Somerset Maugham at The Oriental
Today’s superbly appointed Somerset Maugham Suite is located where the writer’s comfortable suite of rooms used to be.
The Oriental in a 1920's folder. A romantic spot at the River Menam, the ideal place to relax and recover from a tyring journey. This hasn't changed until today. The cover of this folder has been painted by US-artist Dan Sweeney.
On 6 January 1923 Somerset Maugham arrived in Bangkok by train from Chiang Mai and checked into The Oriental: ‘I was in Bangkok. It is impossible to consider these populous modern cities of the East without a certain malaise. They are all alike, with their straight streets, their arcades, their tramways, their dust, their blinding sun, their teeming Chinese, their dense traffic, their ceaseless din.
It is impossible to consider these populous modern cities of the East without a certain malaise. They have no history and no traditions. Painters have not painted them. No poets, transfiguring dead bricks and mortar with their divine nostalgia, have given them a tremulous melancholy not their own. . . . But when you leave them it is with a feeling that you have missed something and you cannot help thinking that they have some secret that they have kept from you.’
Maugham's bedroom had a single bed (right), covered by a mosquitoe net.
About The Oriental Maugham noted in "The Gentleman in the Parlour": ‘The hotel faced the river. My room was dark, one of a long line, with a verandah on each side of it, the breeze blew through, but it was stifling. The dining-room was large and dim, and for coolness’ sake the windows were shuttered. One was waited on by silent Chinese boys. I did not know why, the insipid Eastern food sickened me. The heat of Bangkok was overwhelming. The wats oppressed me by their garish magnificence, making my headache.’
Soon after he had noted the above we learn, why he felt so miserable about everything: ‘I took my temperature. I was startled to see that it was a hundred and five. I could not believe it, so I took it again; it was still a hundred and five.’Maugham had contracted malaria while travelling. ‘Towards the end of my journey down Siam the officer in command of the post had insisted that I should stay in his own house. He gave me his best bedroom. I had not the heart to say that I preferred my own little camp-bed, which had a mosquito-net, to his, which had not. The anopheles snatched at the golden opportunity.’
The bathrooms at The Oriental were fitted with the most modern amenities provided at the time. Even the King had some representatives sent from the Palace to copy this luxury. A small wall separated the wet area from the outside, in case a pipe leaks or somebody forgets to turn off the water when filling the tub...
Maugham suffered from a truly bad attack. For some days the quinine had no effect on him. One morning he overheard a conversation between Mme Maria Maire, and the doctor. ‘I can’t have him die here, you know. You must take him to the hospital.’The doctor replied: ‘All right. But we’ll wait a day or two yet.’‘Well, don’t leave it too long,’ she replied.A few days later Maugham recovered. ‘And because I had nothing to do except look at the river and enjoy the weakness that held me blissfully to my chair I invented a fairy story.’ (This story can be found in the book The Gentleman in the Parlour.)
The lounge of The Oriental in 1923.
In the charming sitting room of his suite, the blinds firmly drawn, Somerset Maugham slowly recovered from his Malaria. He was lucky. Until today Malaria is the leading cause of death in developing countries. In Thailand today, prophylaxis is not recommended for the cities or main tourist destinations. Prophylaxis is recommended for travel to rural areas, especially the forested areas (more info). That was exatly where Maugham had come from.
In 1925 Maugham returned to Bangkok, stopping again at The Oriental. He stayed for two weeks in perfect health, much to Mme Maire’s relief. On his last visit to Bangkok in 1960 to celebrate his 85th birthday he reminisced, smiling: ‘I was almost evicted from The Oriental because the manager did not want me to ruin her business by dying in one of her rooms.’
British writer William Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) of Irish origin, born in Paris, read philosophy and literature at Heidelberg and qualified as a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital, London.
Famous Books of S. Maugham:
Liza of Lambeth (1897), Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919);
Short stories like Rain were published in Tof a Leaf in 1921, Cakes and Ale (1930), The Razor’s Edge (1945), Quartet (1945);
Plays: Lady Frederick (1907), East of Suez (1922), Our Betters (1923).