The Oriental, Bangkok

Stepping through the doors of the Oriental Bangkok from the exhilarating and exhausting tumult of Bangkok is like entering a calmer, quieter, deeply different world. This is not the average five-star hotel. This is a hotel with a history.

Though it has grown since the early days in the 1880's, when Joseph Conrad knew it, the Oriental has preserved its old buildings, its elegance, and its sense of the past. It offers every modern convenience, but it also offers banks of orchids and curtains of jasmine and the perfume of river water. It looks over the vast and busy thoroughfare of the Chao Phraya, and one could sit for hours watching the slow surging and ebbing of floating purple hyacinth under a wooden landing stage, the packed ferries, the gravel-laden barges, the noisy little water taxis.

The Oriental has style. Pale cream and ivory style. Even its orchid-decorated boxes of clean laundry are works of art. (We preserved one for years, unwilling to unwrap the shirts within, which we knew would never receive such tender and ceremonious handling again.) I think of the hotel in shades of ivory, which is appropriate, as I first went there while engaged in research for my novel The Gates of Ivory. I followed several of my characters to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and allowed myself, as I allowed them, a brief period of restoration at the Oriental.

I moved in for a couple of nights from a noisier, journalists' haunt, the Trocadero on Surawong Road. What a transformation! Here was the high life, evoking the days of Somerset Maugham (after whom a suite is named). Rattan chairs with chintz covers, marble floors, great edifices of flowers, shopping arcades with jewels beyond price, a boutique displaying tempting silk dressing gowns, and that cooling, lively, ever-changing view of the river.

The Authors' Lounge in the Authors' Wing attracted me particularly, for was I not myself an author, following a great globe-trotting tradition?Tea parties and receptions are held there, and cocktails are named after famous travelers—Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, William Golding, Paul Theroux. I set a scene in my novel in this lounge: my wandering hero Stephen stands on the edge of the crowd and watches the mingling of exquisitely dressed guests from many nations amid the champagne glasses and oysters and tiny swans of cream-filled puff pastry. He is nervously awaiting the arrival of his friend and guide, Bangkok Dragon Lady and Beauty Queen, who swoops upon him, clothed in fuchsia and magenta. I was so grateful for the inspiration for this scene—which contrasts well with some of the less pleasant episodes in my book—that I included the manager of the Oriental hotel in my list of acknowledgments.

I had not at that point met the manager, the handsome Kurt Wachtveitl. But I was to make his acquaintance, along with that of the crown prince of Thailand, on my next visit. I was asked to speak at a sumptuous banquet to celebrate an award for Southeast Asian writers. Here we saw the Oriental at its grandest—stuffed with ambassadors and dignitaries and tuxedos and ball gowns and Chinese traders and royalty. The Thais take their royalty seriously, more seriously even than the British used to do, and I was almost unnerved by the formality of this gala occasion, by the vast space that divided me at dinner from my neighbor His Royal Highness, by the information that he had to be addressed in a special aristocratic language reserved for monarchs. (At least I was spared this test, which was reducing the Thai prizewinners to jelly.)

But the manager and his staff, clearly used to this kind of thing, did not quail as hand garlands were presented, anthems were played, and toasts were raised. We ate our small terrines with tender lettuces, and sipped our essence of chicken with truffle tortellini, and the Royal Navy Orchestra played on. It was all magnificent. When the dinner and the ordeal of my speech were over, we slipped off to the bar to hear a pretty young Irish singer belting it out irreverently to the warm and murky night.

The Oriental makes every guest feel like royalty. It encourages self-indulgent behavior from which a workaday writer like myself would normally flinch. I visited the hairdressing salon and very nearly plucked up the courage to cross the river on the special ferry to the spa for a massage. I bought a green silk gown, and I treasure the elegant blue-checkered shoe pouches that the exceedingly pleasant floor manager presented me with—I do not think they were meant as a criticism of my plastic bags. My heart rises when I think of the Oriental, because I was happy there. I shall drink a Drabble cocktail tonight in its honor.

The Oriental Bangkok 48 Oriental Ave., Bangkok; 800/526-6566 or 66-2/236-0400, fax 66-2/236-1939; doubles from $295.