By Eric Lim
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the world-renowned luxury hotel, is the oldest hotel in Bangkok, with a legacy of famous writers and a long and famous history. She celebrated her 130th anniversary in 2006.
Two Danish sea captains founded the Oriental in 1865 during the reign of King Rama IV when Thailand opened up to trade as a result of the Bowring Treaty signed ten years earlier.
The founders saw the need for a hotel by the Chao Phraya to cater for the seafarers and traders who sailed upriver. They didn't realize then that the hotel they started would one day be a celebrated luxury hotel graced by the rich and famous.
Unfortunately the original building is no longer standing.
The history of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the first hotel in the city, is taken from 1876 when the old wing was built. That building is still there.
The tradition of famous writers dates back to 1888, when Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish merchant navy officer, sailed up the Chao Phraya and docked next to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Nicknamed "Polish Joe" by his shipmates, he later became known to the literary world as Joseph Conrad.
Others were to follow in Conrad's footsteps. In 1923, Somerset Maugham, an English writer stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and wrote the children's tale, "Siamese Fairy Tale" while sitting in the river terrace gazing out at the Chao Phraya.
Noel Coward, another English writer, stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok in 1929. Conrad, Maugham, Coward and the American, James Michener four literary giants, became the founding fathers of the Authors' Wing.
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The Oriental suffered damage, disrepair and looting during World War II, when it was taken over by the Japanese army.
After the war, Allied officers waiting to return home made the hotel their living quarters. In 1945, another legendary figure entered the scene.
Jim Thompson, the American who later made his name in Thai silk, became one of the owners of the Mandarin Oriental and a resident as well.
Thompson with five others, foreigners and Thai, pooled their funds in an attempt to revive the hotel. Owing to personal differences, Thompson left the group a year later.
The hotel went through a second major construction when the Garden Wing was completed and opened in 1958.
In 1967 there was another change in ownership. It was then that Kurt Wachtveitl became General Manager. The turning point came in 1974 when Jardine Matheson set up the Mandarin Hotels Group and bought a 49% stake in the Oriental.
This provided the impetus for a major expansion with the new 376-room wing, ballroom and multi-level car park.
The new River Wing opened in 1976, with suites honoring Barbara Cartland, John le Carre, Gore Vidal, Graham Greene and Norman Mailer. John le Carre was said to have finished "The Honourable Schoolboy" here.
In 2006, after another major facelift, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok celebrated her 130th anniversary with Kurt Wachtveitl still at the helm after 39 years, backed by his faithful and long-serving staff.
At a 130, the charming grand dame still holds court by the Chao Phraya. The tradition of famous writers lives on.
On 10 March 2009, the legendary Kurt Wachtveitl aged 76, General Manager of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, announced his retirement after being at the helm for 42 years.
During Wachtveitl’s tenure, the Mandarin Oriental was voted number 1 by the Institutional Investor magazine of New York in 1981. The hotel retained this honor for the next 10 years, again in 1994 – 1995 and 2000.
Wachtveitl is recognized as one of the world’s best general managers when he won the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and the Independent Hotelier Award of the World in 2008.
Jan Goessing, a 14 year veteran of the Mandarin Oriental group, will be taking over the helm of the Grand Dame on the Chao Phraya.
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