Few Bangkok hotels can compete with the Mandarin Oriental’s colourful history
and trove of illustrious guests
By Massimo Morello
Despite his protestations – “I can’t reveal anything” – Kurt Wachtveitl must have plenty to tell. After all, he was general manager of the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok for 41 years. For someone who lives in Bangkok – in a house with views of the Oriental, on the far bank of the Chao Phraya river – meeting Wachtveitl is a good chance for a “chat about old times”, as he puts it.
The years in which he was at the helm of the legendary hotel, between 1967 and 2008, included good times and bad, secrets and intrigue, love and betrayal. Key 20th-Century figures passed through the doors of the Oriental, from Vietnam War correspondents, who filed articles from its lobby, to Robert De Niro, who starred in The Deer Hunter, a movie about the same war. Above all, though, there were the writers for whom the Oriental was their home ‘east of Suez’.
Before Wachtveitl arrived at the Oriental, the place was already loaded with the history of the previous century and its equally extraordinary protagonists: from Conrad to Somerset Maugham, Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia to Jim Thompson, the former US agent who became the Thai silk king (as well as co-owner of the hotel).
That’s why, even if Wachtveitl cannot “reveal anything”, it is as if his very presence were a catalyst for stories.
Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental has an unreservedly out-of-this-world feel about it. But that wouldn’t be the case if the hotel had not maintained everything that has made it unique over the years. From the excellence of its restaurants – beginning with Normandie, one of the best French eateries in Asia – to the discreet elegance of the rooms, everything is just as it should be at one of Asia’s most storied hotels. That is without even considering the ritual of afternoon tea at the Author’s Lounge, with its adjacent library housing books donated
by former guests.
In the end, the meeting with Wachtveitl ends with us making an appointment in Bangkok. Perhaps, while sipping a drink on the Oriental’s terrace, he will be ready to tell a story or two.