Behind the scenes in Bangkok

Oli Rahman
01 October 2016

In the mid-19th century, when Thailand was still Siam, a rest house for foreign seafarers opened by the Chao Phraya river. It became one of the world’s greatest hotels, the Mandarin Oriental, an inspiration for writers and sophisticates alike. On the hotel’s 140th anniversary, High Life New Talent winner Oli Rahman checks in. Photography by Jasper James

It’s shortly after 7am in Bangkok’s Thonburi district. The temperature has already surpassed 27°C and the city pulsates with an otherworldly energy. Monks with billowing orange robes conduct their morning rounds, relying on the kindness of strangers for their breakfast of a bowl of boiled rice. At the packed Pak Khlong Talat flower market, stallholders sell jasmine wreaths that can be laid at neighbourhood shrines to express gratitude. We pass through a series of passages studded with stalls selling baskets of fresh lemongrass, sticky rice and coconut cakes, alongside the more exotic prospect of live frogs that are so fresh they’re still hopping around inside their containers.

‘This is where some of the frogs in the Oriental’s pond come from,’ laughs general manager Amanda Hyndman, one of the key members of staff behind the remarkable Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. ‘Although people who buy frogs here are more likely to cook them.’

Hyndman is leading me from the hotel in Thonburi towards the historical centre of Rattanakosin for breakfast with a view of one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks: the Temple of Dawn. She exudes the quiet confidence of someone comfortable amid the city’s chaos of selfie-stick-wielding hordes and markets that spill over on to the pavement. We sit sipping coffee at a spot across from the Temple of Dawn, a Khmer-style Buddhist temple with its distinctive porcelain-encrusted spire rising into the sky.

Replenished by a crab omelette, coffee and gallons of ice-cold water, we head out for a tour of the Golden Buddha, across the river, before arriving back at the hotel. The palatial grandeur of the lobby is a refreshing contrast to Bangkok’s teeming streets and waterways. This building has one of the most storied histories of any hotel on Earth. It opened as The Oriental in 1876, before later becoming the second flagship hotel in the Mandarin Oriental group. Located on the ‘River of Kings’, the hotel was once owned by Louis Thomas Leonowens – son of Anna Leonowens, who was immortalised in the book Anna and the King of Siam, which later became the film The King and I.

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Since then, it has hosted guests that include author W Somerset Maugham, who stumbled in with a bout of malaria, and a restless Joseph Conrad, the newly appointed captain of a Singapore-bound ship named the Otago, who killed time in the bar while he waited for his crew to recover from a host of tropical diseases. It has also inspired many writers, including John le Carré, Noël Coward and James Michener.

The Oriental turned 140 this year and still has an air of colonial glamour, particularly in the revamped Author’s Lounge, which harks back to the hotel’s literary residents. At the redesigned Bamboo Bar, it’s easy to imagine stars of old sipping negronis as they listened to live jazz. Or in Coward’s case, enjoying a drink beside the river that used to carry 19th-century traders and their sugar, spices, ebony, ivory and rosewood. He wrote of the Oriental in 1937, ‘There is a terrace overlooking the swift river where we have drinks every evening watching the liver-coloured water swirling by and tiny steam tugs hauling rows of barges up-river against the tide.’

Looking out over the same river that Coward observed 79 years ago, it appears unchanged, despite the rapid modernisation that has turned Thailand into one of the World Bank’s Top 50 countries for doing business. Today, the call to prayer from the mosque next door echoes across the river five times a day and the waterway remains an offal-tinted route dotted with barges and boat taxis.

Sitting in the lounge is one staff member who knows better than most about how the city has changed. Black-and-white photos on the wall depict an elegant lady standing alongside dignitaries and guests. Khun Ankana, the hotel’s longest-serving employee, is 95 now, but still easily recognisable as the glamorous woman in one of the pictures, alongside the unlikely pairing of Princess Soraya of Iran and British romantic novelist Barbara Cartland.

Ankana was the director of guest relations for 62 years. Today she’s back at the hotel to see old friends and colleagues and time hasn’t dented her sense of fun. ‘People ask me if I met Joseph Conrad. You know, that was the 19th century,’ she explains with a chuckle.

Ankana isn’t the only long-term employee of the hotel: a husband-and-wife team, Khun Narong and Khun Rachanee, have worked on the water taxis for more than a decade. While this form of transportation has a certain elegant appeal – not least the opportunity to visit the boutique shops of OP Garden – to get the most out of the city, you need a faster way to explore. And a tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok is a genuine thrill. We start near Nana Plaza, where ladyboys strut their stuff nightly. The traffic thins as we tear along the freeway past Lumpini Park. Locals have warned us about Lumpini’s Monitor Lizards – creatures that terrified tourists sometimes mistake for Komodo Dragons. I’m not too worried about reptiles; our erratic driver seems more of a pressing concern. When he’s not veering precariously between lanes and pushing his brakes to their limit, he’s cackling and making bawdy jokes as we roar past the Patpong red-light district.

Next, we hit Sukhumvit, one of the longest roads in the world. It’s a buzzy stretch of hotels and rooftop bars with a 24-hour crowd chattering away at street level. We run into a crew of teenagers from Singapore decked out in tattoos and matching tank tops in the 27-acre sprawl of Chatuchak’s market. They look like a boy band with a sideline in debt collection. They adopt a carefully choreographed pose when asked for a picture: it clearly isn’t their first close-up. When I ask if they’re in a gang, one laughs and the others look offended. ‘No, we like tattoos,’ he says, before sauntering off.

These kids aren’t the only ones turning Bangkok into an Instagram paradise. In an ever-gentrifying city, a slew of hip newcomers has migrated across the Chao Phraya. Leading the charge is upscale concept store, The Jam Factory, which combines restaurants, a bookshop, an architect’s studio and a home décor store. Perched around a leafy courtyard, and the brainchild of local starchitect Duangrit Bunnag, it opened three years ago and is now the hangout of industrious 20-somethings, all hunched over MacBooks.

The Never Ending Summer, one of the restaurants at The Jam Factory, is housed within a converted warehouse. It offers ‘international food with a Thai Twist,’ says head chef Nakul as he prepares a marinade for a Kurobuta pork steak. The bar manager, Dheeradon, hands me one of his concoctions: Tom Yam – a ‘twist on a Bloody Mary’. The combination of lime, lemongrass, chilli and fish sauce has a wallop of umami that at first makes me feel like I’ve touched a live wire. After a second 
sip I’m hooked.

Bangkok is undoubtedly a fast-paced metropolis, but it retains much of the charm of the past. At one point, we get lost during an evening stroll and look up to realise that we have stumbled into an incredible Buddhist shrine – an unexpected burst of gold and red in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.

As a luxury hotel, The Oriental is a splendid spot for weary travellers, as it has a tranquillity that is calming and decompressing. But for restless souls, the city is just a river taxi away. As such, on my final day, I find myself heading to Khongsittha, an out-of-town gym. As I learn basic Muay Thai strikes under the instruction of a softly spoken trainer, he keeps repeating the same words, a one-size-fits-all mantra. I find it applies for everything from hand-to-hand combat to exploring an unfamiliar city by foot: ‘Not too fast. Don’t think too much. Just go slow and it will be more beautiful.’

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