WITH the sole exception of Bangkok’s most famous hotel, the 127-year-old Mandarin Oriental, the city has a remarkably youthful hotel industry compared to most other major travel destinations – the vast majority are less than 40 years old.
While it is true that several other Bangkok hotels can also trace their origins back over a hundred years, none can match the Oriental’s continuity since at various times they were used for all kinds of alternative purposes.
The second building wave came in the early 1980s mainly to accommodate the visit of several major international travel organisations, including the Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA). Impressed with Bangkok, thousands of key travel industry delegates put the city and hotels like the Shangri-La, Central Lard Prao, Hilton (now Swissôtel Nai Lert Park), Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Peninsula (which later became the Regent, Four Seasons and now the Anantara Siam) fairly and squarely on the agenda of North American, Australian and European travel agents. This unprecedented boost encouraged more hotel building for the next ten years.
The third and by far busiest wave began in the year 2000 and continues unabated to this day. Without this surge in new hotels, Bangkok clearly wouldn’t have had the capacity to become the world’s most visited city.
Hotels, lodges, hostelries and hotels that accommodated this trickle of early travellers are long gone and forgotten as no records of them exist today. Demolitions continue right up to the present, as was seen recently in the closure of the 40-year-old Rex on Sukhumvit Road.
In fact, Bangkok has often said a reluctant goodbye to several other once popular hotels, and none more so than the elegant Siam Intercontinental, which was pulled down in 2002 to make make way for the Siam Paragon shopping centre (see box on the next page).
Not generally known is that the Phra Mongkut Klao Hospital, located on Phayathai Road, served briefly as a hotel. In fact, it was originally built in 1909 as the Phaya Thai Palace, a residence for HRH Rama V.
While the Mandarin Oriental stands out as the city’s oldest surviving hotel, only the Garden Wing and Authors’ Lounge remain of the original 1887 building; the rest was added in later years, including the River Wing in 1977. Right now, the hotel is undergoing significant renovations.
Purists might argue, therefore, that the Trocadero Hotel, which opened on Surawong Road in 1922, is actually Bangkok’s oldest authentic hotel as its external appearance has barely altered over the years even if the interior has undergone several overhauls. Despite its longevity and historical significance, the hotel’s current 1,000 baht room rate makes it one of the city’s best bargains.
One of Bangkok’s most charismatic buildings, the former Royal Hotel, rejoined the city’s hotel fraternity in July this year with a different name and purpose. Now called the House on Sathorn, this magnificent property was originally constructed in 1889 as a private residence, but was converted into a hotel in the early 1920s.
Praya Palazzo, a recently opened hotel on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya river, also has an interesting history. Built originally as a private residence in 1923, its design was heavily influenced by the numerous Italian artists who settled in Bangkok during that period. The owner, an official in the customs department, lived there with his family until 1946 when it became a school. A decade later, a team of architects used original materials and craftsmanship to reinstate the house’s former glory as a handsome 17-room boutique hotel.
Bangkok’s only hotel remaining from the 1940s is the Royal Rattanakosin Hotel, which opened in 1942. Occupying a wonderful but not fully appreciated location at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road, this surprisingly bland and unimaginative build enjoys unique views across Sanam Luang to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Grand Palace complex beyond.
The potential of this property is enormous yet for some reason its operators, who rent it from the Crown Property Bureau, have shown little interest in seriously overhauling and upgrading the place. At best, it ranks as a two-star hotel. Perhaps the Royal’s association, at least in some people’s minds, with several unhappy episodes in Thailand’s past when nearby student demonstrations ended violently may have held back its progress. Which, if true, is a shame.
Sukhumvit’s oldest hotel is the Atlanta on Soi 2, which was opened in 1952 by a remarkable Jewish-German expatriate by the name of Dr Max Henn (see below) who managed the property for more than half a century until his death, aged 96, in 2002, a staggering achievement which almost certainly makes him the world’s longest serving manager in one property.
In an interview with the BigChilli in 2001, Dr Henn said: “I never intended to stay in Thailand but it was a paradise and the people so beautiful and friendly, I couldn’t pull myself away.”
