In the mid-nineteeth century, when Thailand was still known as Siam, a rest house established for travelling foreigners on the banks of the Menam River (Chao Praya River), became one of the greatest hotels in the world – The Oriental. The Oriental, now Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, was the first luxury hotel in the Kingdom of Siam. In 1865 the hotel’s original structure was destroyed in a fire and was replaced by the current structure in 1876. It was a Danish-born sailor, H.N. Andersen, who gave the Siamese capital a new hotel, a modern, luxurious Oriental Hotel. On 17 December 1890, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn paid a private visit to The Oriental to assess the ability of the hotel to host royal guests. The King was so impressed that he decided to accommodate the Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, who became Tsar in 1894, at The Oriental in April 1891. It was the beginning of a long lasting relationship between the legendary hotel and Thailand’s Royal Palace. Today, 146 years later, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is a proud landmark in Bangkok, a beautiful building that links the glorious years past, present and those to come in Thailand.
The Authors’ Lounge, on the ground floor of the original Oriental Hotel, lends an old world charm, reminiscent of the early 1900s, with turn-of-the-century style wicker furniture and hand-painted fabrics, alongside framed photographs of the famous writers who have stayed at the hotel since the late nineteenth century. Apart from the telling literary history of yesteryear Siam and its people, The Authors’ Lounge is renowned for its traditional afternoon tea, and is also one of the most photographed locations in Bangkok, if not Thailand. It was a beautiful rainy afternoon, with the sun playing hide and seek, that I sat down to experience the Summer Afternoon Tea Set at the Authors’ Lounge. A beautiful hostess, Parichat, led the way and I chose a table overlooking the garden and the Chao Praya river. The distinguished jewel jade and white tones of the lounge add serenity to the regal elegance of this historic lounge.
The afternoon started off with the most delicious Earl Grey infused peach sorbet and Champagne foam, followed by the setting down of the Somerset book on the table by the elegant Pansamon – an event in itself – sliding out the most decadent pastries and savouries from the mock book, with theatrical precision and sophistication. The Prawn roll brioche bun, Spicy tuna salad wafer, Charcoal choux with smoked salmon and sunflower seed crème and Egg salad with Avruga caviar sandwich and the selection of pastries – Blackberry flower cake and coconut cloud, Green coffee bean tiramisu, tangerine marmalade and cardamom, Charlotte cake apricot, pistachio and thyme, Raspberries and yuzu New York cheesecake, Hazelnut and milk chocolate textures, Brioche feuillette, strawberries and vanilla custard – they all looked too pretty to eat, but eat I did. You could measure each sandwich and pastry and they’d be the exact same size and dimension, just like they came out of a royal kitchen for high tea. Then came the warm traditional scones with a selection of home-made jams, Devonshire clotted cream, mascarpone and butter. Everything tastes divine and it’s hard to pick a favourite from the tea set. I went with an iced coffee, instead of tea and it was just as fine, watching the rain come down, from the warm confines of the Authors’ Lounge, thinking of all those writers and travellers who stayed here before, and created literary legacies.
You need to reserve a table on Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for the Afternoon Tea and the team very graciously accommodates your food specifications. They also have an Oriental Afternoon Tea Set as well as a Vegan and Gluten-Free Afternoon Tea Set.
Through its 146 years of existence, The Oriental’s grandiose façade has greeted travellers, dignitaries and literary figures from around the world like The Prince and Princess of Wales, The Queen of Sweden, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. British spy novelist John le Carré, wrote The Honourable Schoolboy at the hotel and Barbara Cartland named one of the heroines in Sapphires in Siam after an Oriental employee. Others, like Noël Coward, simply admired the riverine views, declaring: “It is a lovely place and I am fonder of it than ever.” Joseph Conrad, the sea captain and writer, was a frequent visitor to the bar of The Oriental and Vaslav Nijinsky danced in the ballroom in 1916. Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s affinity with the literary world is best exemplified in the Authors’ Wing, which houses the Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward and James Michener Lounges. In these specially created salons, images of these literary greats are juxtaposed with scenes from The Oriental during those eras, as well as quotations from the authors’ books. Khun Ankana’s Study, also situated of The Authors’ Lounge, pays a pictorial tribute to the inimitable Ankana Kalantananda, The Oriental’s longest-serving employee who joined the hotel in 1947 and worked there for over 60 years.
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s staff, right from Jed at the entrance to the hostesses, servers and spa staff are all marvellous and wonderful, and exemplary in their service. It’s a beautiful world they have all created inside this grand dame of a hotel in Bangkok.
Like W. Somerset Maugham said in The Mixture of Before, “Now it is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”
Rubina’s Rating: 10/10
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If the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok is good enough for John le Carré to write a novel in then if you enjoyed this excellent and informative article you are going to love this non-promotional anecdote about real spies and authors from the espionage genre whether you’re a le Carré connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder and If you don’t love all such things you might learn something so read on!
There is one category of secret agent that is often overlooked … namely those who don’t know they have been recruited. For more on that topic we suggest you read Beyond Enkription (explained below) and this very current article on that topic by the ex-spook Bill Fairclough. The article can be found at TheBurlingtonFiles.org website in the News Section. The article (dated July 21, 2021) is about “Russian Interference”; it’s been read over 20,000 times. Anyway, since you seem to be interested in all things espionage we guess you’re interested in Oleg Gordievsky, so this anecdote should make for compulsory reading.
John le Carré described Ben Macintyre’s fact based novel, The Spy and The Traitor, as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. It was about Kim Philby’s Russian counterpart, a KGB Colonel named Oleg Gordievsky, codename Sunbeam. In 1974 Gordievsky became a double agent working for MI6 in Copenhagen which was when Bill Fairclough aka Edward Burlington unwittingly launched his career as a secret agent for MI6. Fairclough and le Carré knew of each other: le Carré had even rejected Fairclough’s suggestion in 2014 that they collaborate on a book. As le Carré said at the time, “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?” A realistic response from a famous expert in fiction in his eighties!
Gordievsky never met Fairclough, but he did know Fairclough’s handler, Colonel Alan McKenzie aka Colonel Alan Pemberton. It is little wonder therefore that in Beyond Enkription, the first fact based novel in The Burlington Files espionage series, genuine double agents, disinformation and deception weave wondrously within the relentless twists and turns of evolving events. Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 in London, Nassau and Port au Prince. Edward Burlington, a far from boring accountant, unwittingly started working for Alan McKenzie in MI6 and later worked eyes wide open for the CIA.
What happens is so exhilarating and bone chilling it makes one wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more breathtaking. The fact based novel begs the question, were his covert activities in Haiti a prelude to the abortion of a CIA sponsored Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs? Why was his father Dr Richard Fairclough, ex MI1, involved? Richard was of course a confidant of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who became chief adviser to JFK during the Cuban missile crisis.
Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote the raw noir anti-Bond narrative, Beyond Enkription. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.
By the way, the maverick Bill Fairclough had quite a lot in common with Greville Wynne (famous for his part in helping to reveal Russian missile deployment in Cuba in 1962) and has also even been called “a posh Harry Palmer”. As already noted, Bill Fairclough and John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) knew of each other but only long after Cornwell’s MI6 career ended thanks to Kim Philby. Coincidentally, the novelist Graham Greene used to work in MI6 reporting to Philby and Bill Fairclough actually stayed in Hôtel Oloffson during a covert op in Haiti (explained in Beyond Enkription) which was at the heart of Graham Greene’s spy novel The Comedians. Funny it’s such a small world!