The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok in a Danish perspective

Ask any Italian and they will tell you, the Oriental Hotel – Bangkok’s most famous hotel – is in fact Italian. After all, it was the Italian architect S. Cardu, who designed and built the oldest and most famous building of the hotel still standing today, The Authors lounge. And wasn’t it the grand Italian businessman, G. Berlingieri, who owned the hotel for 14 years from 1967 till he died in 1981, who brought it up to win award after award as The Best Hotel in the World – together with legendary hotelier Kurt Wachveitl as the General Manager?

Yes, the French will say, but if it hadn’t been for the French grand old lady Germaine Krull, The Oriental would hardly have survived until today. Through her thirteen years from 1947 until 1960 as Manager and co-owner, Germaine Krull laid the foundation for the post-war grandeur of the hotel, not least by building the Tower Wing which opened in 1958 – today renamed the Normandie Wing after the famous restaurant on the top floor. Well, the Danes will retort, didn’t she turn to the Danish engineering company Christiani & Nielsen to realise this achievement?

There is, however, no doubt that The Oriental’s road to its current prominence started from the day when Danish EAC founder, H.N. Andersen – technically together with the likewise Danish co-owners of his company, Peter Andersen and Frederick Knich – took over the hotel in 1881. It was his vision, that The Oriental should be the first luxury hotel of international standard in Thailand, which set off the legend as we know it today.

In 1885, H.N. Andersen commissioned the Italian architect S. Cardu to build the first brick building of the hotel, the Authors Lounge, as it is known today. The grand opening for this building was held on 19 May 1887.

“Never had such riches been seen in Bangkok outside the Palace,” writes Andreas Augustin and Andrew Willamson in their book “The Oriental Bangkok”.

“Cardu had created the most elegant public dining-room in Bangkok. Carpets covered the hallways, there was artistic wallpaper with the latest designs from Paris and the nineteen bedrooms on the second floor were furnished with mahogany rattan.”

“The epitome of elegance was the private blue drawing-room with a bedroom (No 1) en suite. Today it would be the Presidential Suite. The inventory list includes sofas, armchairs, a conference table with six chairs, a table clock, flower stands, paintings, a crystal chandelier, blue silk curtains with holders and mosquito curtains over the beds.”

H.N Andersen also installed a French hotel manager, George Troisoefs, to realise his vision. His first major function was a banquet in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, which was eventually so lavishly performed that both expatriates and the highest ranking of the Siamese society from that day on declared The Oriental the place for important parties.

From that day travellers and journalist did not stop talking about The Oriental. Rarely was a letter sent without mentioning of the elegant and comfortable hotel.

“There is only one hotel, the “Oriental”, now existing in Bangkok, wrote Norwegian Carl Bock about his visit in 1884.

In 1890, the first electric light generating system was installed in Bangkok, serving the Royal Palace. The Oriental had electric light from April 1891 – supplied from the Siam Electric Light Company under, of course, Danish management.

The Danish claim to The Oriental is supported by the mystery shrouding its exact year of founding. Nobody knows exactly, when the hotel was actually built. We do know, however, that it was destroyed in a fire in 1865. And we also know that by 1878 the owner was C. Salje – a Danish captain – and the Manager a fellow Dane, H. Jarck, who – now we are, however, guessing – had possibly taken over the hotel in 1863 after a Captain James White, named as the owner of “a hotel on the banks of the river”, who drowned while crossing the river in 1863.

And in the 1890’s, Louis T. Leonowens insisted, that he remembered the hotel right there on the bank of the river when in 1862 he arrived as a young boy with his mother – Anna Leonowens, famous from “The King and I”.

The Danish days of The Oriental officially ended in 1893, when H.N. Andersen and co-owners sold the hotel to the Bangkok based American Franklin Hurst. But from the evidence above, it is clear that – at least to the Danes – The Oriental remained very much “their” hotel for the next one hundred years – and probaly will remain so for the next hundred years to come.

Whatever the ownership and management, what still today makes The Oriental a “Danish” hotel – at least in the minds of the Danes – is not least the fact that the East Asiatic Company was located next door to the hotel and its famous Bamboo Bar. Consequently, the Oriental was for decades almost second home to the majority of the Danes living and working in Bangkok.

The Bamboo Bar became the place for a “one for the road night cap” after the boys had closed up for the night,” Jørgen Ib Hedes, one of the EAC Danes at the time, recalls.

“The night cap would run into a few and by midnight, the place was usually full and swinging. Quite often, the high spirited Danes would take over the music stand and jam the night away.”

One of Germaine Krull’s principles was, that a certain dress code had to be maintained. After all, this was The Oriental. At least a necktie was needed. But as many wouldn’t wear one when they arrived, she had some made from cheap, deliberately ugly materials, which would be handed out to the customers by the door. For years, these neckties with their shrill colours and poor sowing were treasured souvenirs and a clear mark of distinction for any Dane having ever worked in or travelled to Bangkok.

“Once after a maternity party for one of the EAC executives – which would inevitably end up at the Bamboo Bar – the music stand was again taken over by the Danes,” Mr. Hedes recalls.

“But instead of traditional instruments, the Danes played on a range of utensils taken from the kitchen and laundry room of the newborn baby’s mother. The drums were zink basins and buckets whose covers also made quite a noise. The bass was a basin with a bamboo rod punched through it and with a steel cord completing the instrument.”

“Sometimes, it would get a little wild,” Mr. Hedes adds, “but the hotel usually put up with the most strange behaviour of the crazy Danes. Like the story of the tall Dane, who felt pity on a horse in the street and dragged it into the bar. The story doesn’t say whether the horse was properly served with a beer or two, though.”

A famous Danish athlete was about that time among the regulars. Late at night, he would frequently be challenged to show whether he was still in full charge of his faculties.

“So to prove himself, he would perform a one hand stand on the bar desk, drinking his beer upside down, to large cheers of the crowd!”

Today, with the overwhelming number of four and five star hotels in Bangkok – and with the moving of the EAC Headquarters from the river bank to the Lumpini Tower on bustling Rama 4 Road – the Oriental is not as often frequented by the Danes as in the old days. Still, tradition demands that the major Scandinavian Golf tournament, Ammundsen Memorial Cup, named after the late Dr. Einar Ammundsen, starts with breakfast at the Bamboo Bar.

 

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