Published on August 9, 2019
HERITAGE HOTELS of the GREATER MEKONG
Among the ever increasing number of new luxury hotels and resorts in the Mekong region, there can still be found a few historical gems that have weathered through decades — some surviving more than a century —remaining polished, sparkling, and appealing to today’s most discerning travelers.
These gems include the riverside property Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok (formerly The Oriental Bangkok), the beachside Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin (formerly The Railway Hotel), The Strand, Yangon, Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh (formerly Le Royal), Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap (formerly Grand Hotel d’Angkor), Sofitel Legend Metropole,Hanoi (formerly The Metropole), the Rex Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, and several more.
The Strand is in the heart of the buzzing city of Yangon, and together with The Raffles in Singapore, and the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) in Penang, The Strand has always been considered one of the most ‘British’ of the colonial hotels in Southeast Asia. But, in fact, all three hotels were conceived and built by the three Sarkies brothers, from Armenia, about a century ago. Hanoi’s The Metropole, meanwhile, is more than just a long-standing hotel. It is an integral part of the city and a landmark where many historical events took place, making it a legend in its own right and an icon of Southeast Asian hotel history. As for Le Royal, which opened in Phnom Penh in 1929 to accommodate passengers of steamship lines and air routes who were stopping off to view the “long-lost Kingdom of Angkor”, it became the hotel of choice for Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Charles de Gaulle, Jacqueline Kennedy, Andre Malraux, and many other famous personages.
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
By Laurence Civil
Designed by Cardu & Rossi, the new Oriental Hotel was built on the site of an older hotel of the same name, which dated back to the 1870’s and was a simple boarding house for seamen. When it opened, on 19th May 1887, it had features that had previously never been seen outside of a royal palace. First and foremost it had a second floor, at a time when the rest of the city was single-story bungalows, but it also boasted carpeted hallways, a smoking room, a ladies room, a billiard room, and a bar that could seat 50 people. Chef George Troisoeuf and the French Ambassador’s butler were both lured to the hotel to ensure the correct level of service.
The first major event that the hotel hosted was a grand banquet on 24th May 1888, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. After personally inspecting the hotel’s facilities in December 1890, King Chulalongkorn decided that the hotel was up to the standard necessary to host visiting royalty. The hotel’s first royal guests were the entourage of Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, (later Tsar Nicholas) in April of 1891.
During the Second World War the hotel was leased to the Japanese army as an officers’ club, under the management of the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo. At the end of the war it was used to house liberated allied prisoners of war, who in the belief that it was a Japanese property ransacked the building. Now in a dilapidated state, it was acquired by a six-person partnership, each contributing US$250 to buy the hotel outright. The partnership consisted of Germaine Krull (1897–1985), Prince Bhanu, General Chai Prateepasen, Pote Sarasin (a Thai lawyer), and John Webster and Jim Thompson, two Americans who had served in the Organization for Strategic Security (OSS) and had stayed on in Thailand. The hotel’s restoration and restocking offered Thompson an opportunity to put to use his architectural and artistic abilities.
The hotel reopened for business on 12th June 1947. Krull, as General Manager, restored the hotel to its position as the premier hotel in Thailand. Thompson soon left the partnership over a plan to build a new wing, though he stayed on in residence at the hotel for some time. The 10 storey Garden Wing opened in 1958, with Bangkok’s first elevator that went to the top floor, home of Le Normandie Restaurant. In 1967, fearful that Thailand would fall to the communists, Krull sold her share to Italthai, the country’s most significant mercantile group, which was founded in the mid-fifties by Italian-born Giorgio Berlingieri, and Dr. Chaijudh Karnasuta, a Thai. Berlingieri was concerned that The Oriental had lost its top position to its competitors, and so in November 1967 he hired 30-year-old Kurt Wachtveitl and gave him one mission — to simply make The Oriental the best hotel in the world. It was a task he certainly exceeded.
