November 30, 2004 (STAR)  By Alfred A. Yuson - The first time I set foot at The Oriental, Mandarin Hotels’ jewel of a flagship in Bangkok, was in 1992. That it was a freebie stay helped make it memorable, of course. But the nature of the sojourn was what etched the experience in both mind and heart.

The Oriental sponsored the SEAWrite Awards, perhaps Asia’s most prestigious, certainly most rewarding, literary prize. At its inception in 1979, only writers from the five ASEAN member-states namely host Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, were eligible for the prize.

Each country named its own annual winner. By 1986, Brunei, the sixth ASEAN member, was invited in, so that there were six of us who were subjected to royal treatment on that fateful October. Together with our significant others, for a full week we enjoyed The Oriental’s distinctive brand of hospitality, culminating in the awards rites held at the Grand Ballroom, where we all curtseyed before a member of Thailand’s royal family who hosted the ceremonial dinner and handed out the prize.

Before that wondrous sojourn, I had read of how The Oriental was one of the premier lodging destinations in our part of the world, how it stood by the banks of the fabled Chao Phraya River, how it had hosted quite a number of internationally acclaimed writers since it first opened its doors, way back in 1875.

But nothing prepared us for the unique experience of getting back to our split-level, Garden Wing suite in the evenings and finding our beds not only exquisitely turned up, but oh-so-graciously gifted with a token orchid and a white card with a literary quote on the fine art of sleep. It was such eloquent little touches that convinced us that indeed, we were being coddled in the bosom of a Grande Dame that was justifiably and consistently voted as one of the world’s finest hotels.

Sometime in 1997 I had the privilege of returning to this "Legend by the River," if only for lunch with a Filipino VIP. If I remember correctly, it was at the Sala Rim Naam across the river, where classic Thai cuisine and dance performances were offered, and by then the beatitudes of The Oriental Spa, were collectivelybilled as a "Temple of Well-being." But it wasn’t until a dozen years after that first stay when great good fortune shone again on this sybarite’s timetable, and I managed to renew intimate relations with The Oriental.

It was déjà vu of sorts, too, as the occasion was the SEAWrite 2004 awarding week, which I decided to cover as a journalist since the Philippine winner was an old buddy who had to be guided out of and into bed, so fearful was he of such positive turns of fate during his waking hours. Why, Cesar Ruiz Aquino even thought of taking a cargo ship to Bangkok when informed of his impending prize, an idea born of his intense appreciation of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.

For three days and nights last October, I consorted with Dr. Aquino and his brother Ronnie who served as his official escort. We had breakfasts at The Verandah coffee shop or the Riverside Terrace, where we enjoyed the passing view, mild sun, and varied mid-morning buffet, from fruits and cereals to the usual bacon and the unusual corned beef served with spices, and on to rice dishes and hearty, artily fashioned omelets, a surfeit of which usually allowed us to skip lunch.

Evenings when there was no attendant function sponsored by yet another host outside the hotel, we assembled anew at the Riverside Terrace, where the buffet dinner always proved delectable if mind-boggling in its generous array.

Again The Oriental’s singular touch showed in the way the service staff made sure to etch in their collective memory, if only during one’s transience, the full names of each guest, and greet you with cheery familiarity whenever you hove into view.

Once, we came in past midnight, entirely spent from an extended foray at Patpong that included beers and massage, blitz shopping and street food pick-ups. The lobby security team quickly called our attention to one of the plastic bags being lugged in. Yes, fresh durian was the culprit. With broad smiles were we told that it was still a no-no for portage into one’s room.

Thankfully, the only witnesses were the birdcage chandeliers. Our sheepish quartet, by then beefed up by the locally based poet Wilfredo Pascual Jr., hurriedly crossed the lobby and exited at the poolside garden. The function areas close to the river had all emptied of guests, and all the lights had been dimmed. We were allowed to take a table at the terrace and slurp down our durian in the dark.

An amazing eventuality: when we tossed unpalatable pulp into the dark waters, a shimmer of activity suddenly welcomed the cast-offs. Large fish – as much as two feet long – flashed silvery scales as they scrummed for the prized bits. Willi said the Chao Phrya River fish, at least those in the downtown vicinity, were protected. That meant no angling allowed, a phenomenal urban ban that could only be observed by disciplined citizens whose fealty to King and Country was evidently unquestionable.

Back in our rooms for a nightcap, we reveled in the usual cornucopia of delights: the spic-and-span welcome of bathroom and bedroom, the balcony with a view, the desk with fresh stationery embossed with the golden fan, the resplendent exotica of the fruit basket, the orchid offerings and yet another writer’s quote on slumber and dreams. Such as:

"Some say that gleams of a remote world visit the soul in sleep." – Shelley

"O Sleep! It is a gentle thing, Beloved from pole to pole! – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"Slumber awaits to house the mind from care." – George Sterling

"Golden slumbers kiss your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise." – Thomas Dekker

And you thought that last verse came from John Paul George & Ringo? Well, the legendary GM Kurt Wachtweitl obviously knows better, as he it is who makes sure that The Oriental, Bangkok is forever associated with the literary life.

