In one last adventure after two years of vagabonding, Rolf travels to Bangkok to face the specter of world-class luxury.
By Rolf Potts
I am staying a night in what is reputedly the finest hotel in Asia, and I am frightened by my room.
Oh, on the surface, it’s great: the room is split-level and airy, antiques adorn the walls, hardwoods accent the floor, and the wide windows look out over Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. There are more electronics here than in some appliance stores, and the bathroom alone is bigger than many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. But everything here is a little off.
Take, for instance, the bowl of fruit that sits in my breakfast nook. It contains three mandarin oranges, five rambutans, and four rose-apples. This is not especially noteworthy in and of itself, save for the fact that this fruit has a weird habit of spontaneously regenerating. Indeed, no matter how much of this fruit I eat – no matter how many times I eat it – three mandarin oranges, five rambutans, and four rose-apples come back every time I leave the room.
This afternoon, I managed to eat my way down to three rambutans and two rose-apples. Then I left the room, realized I’d forgotten something after three or so minutes, and came back to discover exactly three mandarin oranges, five rambutans, and four rose-apples sitting in the bowl. I’ve come to regard this as a manifestation of the divine – a kind of loaves-and-fishes-style miracle.
Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m kind of out of my element in a luxury hotel. This visit to Bangkok is the final step of a journey that has taken me to all corners of of what used to be known as “the Orient.”. In two years, I have piloted a small boat down the Mekong River, been stranded without transportation at the Siberian-Mongolian border, hitchhiked from Lithuania to Hungary, wandered lost in the Libyan Desert, and windsurfed on the Sea of Galilee. I have slept on boats, in caves, on beaches, in jungles, and under makeshift shelters, but – until today – I’ve never stayed in any Asian hotel that cost more than $15 a night.
Thus, my visit to this place – Bangkok’s posh Oriental Hotel – is not just a reward at the end of the trail: It is – in a topsy-turvy kind of way – the only adventure I have left.
First built as a sailors’ hostelry in the late 19th century, the Oriental has evolved over the years into the most legendary hotel in the Asia. Central to this legend is the Oriental’s reputation for attracting literary greats. In 1888, for instance, Joseph Conrad hung out at the Oriental Hotel bar while waiting for his first commission as a sea captain. In 1923, Somerset Maugham was nearly evicted from the Oriental for having malaria (“I can’t have him die here,” the manager reportedly told a doctor. “Take him to a hospital”).
Since those early days, the Oriental has attracted the likes of Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, William Golding, John Steinbeck, and Gore Vidal – not to mention standard-issue celebrities and dignitaries such as Marlon Brando, George Bush, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Alfred Hitchcock, Princess Diana, and (in a bizarre inclusion on the hotel’s publicity sheet) “The Price is Right” announcer Robert “Rod” Roddy.
I could, of course, try to describe in detail the Oriental’s two swimming pools, seven restaurants, two shopping complexes, riverside spa, and its “Author’s Lounge” tea-room, but I don’t really feel qualified. After all, two years of haunting budget dives has jaded me to everything but the kind of quirky imperfections that would never exist here: pigeons nesting in the lobby; showers that dispense scalding or freezing water with all the predictability of a slot machine; housemaids who turn off the ceiling fan and steal your bananas, but don’t bother to actually clean the room.
Thus, here at the Oriental, I am struck dumb by flawlessness: shiny marble floors, teakwood detailing, hand-cut crystal chandeliers, silken wall hangings, tasteful landscaping, serene silence. At times, feel like I’ve been parachuted into some air-conditioned jungle of extravagance.
Though, to be honest, I’d probably feel more at ease if I were parachuted into an actual jungle.
In rural Cambodia, for example, I would at least know how to bathe (don a sarong, take a bar of soap, hike to the local stream or pond, avoid land mines, lather, rinse, repeat). Here, on the other hand, I can’t enter my bathroom without becoming severely befuddled by the presence of hygiene products I have no idea how to use. (What, for example, is exfoliant? Is it like Agent Orange?).
Equally bewildering is the variety of services listed in the brochures I find next to the TV. For a cool $90, it appears, I could visit a local crocodile farm in a chauffer-driven Mercedes E230. For just $20, I could rent myself a Dictaphone. Or, should I feel really frisky, I could indulge in a massage program called “The Oriental Pampering” that costs $1700 and lasts three days.
Since my two years of adventure travel were only possible due to extreme thrift, I find that I can’t think about such services without instinctively comparing values. For instance, I could eat a month of breakfasts in Rangoon for what it costs to order a croissant, coffee, and a glass of carrot juice here. For what it would cost to launder one set of clothes here, I could get my own weight in laundry done anywhere in India. An afternoon on The Oriental’s helicopter service could afford me two Bangladesh Air tickets from Dhaka to Brussels and back. And, for one night’s indulgence in the River Wing penthouse, I could stay in the dormitory of Cairo’s Sultan Hotel for three years, seven months, and 25 days.
At a certain level, there is an existential conundrum at hand here. How can one embrace Being in a place where every conceivable human yen, hankering, and desire has been predicted and accounted for (and, moreover, made payable by cash or credit card)? How can one truly live within a moment that was created by a committee of well-paid hospitality consultants? How can one find spiritual epiphany while surrounded by such exquisite material comfort?
Suddenly, the answer comes to me. I dash across my room and throw open the stereo console under the TV.
There, neatly stacked on the receiver, are two CDs: a collection of Air Supply hits, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This morning, when I first noted this juxtaposition, I was a bit horrified. (Who, after all, would be so jaded to the high life that they would check into a world-class hotel and listen to syrupy love songs instead of a symphony that invented its own, ecstatic emotion?).
But now, inspired, I fling Air Supply aside, seize the Beethoven CD, and phone room service.
Three hours later finds me stripped down to my underwear, with a Cuban cigar in one hand, and a bottle of Hennessey in the other. Beethoven’s Ninth is into its second cycle of repeat, and (in a flourish no doubt inspired by the cognac) I am wearing a laurel of jasmine on my head.
My existential solution is this: Because I am not wealthy – because I will probably never have enough money to truly belong here in a non-tourist capacity – I am in the unique position to act like a rich person without actually having to be one.
Or, rather, I’m in a position to behave as I think rich people should act from time to time.
Indeed, Joseph Conrad may have sipped whiskey here – Somerset Maugham might have faced death here – but, on this glorious night, I become perhaps the first scrivener in the history of the Oriental Hotel to bang his head on the ceiling while jumping up and down on the bed.
When I check out the next morning, I take exactly three mandarin oranges, five rambutans, and four rose-apples with me.
[This essay originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of National Geographic Traveler.]