places where the visitor has naturally felt at ease. The endearing warmth of its gentle people and a culture of hospitality have led travellers to return time and again to its shores. In the late 19th century, when travel was far from the sedate pleasure it is today, some of the world’s greatest travel writers and novelists visited the kingdom, then known as Siam.
His fancy was rich with pictures of Bangkok; the scents of the Orient intoxicated his nostrils William Somerset Maugham
Writers such as Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham would lead the way in their quiet observances and astute character portrayals of the life of expatriates and locals. Novels such as Conrad’s Lord Jim and The Shadow-Line, or Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, all describe the beauty, loneliness and exotica of the Far East, a way of life far from the banality of 19th-century Britain, fuelling claims by American author Barbara Hodgson that the British peoples’ passion for adventure was in part because of this literary zeal. ‘No other country produced as many books on the subject.’
Conrad, who in his first post as captain brought the ship Otago into port in Bangkok in 1888, later writes his memories of the wondrous city in The Shadow-Line. ‘One morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.
‘There it was, spread largely on both banks… an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.’
Such visions of splendour would bring countless voyagers to Siam, and Bangkok in particular, with its swift river and proximity to the sea, became a frequent stopping-off point for Europeans travelling between the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore.
However, until the 1880s, decent lodgings were by no means easy to find. In Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (which inspired the musical and film The King and I), British governess, Anna Leonowens arrives by boat up the Chao Phraya river and having no place to stay, she asks the captain about a small hotel standing next to a building with a French flag. She is quickly told: ‘That is a seamen’s lodge. Not quite the place for a lady to stay.’