By Guy Trebay
On the map that exists in all travelers’ minds, there are cities one pines for and occasionally even dreams about. And there are others that register less vividly, even when you are in their midst. Each time I exit the crumbling (now finally under renovation) Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi and breach the throngs of curbside luggage porters and touts, and then drink in the smoggy, dusty, generally unwholesome, and yet, to my nose, perfumed, air of India, I feel at home.
Strangely, I never have this feeling in Bangkok, although I have stopped in that gaudy, implacable capital city a lot since the early 1990’s, on my way in and out of Cambodia and Vietnam and other Asian outposts for which it is the transportation hub. On the cusp of 2007 I found myself there again awaiting permission to enter Burma, a gorgeous and benighted country whose political equilibrium, always fragile, would be shattered before year’s end.
In Bangkok I have tended to pass my time in well-cosseted transition, at a place I often think of as the hotelier’s rendition of paradise: the 130-year-old Oriental, perennially cited at the top of magazine surveys naming the world’s finest hotels. Paradise can be interpreted in many ways, of course, but I prefer to think of it in terms of the root meaning of a word first written in the archaic language of the Zoroastrians. In Avestan, pairidaeza is a walled enclosure, and it is primarily in this sense that the Oriental hotel feels like paradise to me.
A too-little-appreciated function of any hotel is that it provides a line of defense against the buffeting and nuisance of the world outside its walls. The more one travels, the more crucial becomes that sense of enclosure and the feeling of being kept safe, not merely from real or imaginary external threats but also from the rootless malaise that sooner or later causes every traveler to bolt awake in a cold sweat, wondering where the door is and what the time is and even which city one is in.
Once, in a New Mexico thunderstorm that cracked open the sky from heaven to horizon, I stumbled upon paradise at a $29-a-night motel on Route 66. Once, I experienced the same relief in a hulking Transylvanian inn where a colleague and I took shelter as Romania underwent a violent revolution. Unlike the Kuwaiti hotel where we would later pass nervous weeks during Operation Desert Storm, the door to our chamber in that Dracula’s castle had both a knob and a working lock.
Regardless of whether there is actual peril beyond a hotel’s precincts or just the clamor and din of a city like Bangkok, making passage from the street and into the embrace of a hotel lobby is vital to the experience of travel. In Bangkok, of all the blaring, tumultuous, confusing, and polluted cities I know, there is everything to be said for the ability to escape. And that is my main ambition when I am there.
The aura of poshness and the clockwork service at the Oriental may be squandered on me, since what I ask of a hotel from a practical standpoint is fairly simple: enough hangers and hot water, a place to stack the books and objects I accumulate on the road, a proper reading light, a flat surface for a laptop, and the assurance that a Do Not Disturb sign will not be locally translated as “Please Enter Immediately and Bring Every Person You Have Ever Known.”
If I do not get much use from the now-ubiquitous in-room cable, CD player, iPod dock, and mini-bar, or from the plush robes that are inevitably cut so that, on a tall man like me, the belt creates an empire gown effect, I accept that these things are considered the baseline of what constitutes fanciness in hotels.
At the Oriental, I always request a room on a high floor overlooking the Chao Phraya River. I am aware that there is a fine garden pool and a spa reachable by ferry across the water and a cooking school and also that the slightly too recognizable person in the lobby is Brad Pitt. I don’t care.
I am not there, as a rule, to meet movie stars or wander Chinatown or visit Wat Pho and the Emerald Buddha or to scald my mouth on incendiary street food or to ogle the sex workers in sad, seedy Patpong Road. If each time I leave the Oriental I am eager to return, it is not because the building itself is impressive or because the bartender at the Bamboo Bar has perfected anachronistic cocktails like the Singapore sling.
Neither is it because of the hotel’s literary heritage. True, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Noël Coward, James Michener (and, let’s not forget, Barbara Cartland) all stayed at the Oriental, yet I doubt that they were drawn there in the hope of encountering others in their trade. They came, I tend to think, for the hotel’s exceptional quiet and nearly otherworldly sense of remove, and because they recognized that, in a culture where hospitality is deeply rooted and tolerance widespread, few requests will be found too curious to accommodate.
Is it saying too much to suggest there is a kind of paradise in that?