It is dawn in Bangkok. The rising sun tears open the sky in lavender and chrome-yellow stripes. Below my balcony at the Oriental hotel, the Chao Phraya River, River of Kings, is already full of traffic. Rice barges, low in the water, bear their burden down river toward the coast of Thailand. Freight boats stacked with watermelons and papaya shimmer in the early sun and water buses criss-cross the river.
Until the 1960s, Bangkok was a city that lived on its waterways. Most of its klongs (canals) have been paved over now, but the river is still at the very heart of the ever-expanding city that hasn't any other center. At the Oriental's private landing dock, the Orchid Queen, one of the hotel's two yachts, is being washed down, made ready for a day trip to the old city at Si Ayutthaya or a moonlight cruise. A water taxi deposits guests who have come from the airport by water, avoiding the Bangkok traffic, which is almost always at gridlock. Another taxi boat takes still more visitors to the floating markets that operate each day at dawn.
The physical layout of the Oriental and its history are inescapably intertwined. Around 1887, what had been for a decade or more a modest riverside hotel catering to sailors was expanded into the most luxurious inn in Siam. That structure remains today. It is called the Authors' Wing and, lovingly refurbished, contains some of the hotel's most extravagant suites. In 1958 the eight-story Modern Wing was built next to the Authors' Wing and in 1976 the high-rise River Wing next to that. All three overlook the river and, connected by the lobby and arcades, form a kind of open quadrangle with gardens and the swimming pool in the middle.
But apart from the distinctive allure of its physical plant, what gives the Oriental its charm is a singularity of style and a definite whiff of adventure. There is a letter from Graham Greene, a regular customer, that hangs on the wall of a suite named for him. In it he calls the Oriental a hotel "where almost anything may happen and one may meet almost anybody from a mere author to an international crook on his way elsewhere."
One of the Oriental's great enticements is that although it is utterly urbane, although it is surrounded by this immense, chaotic, vibrant sprawl of about 5 million that is Bangkok, it has the ineffably lazy quality of an elegant resort sufficient unto itself. There is the swimming pool of such an intense blue it looks like a piece of celadon pottery glazed and fired in the kilns at Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. There are a new sports complex across the river, a shopping arcade and barbecues on the Riverside Terrace.
But in spite of its modernity, in spite of the soaring lobby with wall-to-wall marble floors and bronze bell-shaped chandeliers, in spite of the pristine fleet of white taxis just beyond the front door, the business facilities, the four-hour dry cleaning and the sterilized drinking water, the Oriental's other great charm is that there is the ineluctable sense that this really is Asia. It is camped, quite literally, on your doorstep. At the bottom of the sweeping driveway on the side of the hotel away from the river there are children hawking orchid leis or port buns cooked by street-corner vendors. This is the world Graham Greene knew. Or, for that matter, Sydney Greenstreet.
A knock at the door means breakfast has arrived -- on time. The waiter smiles, bows and pours the aromatic coffee. The service at the Oriental, as at the other half-dozen hotels in its class around the world, is friendly but never familiar. No one has a hand out. The staff of over 900 all seem to have anticipated whatever it is you need or want almost before you know you do. When you ask for a wake-up call, the operator addresses you by name in lilting tones. Then she calls back to make sure you're really awake. If this is Greeneland, it is Greeneland with exquisite service.
The rolls are in a little wicker work basket. There is fresh fruit -- the succulent pineapple the Thai eat with salt, the juiciest mango, the hairy little ovals called rambutan that you skin to get at the mildly sweet nugget the shape and size of a plum.
Wearing the blue cotton kimono provided in the lavish marble bathroom, you sit on the balcony and watch the city begin its daily bustle in earnest. Every room in the River Wing has a balcony that looks over the river. Each room is decorated with rich Thai silks, fragrant local teak, bowls of fragile orchids. Of the 406 rooms at the Oriental, the loveliest are the corner rooms, with two-way views of the river.
If you want to live in immense style, however, ask for one of the two dozen or so "name suites," particularly the Bicentennial or the Graham Greene in the River Wing. The latter is elegant and austere in celadon, rose and black lacquer. There are also the four famous and opulent suites named for Joseph Conrad, James Michener, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham in the Authors' Wing.
Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, by palms and scarlet flame trees, the Authors' Wing is an art director's dream of the tropics. The lobby, the Authors' Lounge, has white wicker chairs, potted palms and a case full of books by writers who have come to stay. The pride in its literary associations and affection for its guests gives this very grand hotel an ingenuous, almost down-home allure.
"We regret to learn that Mr. W. Somerset Maugham is down with malaria fever, doubtless contracted when coming overland from Mandalay. His temperature was 103," read a notice issued by the Oriental early in 1923. Maugham later allowed how "I was almost evicted from the Oriental because the manager did not want me to ruin her business by dying in one of her rooms."
Maugham didn't die. Instead he wrote a story, set in the Oriental's Bamboo Bar, and called it "The Gentleman in the Parlour." You can just imagine Maugham in the appropriately flamboyant suite named for him, all magenta and emerald with silk cushions and antique bibelots, imagine him reclining here, working at his needlepoint, chatting perhaps with one of the more exquisite princes or princesses.
Thailand is fiercely royalist. On the walls of the Authors' Lounge there is a marvelous collection of turn-of-the-century photos, sepia portraits and snaps of the royal family.
The hotel has changed, of course, since those days, when banquets were held on the lawn and a Viennese orchestra played quadrilles. But there remains a sense that true grandeur, especially when it comes to food, somehow requires a plush European ambiance.
The Oriental's rooftop Normandie Grill serves skillfully made nouvelle cuisine, some of it based on local produce and some of the best quail I've ever eaten. But the lasting impression is of carpet that's ankle-deep and brigades of waiters with nothing more on their minds than a chance to light your cigarette.
The best food in the hotel is at the Lord Jim's, a restaurant overlooking the river and named in honor of Joseph Conrad, who took command of his first ship in Bangkok in 1888 when the hotel was still a ship captain's inn. The Lord Jim's -- which resembles a snappy '20s yacht, its nautical air more Noel Coward than Conrad -- puts on an extravagant buffet lunch. There is fresh tuna, sparkling sushi, acres of crab. The menu includes charcoal-grilled pla lapong, the wonderful local fish, and succulent lobsters from Phuket, the island in the south. There are Thai specialties as well, but for really amazing local cuisine, take the hotel boat across the river to the restaurant complex run by the D'jit Pochana.
You can dine in the open air on the Rim Naam Terrace overlooking the river or in the Thai Sala pavilion. There is also the recently opened Baan Phraya, a room intended to give the feeling of a private Thai house. In any case, the smells here are of lemon grass and cardamom, coriander and tamarind. There are dishes of shrimp, pork and catfish seasoned with lime juice and hot pepper. There are the contrasts of sweet and sour, crisp and rich that make up the infinite variety of Thai cooking.
As the evening ends, you head back for the terrace by the river. It's here at the end of the day that you sip ice-cold beer, listen to the sound of laughter in half a dozen languages and watch the endless city beyond the river, the tangle of lights that glitter on the deep, tropical night punctuated by the gleam of the chedi, the golden burial mounds.