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TRAVELING in style : A CERTAIN GENTLENESS : Bangkok's Oriental has all the luxe of any grand hotel, but it is appreciated most for the warm, human quality of its Thai staff.

March 18, 1990|CHARLES N. BARNARD | Barnard is a Cos Cobb, Conn. writer

At the time the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok was preparing for a visit by Princess Grace of Monaco, a great effort was made to ensure that such an important guest be addressed by her correct title. Then-resident manager Gregory Meadows rehearsed the staff: "Remember, the princess must always be called 'Your Serene Highness.' "

A luncheon in the princess' suite was the first test. The room-service manager was put in charge of every detail. After the last trolley had been wheeled into the palatial apartment and the royal guests had been left to enjoy their meal in privacy, Meadows asked the servers whether all had gone well. Yes, said the head of room service, everything was perfect.

"And how did you address the lady?" Meadows asked. The reply came with a typically wide and innocent Thai smile: "Oh, we remembered, sir. We all addressed her several times as 'Your Royal Serenade.' "

The Oriental, perennially judged one of the great hotels of the world, does not often fail in the execution of important details. "But we are human," said Meadows, "and I suppose that's one of our assets, too."

It is. Like any hotel, the Oriental can be measured by the ambience of its lobby, the size and decor of its rooms or even the credentials of its chef de cuisine ; but this hotel is more often appreciated, it seems, for the warm, human quality of its staff of gentle Thais.

(There can be exceptions. A celebrity guest once became impatient with the hotel telephone operator. The guest asked three times to be connected with the hotel press officer. Each time she got the laundry.)

The Oriental is luxurious and even romantic in its historic river-side setting; it is a movable feast and a paragon of good hotel management. Beyond those great and commendable factors, however, I agree that it is the compliant and loyal staffers who make this hotel a special place. Only 5% to 7% of the staff are replaced annually, and few ever defect to other hotels.

("Can I help you, sir?" asked the young housekeeper who was busy guiding a big polishing machine across the lobby floor. I had been looking around helplessly to find the mail drop; it wasn't that lad's job to help a guest, but he saw that I needed assistance, so he volunteered. "Of course he would," Meadows said. "No one on the Oriental staff ever says: 'It's not my job.' ")

The hotel has been a landmark on the banks of Bangkok's busy, silty Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, for 113 years. It was opened in 1876, then rebuilt as the "new" Oriental in 1886 by a Danish merchant captain, Hans Niels Andersen. The headquarters of Andersen's East Asiatic Co.--a massive, old colonial-style building--still stands next to the hotel property. The hotel that Andersen built was a two-story quadrangle with an open courtyard at the center. It advertised "comfortable quarters for gentlemen of the sea." Old photographs show that the front of the building, a space shaded by large trees, was only about 25 yards from the river's edge. This same building, with the original "Oriental Hotel" lettering above the door, survives as a treasured part of today's Oriental.

Over the years, the hotel has grown in several dimensions, all within its original enclave of prime river-front property. A three-story, wood-frame-construction "river wing" was added in the '20s (and subsequently demolished). In 1958, a modern "tower block" was grafted onto the back of the 1886 hotel. Finally, in 1976, a $15-million, 16-story "river wing" was opened; 350 of the hotel's 406 rooms and suites are in the new tower.

In addition to offering the gracious qualities that more than 1,000 Thai employees bring to the Oriental (staff-to-guest ratio runs about 2.2 to 1), the hotel has become a special place in Bangkok. Until recent years, it had been entirely unrivaled as the best and most famous hotel in town. As a result, anyone who traveled in style to this exotic capital of old Siam came automatically to the Oriental. While in earlier eras, London or Paris had a dozen first-rank hotels from which the discriminating might choose, Bangkok had but one; as a consequence, its reputation grew worldwide. Today, despite competition from some new luxury hotels, the Oriental's world-class standing and enviable occupancy rate (typically above 90%) are unlikely to be eclipsed.

Inevitably, among the hotel's guests during its years of absolute primacy in Bangkok were a number of famous authors, including Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. (In 1888, Conrad--on his first visit to Bangkok--wrote: "In the light of the crimson sunset, all ablaze behind the golden pagodas, I made my way to the Oriental.")

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