Thus the celebrated Authors’ Lounge retains its Victorian ambience – all latticed in white, while beside wicker furniture and a grand piano rise potted palms, tree ferns and slender bamboo. The greenery celebrates the special quality of light that comes through the translucent domed roof during daytime, when over a dozen varieties of tea are offered, along with special pastries, sandwiches, and soothing music.

Lying adjacent to this atrium setting are the Trophy Room that toasts the hotel’s numerous awards, and the Reading Room with its collection of books and vintage photographs of writers. By the lounge’s entrance is a wall with marble slabs inscribed with the names of SEAWrite awardees down the years.

Beyond the piano, a divided stairway leads to the four Authors’ Suites in the special wing called the Authors’ Residence. Each suite sports invariable opulence suggesting the style associated with each of the literary icons for which they’re named: Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and Noel Coward.

A frequent guest decades ago, Coward had once written in his journal how "we have drinks every evening watching the liver-colored water swirling by and the steam tugs hauling rows of barges upriver against the tide." For his part, in 1922, Maugham stayed and also found the terrace "a restful space." He worked on a fairy tale about Siam for his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour.

Browsing through the Michener Suite on an inspection tour, I sighed over the posh appointments that included a charming alcove with a writing desk. Our lady guide, public relations manager Anuttra Kiangsiri, recalled how on a visit a couple of years back, President GMA had reserved all four of the Authors’ Suites for her official party. And how she had a durian feast organized one afternoon at the riverside terrace. Hmmm, so our own midnight experience had had a Pinoy precedent.

De luxe suites in the towering River Wing, added in 1976, are also named after authors, among these Barbara Cartland, Gore Vidal, Graham Greene, John le Carre and Norman Mailer, the last after having given an address at the SEAWrite awards ceremony in 1998.

Top-of-the-line accommodation is The Oriental Suite, where occasional residents have included the Prince of Wales, the Queen of Sweden, the Sultan of Brunei, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson (perhaps not together, mind you).

Our tour included a look-see at the newly renovated Lord Jim’s seafood restaurant, with its marine-inspired décor that takes one’s breath away. Overlooking the pool and garden are table settings separated by diaphanous folds, while on the back wall of the executive dining lounge is an impressive bas relief simulating shell and jellyfish tracks on a cream-colored beach.

Haute cuisine is offered at Le Normandie, which engages Guy Martin from Paris as a 3-Michelin-Star gastronomic consultant. If memory serves me right, in 1992 the same Monsieur Martin, who was recently declared "Best Chef of the XXI Century" by an organization in Japan, had initially presented his culinary creations for a month-long gourmet feast at The Oriental. Other dining and entertainment venues are The China House, the outdoor Italian bistro Ciao, and The Bamboo Bar.

One spiritual morning, it was a treat at The Oriental Spa that drew conclusive appreciation. Fortuitously, the experience validated its No. 1 ranking as "Top City Hotel Spa" in Travel & Leisure’s October 2004 issue. The assortment of treatment packages numbers more than 50, from the one-hour Thai traditional massage to a three-hour Ayurveda Treasures, or a Full-Day Spa program called Spirit of Oriental that takes all of five hours, and of course an arm and a leg, metaphorically speaking.

Suffice it to say that the one-hour treatment of kneading and stretching, in an entirely quiet and meticulously appointed private room, was a full range removed from the Patpong experience the durian quartet had enjoyed two nights before. And that is what is ultimately engrossing about Bangkok, where the earthy and the unearthly can co-exist within easy radius.

Herr Wachtweitl, who has served as GM for 36 years, so that he has become nearly synonymous with the hotel, once summed it up regarding his Grande Dame:

"The Oriental is about dreams and illusions, and may be the only commercial place where the ‘old Siam’ is recognizable. It has a particular charm and individual style, made of infinitely small things, very identical to life in general."

Indeed, stepping out of The Oriental Spa, I couldn’t help but admire the lotus pond below, set classically between rows of columns supporting the teak building. It was a marriage of East and West, just like the opposite view from that wooden terrace: the pointy gable that spelled traditional Thai roofing, while in the distance loomed a towering modern structure. Passing by the Thai Cooking School and a spirit house at the edge of lush gardens, I walk on towards the river, where the shuttle barge would ferry me back across to the fabled wings of The Oriental, Bangkok.

Here for over a century the twain continue to meet: efficiency and graciousness, luxury and simplicity, the word and the spirit.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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