“Let’s meet in Bangkok, I’ve just read the best hotel in the world is there.”
I was in Kathmandu, just back from my first Everest expedition. My father was on the phone from Colorado.
I was headed back from Kathmandu to my job in Australia, via Bangkok. What difference would a few more days make? Besides, I needed a rest.
I got out of the taxi in Bangkok, trailed by two large, heavy duffles, yak hair still dangling from the seams.
“You must be the young Mr. Anderson,” said the valet, “your father is waiting for you.”
Two months of expedition, two weeks living at over 7,000 metres, blizzards, little air and no real showers were quickly forgotten. My father was already sitting in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental, surrounded by muted colors, fresh flowers, with quietly efficient staff ensuring the duffles disappeared quickly, and arrived clean and almost shining in the room shortly later.
To understand the appeal of the best in hotels, you need some background. My father grew up in Eastern Montana, during the great depression of the twenties and thirties. Pictures of a dog named Towser, a horse and a sod dugout house were the backdrop for early photos.
Rabbit skins were worth two pennies each, so they rode horses and shot rabbits. He walked three miles to school across the prairies, as he was very fond of telling us.
But my father had a real knack for numbers, and for people. He quickly moved from auditor, to management, to partnering with others in banking and finance when he moved on to Colorado.
We had traveled frequently together, from trips to Europe and returning to the U.S. from University on the QE2, to later visiting Everest Base Camp in Tibet, where he had comfortably hiked up to 21,000 feet, “to see the view.” Perhaps it was our shared Viking heritage – we liked to explore the world. And with his less than salubrious upbringing, he had long had an interest in great accommodation and good food.
When I asked him why he didn’t want to visit more developing countries, which I did with a youthful exuberance for obscure places and new climbing routes, he said, “Robert, I grew up in a developing country, I know what that is like, I don’t need to do that anymore.”
Breakfast at the Oriental is alongside the Chao Phraya, immersed in the age-old river culture of the city, a start to the day that ensures only good will follow. With a wander next door, you can take in the original hotel, with columns framed by palm trees, an edifice of a bygone era.
I knew nothing about the hotel that first time and entered the Somerset Maugham Lounge without knowing it was there, a discovery as good as a hidden route on a mountain that suddenly reveals itself.
You ramble in through a portico of French doors, past white framed windows and timeless photos of authors and quotes from the worlds’ great of the literary world. Many came to call the Mandarin Oriental their second home in their travels, from Joseph Conrad, Ian Fleming, James Michener and Graham Greene, to Norman Mailer and Paul Theroux.
The first day at the hotel, I sent all the Everest clothes buried deep in my duffles off to be cleaned. Later, a knock on the door was heard and a young man with a concerned face opened the shirt box. Inside rested my long underwear top. The collar, having been ironed, was now shinier than the shirt.
He was deeply apologetic and wanted to replace it. I reassured him that it was of no consequence, it was not important. Even beginning to explain long underwear in a culture where anything below 80 degree f. is rare made little sense and replacing it impossible, even if he had wanted to. He did insist on waiving all the cleaning charges and lined up my socks in very straight lines in the drawer before he left.
Perhaps my career in advertising was genetically fueled – my father had spoken to the hotel management and I soon had interviews with the Bangkok Post and The Nation, a good excuse to spend a few hours lunching with journalists, always a good thing after a long expedition, and telling Everest stories.
Luckily the Bangkok Post journalist regaled us with enough of his own stories of golfing pros and celebrities to a degree that left little mountain to be discussed, so I could happily work my way through the menu, a mix of appetizers, mains and desserts that kept me happy for well over two hours.
The second night we were invited to the Managers reception, a mix of salubrious guests of whom we knew no one and where my newly polished long underwear wasn’t really appropriate, having by now borrowed a shirt off my father. But the “just back from Everest” line worked amidst the cognicentie and the Manager graciousIy shuttled us around from one interested group to the next.
I soon found myself talking to a legend in the advertising world, Robert Jacoby, the CEO of Ted Bates at the time. Robert Jacoby was as known for his business prowess, as for keeping a loaded revolver in his safe at work in New York City, which he was occasionally known to bring out and lay casually on his coffee table, perhaps when a more difficult meeting was expected?
As we wrapped up our conversation, I must of said something marginally interesting as he invited me to come work for him as a writer in their office in New York. As I was on an extended and very generous paid leave at the time from Ogilvy advertising in Australia, it wasn’t an option and it would be 15 years before I finally moved back to New York and the advertising world of Madison Avenue.
Sampling Bangkok night life is an inevitable and essential task, from the spicy food to the night markets to the long rows of open air bars lining the streets. I remember waking up a bit late the next morning, my father pulling back the curtains, taking in the view and turning to face me with a hint of a smile saying, “it looks like a good day for a Bloody Mary.”
