Great hotels are a rare breed. But even among the hallowed circle, some stand out with backs straight and noses held up high. Legendary, timeless, call them what you will, but to earn a place in the inner circle of the inner circle, you’ll need 100 years of existence, a couple of world wars and as many revolutions under your belt to qualify. You get the picture, it’s hard.
These Asian hotels were meant to be the best from day one and though a century separates that day from the text on your computer screen or tablet, they’re still doing a great job at it. But don’t take our word for it. This is an experience best lived than talked about.
Knowing that the world’s most prominent political figures brokered deals down the hall from your hotel room makes for a unique experience, so for the history buffs and trivia hunters among you, here’s an article that lists some of the most important hotels in Asian history. Watch this space for more articles covering other regions of the world. Enjoy.
The flagship hotel of the Raffles group is named after the founding father of the nation of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, and is an institution of luxury in the country if not the world.
In existence since the 19th century, the hotel has a lot of interesting tidbits of stories to tell… and some of them could be a tad exaggerated, but as they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story… especially if they involve runaway circus tigers!
But first, the facts. The hotel is the birthplace of the popular Singapore Sling. More than just a cocktail, the Sling is a tasty cultural revolution in a glass. At a time where it was considered improper for British women to drink alcohol in public, a young bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon, did his bit for gender equality and the bar’s alcohol sales by disguising spirits and liqueurs into a colorful fruit cocktail that could fool a British dandy at a distance. The Singapore Sling was born. The cocktail quickly achieved iconic status and 1000 are pushed down the Long Bar every day on average.
The bar is also known for an unwanted guest who had to be “forcibly removed” from its premises. Rumor has it that in 1902, a tiger belonging to a travelling circus – with more taste than its circumstances would allow – escaped the confines of his cage and shot straight for the Raffles hotel.
Once there, it hid underneath a pool table and wouldn’t be budged (though we doubt anyone had the courage to try). The relations between great cats and humans being what they are, someone from the nearby Raffles Institution was dispatched to shoot the beast, earning it the title of the last tiger to be shot in Singapore. We’re sure he would have been happier with a Sling.
When the Raffles Beijing opened back in 1900, it was little more than an inn owned by two foreigners in the midst of the brutal Boxer rebellion. Needless to say, the future wasn’t bright, but after a few changes of hands and a more pro foreigner atmosphere in the country, the inn weathered the storm and reemerged 20 years later as the Grand Hotel de Pékin, earning its stripes as the East’s flagship luxury hotel. The hotel’s afternoon tea was a daily gathering for ambassadors and intellectuals, especially fond of the dancing parties held there.
Despite Japanese occupation during the Sino-Japanese wars and by the Kuomintang army during the Chinese civil war, the hotel never lost its title as a bastion of luxury, where French Cuisine and imported wine fueled the discussions of Chinese officials and the world’s great thinkers who gathered there. Mao Zedong was a regular and is said to have entertained his mistresses at the hotel, and when the time came to inaugurate the new republic, he looked to no other venue to host a banquet which ushered China into an new era.
Shanghai was once dubbed the Paris of the East and the Fairmont Peace Shanghai, had its part to play in earning that title. Originally opened in 1929, the hotel presented cutting edge technology that was ahead of its time compared to the great hotels of the West, let alone in China.
The hotel featured air conditioning in every room, telephones, fresh water plumbing in the rooms and one of the first electric elevators to be found in Shanghai; for the 20th century traveler, the hotel was downright miraculous and set the benchmark for what luxury properties ought to be on its side of the Bund.
A regular haunt for the city’s glitterati and political elite, every night at the hotel was gala night and the hotel’s Jazz Bar, became the favorite watering hole of the city’s expatriates, thirsty for the swinging tunes of American pop music.
When the 19th century French Indiana Jones, Henri Mouhout, crossed the jungles of Cambodia, stumbled upon Angkor Watt and committed his discovery to his diary; he couldn’t guess at the excitement his writings would stir in the western world.
Though the Angkor Watt had already been discovered, Mouhout’s evocative writing brought life to the jungle temple and struck a chord with the imagination of an audience hungry for tales of young swashbuckling adventurers of which the young Frenchman fit the mold.
It wasn’t long before the west decided to see the temple for themselves. At a time where global tourism was limited (and in Cambodia, nearly non existent), a trickle of 200 tourists was considerable, so when the numbers reached the thousands, the measly bungalows that served as accommodation for temple visitors would no longer do. And so the Hotel d’Angkor, was born.
With its importance to the country’s burgeoning travel industry symbolized by the King’s warrant of approval, the hotel wasted no time becoming one of the leading property’s in Asia, and a favorite of the world’s well heeled travelers with a taste for adventure. Charlie Chaplin, Charles de Gaulle, the Kennedy’s and more, called the hotel home and are immortalized in black and white photographs around the hotel and prove its exceptional pedigree.
You might not even know it, but the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok was instrumental in shaping modern literature. If you like the work of Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward or Somerset Maugham, you’ll love discovering this quiet hotel on the Chao Phraya which sowed the seeds of inspiration for some of their prose.
At 140 years of age, The Mandarin Oriental is Bangkok’s oldest hotel and enjoys something of a hallowed status among luxury travelers. For those exposed too long to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it’s a metaphorical… and literal oasis to escape to and judging by the number of literary luminaries that have passed through, there’s something in the air that leads to magic when pen is put to paper here.
Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and Ian Fleming, are some of the notable authors to have made the hotel their home on the river. In Maugham’s case, he even wrote a children’s book “Siamese Fairy Tale” and others while recovering from a bout of Malaria at the hotel. To live like these greats did, take a seat in the beautiful Authors lounge for their excellent afternoon tea service and who knows, you might be touched by the spirit of inspiration.