All great cities are instantly known by their important monuments – Paris and the Eiffel Tower, London and Buckingham Palace, New York and the Empire State Building, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. But experienced world travellers also know great cities by their great hotels. Paris and The Ritz, London and Claridges, New York and The Waldorf-Astoria and Tokyo and The Imperial. Bangkok is just as easily known for its venerable, grand dame of all Far Eastern hotels. In fact many have proclaimed it to be the best hotel in the world – the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – or simply the Oriental.
As trade between Siam and the West greatly expanded in 1855 with the signing of the Bowring Treaty, expatriates quickly started to flood into the country in ever increasing numbers. But accommodations were virtually non-existent at the time for all the foreigners pouring in as merchants, sailors, traders, doctors, men who worked for the Siamese government as advisors, legation officials, missionaries and their families arrived. Two men, an American sea captain named Dyers and his partner J.E. Barnes, decided to open the first Oriental Hotel in 1855, but it burned down ten years later. A few years after, two sea captains from Denmark opened what would become today’s Oriental Hotel. In the 1870s a new building, to be called the River Wing, was constructed. It opened in 1876. This is considered the official opening date of the hotel.
In 1881, a highly respected Danish businessman, Hans Niels Andersen, bought the hotel. He knew that visitors to Siam needed good accommodation, a bar and Western food. Anderson and his new partners decided to upgrade the building into a luxury hotel, the first in Siam. It opened on 19 May 1887 to much acclaim. It boasted 40 rooms and many luxurious features including carpeted hallways, a smoking room, ladies lounge, a bar and a billiards room. The restaurant had a French chef and a butler. A grand banquet was held on 24 May 1888 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
The hotel’s ownership turned over several times before Ms. Marie Maire took ownership in 1910. She immediately renovated the hotel making very extensive changes and upgrades before selling it to other investors in 1932. With the start of WWII in 1941 she leased the hotel to the Japanese Army who turned it into an officers’ club. With the war’s end in August 1945, the victorious Allies used the hotel to house liberated prisoners. Wartime usage caused a lot of damage. Ms. Maire sold the hotel to six prominent investors who pooled USD$250 each to purchase the property, including Pote Sarasin and Jim Thompson. One of the partners, Ms. Germaine Krull, was named the hotel manager despite having no previous hotel experience.
After extensive renovation the hotel reopened on 12 June 1947. Krull turned out to be a natural hotelier and she restored the hotel to its position of prominence. In 1958 a new ten storey addition called the Garden Wing was built. However, in 1967, Krull grew fearful that Thailand wound fall to the Communists, so she sold her share to the Ital-Thai Company. The Ital-Thai Group owner, Giorgio Berlingieri, felt that the Oriental had fallen well behind its competitors. He sought to make the hotel the best in the world. In November 1967. Berlingieri appointed Kurt Wachtveitl to be the General Manager. It was an inspired choice as he turned out to be the quintessential hotel manager. The Oriental saw further expansion in 1972 when it bought an adjacent property and erected a 350 room River Wing. The hotel’s ownership went through another change in 1974 when the Mandarin International Hotels Group Limited, a prestigious hotel management firm, took a 49% stake in the Oriental. The group already owned the renowned Hong Kong Hotel, The Mandarin. So, in 1985, it changed its corporate structure by combining these two properties under the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. The Oriental underwent another complete renovation in 2003. In September 2008, the name was changed to the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.
Currently the hotel has 331 rooms including 60 unique suites. The remaining original 19th century two storey structure, called the Authors’ Wing, has suites named for famous authors who have resided in the hotel including Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and James Michener. Other suites are named for famous visitors through the decades.
The Mandarin Oriental has achieved a legendary reputation for the most outstanding hotel in the world.