Sleeping with History: Bangkok ‘Nostalgia’ Hotels

by John Borthwick


Next time you strike it rich — thanks to a generous aunt or (shock!) your own hard work — hit the Bangkok nostalgia trail to sample one or two of these history-themed hotels. Some are old, some recent, but not all of them expensive.



THE SIAM This Thai-Italianate pocket palace built beside the Chao Phraya River in 1908 by HRH Prince Chakrabongse echoes with family tales of regal romances and elopement. Bump into the owner, Narisa — the prince’s granddaughter — and you might hear the details. She has turned her domain of tropical gardens and teak pavilions into a zone that’s serenely removed from the touristic mayhem of Maharat Road just outside. There are six suites, ranging from a bonsai 12 sq meters to the Chinese Suite’s generous 155 sq meters. Narisa’s well-informed Thai taste comes through in the themed décor of every room. With a sunset snifter in your hand, gaze straight across the river to Wat Arun and enjoy a literally aristocratic point of view.

Shanghai Retro on the banks of the Big Mango’s Big Muddy. The Siam (pronounced See-ahm rather than Sigh-am) is the brainchild of Thai pop star-actor, Kriss Sukosol Clapp (whose musical, hotelier family just happened to have a plot of prime riverfront land — as one does). This svelte, 39-room retreat featuring Bangkok’s most spacious suites was designed by the ever-inventive Bill Bensley, whose Thai-Chinese period décor — black and white tiles, endless Oriental curios, even a diving helmet — is so eclectic that you want to hang out in every area, including the bathrooms. The low-key Siam glam extends to several renovated, century-old Ayutthaya teak houses, with Jim Thomson provenance, that accommodate the Chon (“Spoon”) restaurant, plus a dress circle view of the river that never sleeps. Speaking of sleep, however, The Siam’s aptly named Opium Spa offers an almost out-of-body experience.


There’s more homage to wicked, between-wars Shanghai at the serene and stylish Cabochon Hotel tucked away well down Soi 45 Sukhumvit. Designed by Taiwan’s Eugene Yeh, it has just four suites and four studios. Period references are everywhere: wickerwork, teak flooring, retro light-switches and antique bedsteads that should delight Sino-nostalgics. Then add free WiFi, cable vision and VoIp phones. Linger in the intimate Joy Luck Club’s library-lounge-bar, then wander down the hall to the Thai Lao Yeh restaurant where the food philosophy is “authentic local” (and the food, sans philosophy, is bloody good), as is the décor, with tiffin carriers, abacuses and marble-top tables.


Shanghai Mansion has a long head-start over other, recent players in the capital’s “Sinostalgia” business. This 76-room hotel on tumultuous Yaowarat Road in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown — the world’s largest — is the real deal. Built in 1892, it has been a Chinese opera house, stock exchange and textile trading house, and since 2006 a boutique hotel. Throughout its public areas you find red sofas, lanterns, decorative screens, a water garden and plenty of memorabilia channelling Deco-decadent Shanghai of the ‘30’s. The themed guest suites, with names like Cherry Blossom Havens, are loaded with chinoiserie including antique platform beds. All this Orientalism is neatly balanced by a cool, Occidentalist jazz bar.



Her glory days may be gone but if you’re chasing real history and authenticity, live and sleep it at the Atlanta. This eccentric dowager slumbers at the far end of Soi 2 Sukhumvit, with its superb Bauhaus-Deco lobby and diner unchanged from the 1950s when this was the Bangkok place to be. (A 1962 photograph shows the young King of Thailand playing sax here with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman — and Pres. George Bush I looking on.) Today the rooms are very tired but the garden pool (the first hotel pool in Bangkok) and public areas are fine. The impeccable LA-style diner still offers Vietnam War-era specials like Steak Diane and filet mignon from a verbose, Fawltyesque menu that declares, “Typically, the Atlanta is not moving with the times.”


This iconic pile perched regally on the riverfront remains simply “The Oriental” to generations of travellers whether they have stayed there or not. It opened in 1876 and its heart is still the venerable Author’s Wing where the ghosts of former literary guests like Maugham, Coward, Conrad, Greene and Jung Chang type silently on in elaborate, named suites. Notwithstanding its own moniker, the 393-room Mandarin Oriental is too pukka to chase faux Orientalism, offering instead its own in-house traditions of finesse, from the very dress code-conscious lobby to the palmy gardens and riverfront dining. Afternoon high tea in the lounge, cocktails and late night jazz in the Bamboo Bar, and your butler looking after the details is what it’s all about. www.mandarinoriental/bangkok