On our final night we rode the lift to the top floor of the Hotel, for dinner at Le Normandie, now a Michelin 2 star restaurant. I’d recently met Mimi Zieman in Nepal, and as she was also in town, a hurriedly purchased dress from the market and a cleaning of her sandals got her through the door. I borrowed a suit jacket from my father, and while not being the best dressed, we did manage a respectable showing, as we worked our way through a host of courses and watched the river and the boats flow by far below us.
As my father set off to Colorado and I flew south to Australia, it was easy to agree: yes, it was truly, the best hotel in the world.
If not for the ambiance, the attention to the smallest details and the service, but also for the time we had shared, on the edge of the river, in the heart of Bangkok.
Now, fast forward over 30 years – we had ridden out covid in the very safe haven of Dubai, my wife Josephine and I, then departed for the more modest warmth of Thailand.
My son Myles weathered the pandemic well insulated in New Zealand, taking the time to start and finish off a Masters in Urban Planning and then moved straight into a job – but with a chance to take a few weeks and fly north, as I had so many years before.
My thoughts returned to the “best hotel in the world.”
Few businesses, particularly service businesses, can sustain a title like that for more than a few years, little alone decades. And returns can often be disappointing, expectations raised and the magic of first experiences shaded by not quite hitting the mark.
After all, “best” can be a very subjective quality, and best for a very long time even more so.
There is an atmosphere to arrivals that if you get right, can foreshadow an experience. No wonder grand estates have gates and long driveways and tall front doors. Presence, ’tis all about presence.
You turn the corner and ascend a small hillock to gain the entrance to the Mandarin Oriental now, just enough to tuck it away amongst the palms and the plants of the front garden.
Bags were whisked away. At reception I realized I had made my reservation for entirely the wrong month – which was quickly sorted and we were shown into the heights.
There were fresh flowers on leaving the lift which seem to have lightly scented the hallway, books loosely set on chairs as we traversed to our room. This is a hotel for readers and writers both it seems.
The river still flowed sluggish and slow far below the window, thronged with boats, with barges of commerce loaded heavy and in long strings, the river boats and the small canal ferries scuttling across the water, to carry you into the backwaters of Bangkok.
The essence of best is quiet quality, a sense of solidity, understated service, always at hand. The hotel room, with its floor to ceiling window, discrete but well stocked mini-bar and getting the simple little things exactly right, like excellent real coffee with milk in the fridge, embodied that.
The fresh fruit is there, the water in miniature glass carafes, with the hotel having embraced an eco-friendly approach to everything, from its complimentary wood handled tooth brushes and shavers to its lack of those infinite, infernal mini-bottles of plastic soaps, thankfully.
Only the lighting buttons confused me. I called the valet by mistake – he arrived to take me through the electronics and then quickly faded away.
Lunch is out across the street from the adjacent French Embassy, Thai street food as its best, and as Myles points out, it has to be good if they are located there.
The afternoon pool called us back, a respite from the afternoon heat, moving actively after 11 a.m. in Thailand is never a good plan, no matter how enthusiastic one is.
In the evening the Bamboo Bar beckoned, Bangkok’s first jazz bar and still an iconic place to start or finish an evening. My father favored martinis, with a twist, ice on the side, and nostalgia, favors the same, though a Smoked Bamboo cocktail, with vermouth, sherry and smoked whiskey makes for a good second choice.
As much as the highlights of a city are inevitably a raw explosion of tourists, selfies and bumping elbows while gazing at sights, the big sights are still often the great sights, and embracing the throngs is essential.
So Myles and I traversed the city with an energetic and surprisingly rumbly tuk-tuk, floated through the backstreets of the canals, circled the temples and paid homage to the exquisite gold reclining Buddha.
Yet as in any city, it was the random turn down a shadowed and deep back alley, peering into garages that turned into houses that opened into kitchens, with mattresses along the sides and kids trikes and scooters at the entrance that formed the real window into Bangkok life.
100 years ago this year, Somerset Maugham first traveled through Southeast Asia and stayed at the Oriental, penning a travel book Myles had given me a year previous and which had quickly become a treasure in my library, The Gentleman in the Parlour – A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong.
Long one of my favorite authors, the hotel holds the Somerset Maugham lounge and a small library. If ever there was a good writers haven to make a pilgrimage to, this has to be near the top of the list.
You can enjoy a sumptuous tea in the Maugham lounge, or just sit quietly in the corner reading in the morning hours – while it is a formal setting, as a guest in the hotel they gratefully don’t stand on formalities.
Having just finished my latest book, we discreetly wandered in and placed a copy amongst the other literary works of the library.
Following a long and lingering breakfast the next morning, I bumped into the current hotel manager, Anthony Tyler. Like myself he pointed out, he had returned to the hotel after working there in the late nineties, ensuring a consistency and sense of the past coupled with taking covid time out to do a complete update on the hotel.
I admitted to sneaking my book into their fine library, one of its more illustrious homes now, in perhaps still, the best, or at the very least, my favorite hotel in the world.