During Dr Henn’s reign, the Atlanta enjoyed a series of ‘firsts’ in Bangkok. It was, for example, the first hotel to have its own swimming pool in 1953 (still in use today); the first to hold a fashion show; the first to have open-air cinema, the first to have a barbecue, and the first to have an in-house travel agency.
Today, the Atlanta rejoices in its reputation as the city’s most eccentric hotel, adored by travellers who relish its refusal to modernise and its “genteel character.” The Atlanta’s management proudly boasts that it runs on “conservative principles” and is “imperiously heedless of fashions and trends.”
The King’s Hotel on Sathorn Road also dates back to the 1950s, opening for business in 1959, and for a while was regarded as one of Bangkok’s smartest lodgings. Guest of honour for the opening ceremony was Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien, one of the military dictators who ruled Thailand from 1963 until the student uprising and subsequent massacre of 1973.
By the late 1980s the King’s Hotel had lost much of its prominence and ranked no higher than a one-star property. The hotel closed in 2007 and after renovations reopened as the M Hotel Sathorn. In yet another name-change, it became the Chaydon Sathorn in 2014.
Opened on Phahonyothin Road early 1962, the Capital Hotel was regularly leased to long-staying guests and was thus in effect Bangkok’s first serviced apartment, a role it plays to this day as the Capital Mansion.
A short walk from the famed Oriental is the much less famous and decidedly more modest Swan Hotel, which opened in1965. With room rates at just 1,200 baht, it is popular with visitors who like to be close to, and perhaps enjoy the reflected glory of, its bigger neighbour.
The Mandarin (not to be confused with the Oriental) on Rama 1 also opened its doors for business in 1965. This is yet another hotel that once enjoyed a high profile, especially with students from nearby Chulalongkorn University, but has slipped into some obscurity in recent years.
Other hotels dating to 1965 include the Miami on Sukhumvit Soi 13, which was opened primarily to accommodate US soldiers on leave from Vietnam, as was the nearby Manhattan on Soi 15 which opened a year later.
The Manohra on Surawong Road is another hotel dating back to 1966.
The year 1967 saw the opening of two hotels that remain prominent to this day – the Asia and the Malaysia – albeit for different reasons. The former continues to attract international tour groups, while the latter focuses on backpackers and budget travellers.
Still owned by the Rungsubhakritanond family, the Malaysia on Soi Ngnam Duplee is virtually unchanged from its early days when its guests were mainly US military personnel and hippies. Although this part of Bangkok has been eclipsed by Khao San Road as a backpackers’ mecca, it remains an area of inexpensive hotels and guest houses.
The Liberty Hotel on Pradiphat Road near Saphan Kwai opened in 1968 but is now known as the Liberty Garden Hotel. It is said that leading members the Khmer Rouge often stayed there in the 1980s.
The 1970s were boom times for Bangkok’s hotel industry. Two of the first newcomers in 1970 were the Tawana and Dusit Thani, while the Indra followed a year later. The decade also saw the launch of the Diamond, Chavalit (later integrated into the Ambassador), Florida, Fortuna, Honey, Impala, Lucky, Rose, Reno, Rajah, Prince, Pavilion, Park, Opera, New Fuji, Narai, Nana, Montien, Windsor and Victory, some of which have been closed or have new names.
Since 2000, the city has welcomed an avalanche of hotels, from the finest like the Kempinski, St Regis, Conrad, Intercontinental, Plaza Athénée, Okura and The Siam, to a host of chain hotels and budget lodgings. With no sign of a let-up in Bangkok’s popularity, the list is bound to grow.
Some have been replaced by new properties, such as the Imperial (now the Plaza Athénée), Impala (Hilton), Erawan (Grand Hyatt Erawan), Siam (Lancaster) and Siam Intercontinental (Kempinski / Siam Paragon).
The Continental – not to be mixed up with the Siam Intercontinental – was located on Phayathai Road. The Coronet was a small wedge-shaped hotel on the corner of Soi Sarasin and within Lumpini Park.