Maugham’s verdict on Bangkok would make a brutal TripAdvisor review today. In his travel memoir “The Gentleman in the Parlor,” he reviled the city’s “dense traffic,” its “ceaseless din,” its “insipid” cuisine and “sordid” houses. The Thais, he declared petulantly, are “not a comely race.”
But once he recovered, Maugham experienced a rush of euphoria at the waterside setting. He watched the parade of barges, sampans and tramp steamers pass by with “a thrill of emotion,” and conceded that the wats, the gilded and glittering temple complexes rising along the river, made him “laugh out loud with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”
I had a taste of Maugham’s extreme reactions as I sat in Bangkok’s nefarious traffic trying to get to the river on the first morning of a recent trip, although I was addled by nothing more dangerous than jet lag from the epic 21-hour flight from New York.
Laden with literary reference, the Oriental — now the Mandarin Oriental, although nobody calls it that — is still the obvious introduction to the Chao Phraya, which has in recent years returned to its status as an escape from the city’s urban chaos. The colonial-era edifice where Maugham stayed is now called the Author’s Wing. Although overshadowed by a 1970s addition, its exterior looks much as it did when it opened in 1887 and astonished the city with its luxurious imported carpets, Parisian wallpaper and electrified chandeliers. And the setting has not lost its soothing effect.
I pulled up a chair feet away from the “liver-coloured water swirling by,” as another famous guest, Noël Coward, put it. A parade of ferries, barges and steamboats still battles the surging currents, while islands of vegetation float past, washed downriver from the jungles of the northern provinces. It was a step back into a leisurely past, worlds away from the explosive neon energy of the central city.
The most alluring consequence for travelers has been the revival of the Chao Phraya, which was once the heart and soul of Bangkok. It was by its shores that the sumptuous royal district was built in the 18th century and, although Thailand is one of the few Asian countries never to be colonized, where European powers erected their legations and warehouses in the 19th.