In 1972 the hotel acquired an adjacent property in order to build the 350 room River Wing. Two years later, Mandarin International Hotels acquired a 49% interest in The Oriental Bangkok. The iconic names of Mandarin in Hong Kong, and Oriental in Bangkok, were thus combined to form the legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in 1985. Almost a decade later, in 1993, the Oriental Spa opened as the first city spa in Bangkok. Then, on 1st September 2008, The Oriental Bangkok was re-branded the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok.
The Mandarin was not only the first luxury hotel in Siam (now Thailand), but also in Asia. It has always been the pioneer of hospitality excellence, and it is the hotel of choice in Bangkok for celebrity visitors due to its impeccable standards of service, luxurious facilities, and personalized guest recognition. Throughout the hotel, the staff at all levels address guests by their name.
Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin
By Laurence Civil
As the Grande Dame of beach resorts in Southeast Asia, the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin is a place where modern functionality has been interwoven with timeless colonial style. Starting life as the 14-bedroom Railway Hotel in 1922, it was built by the Hotel Division of The State Railway of Thailand on land leased from Prince Narai. It was designed by Italian court architect A. Riggazi, and constructed for the grand total of THB 128, 366.75. The first guests checked in on 26th October 1922, and in those days it was the region’s most luxurious accommodation spot. This historic hotel has also had a starring role in the movie The Quest (1996), and more famously in The Killing Fields (1984).
The property was acquired in 1985 by Central Group, who spent two years updating and extending the hotel with love and respect for it’s heritage. It is home to one of the largest topiary gardens in Thailand, and one of the earliest pieces was a giant elephant that spanned the original driveway. The ultimate welcome for guests would include walking through the legs of the elephant, which would also bring good luck. For a period the property was jointly managed by Sofitel, but that partnership came to an end on 1st January 2012 when it was re-branded as the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin. Most recently, 100 rooms and suites in the Colonial Wing have been renovated, and a fully equipped Health Club and Kid’s Club has been added to the portfolio of guest facilities. The Railway Restaurant has also been renovated, but retains its 1920’s charm while offering guests a fresh new menu.
The Strand, Yangon
By Jim Algie
Of the colonial-era hoteliers, the Sarkies brothers were some of the greatest master-builders. They made their mark on the nascent hospitality industry and left a legacy that still stands today with a trio of properties: the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Hotel in Penang and the Strand in Yangon.
Originally opened in 1903, the Strand has seen many refurbishments, but retains its opulent charm of a bygone era. Stepping into the lobby is a time traveler’s reverie realized in muted shades of black and silver embellished with antiques, richly upholstered chairs, thick carpets and photos that are portals into Yangon’s illustrious past as an important port city during the British empire. Off to one side, a xylophonist in traditional garb tinkles away on a wooden, museum-worthy instrument.
The three-story edifice houses 30 suites. Each comes with its own butler, who can fulfill any special requests in a matter of minutes. The suites, with their high ceilings, teak floors, rustic furnishings and old bathroom fixtures, are models of spacious and subdued elegance, which also come with all of the modern amenities like flat screen TVs, mini-bars and Wi-Fi.
In that grand Victorian tradition guests can take high tea at The Strand Café, which is also the breakfast venue. This is not a buffet. Instead, diners can gorge on an appetizing array of freshly prepared dishes, from the healthy like fruit and muesli to the carb-heavy like bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon.
For dinner, The Strand Restaurant’s white-jacketed waiters serve up a variety of Mediterranean-style dishes, both set menus and a la carte, in a chandelier-lit atmosphere that harkens back to the days of European colonialism, with an executive chef from Italy. For a nightcap try The Strand Bar, which boasts a range of cocktails and single-malt whiskies.
Bringing this beautiful relic into the 21st century are state-of-the-art amenities such as a new swimming pool, spa therapy suites and a fully equipped gym.
It’s that blend of the luxuriously quaint and the quintessentially contemporary that is the hotel’s main allure, pulling in guests from George Orwell (the 1984 author whose first novel Burmese Days detailed his days as a colonial policeman in the country) to more current guests like Mick Jagger.
Located in the city’s historic heart, The Strand is also a great launch pad for exploring the rich heritage of Yangon, which boasts more age-old buildings than any other city in Southeast Asia.