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The Legendary Oriental Bangkok the Grand Dame on the Chao Phraya Turns

The Oriental Bangkok, the world-renowned luxury hotel, is the oldest hotel in Bangkok, has a legacy of famous writers and a long and famous history. She celebrates her 130th anniversary this year.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 Oriental Bangkok, the first hotel in the city, is taken from 1876 when the old wing was built. This 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 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 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 Oriental Bangkok in 1929. Conrad, Maugham, Coward and the American, James Michener, four literary giants, became the founding fathers of the Authors' Wing. .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 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 Bangkok. 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 Oriental Bangkok celebrates its 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.

.The Oriental Bangkok is an icon that evokes memories of authors like Conrad, Maugham and Michener.

This article first appeared in Tour Bangkok Legacies, a historical travel site on renowned places preserved for posterity, the momentous events surrounding these places and the legendary figures who left these legacies in the landscape of Bangkok. The author Eric Lim, a free-lance writer, lives in Bangkok Thailand.

By: Eric Lim

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