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Then and now: The stories behind Southeast Asia’s heritage hotels
Ponder the legacy of colonialism as you swill gin and tonics on the verandas of these grand old dames of hospitality
Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, a clipper took three months to sail from from England to China. A steamship only a month less.
Once the highway to India opened, the journey could be made in a mere 30 to 40 days. It was then that travel to Asia assumed new levels of style and luxury.
Writers, playwrights, actors, the rich and the royal all turned their attention to the exotic East. Entrepreneurs then set about building a new breed of hotel to cater to the sudden wave of well-heeled globetrotters.
An impressive collection of hotels built more than 100 years ago in Southeast Asia still stand proud today -- albeit with a few contemporary touches like Wi-Fi and LCD TVs.
Eastern & Oriental, Penang, Malaysia
Famous Guests: Noël Coward, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse.
Historical hospitality giants, the Sarkies brothers are credited with founding iconic hotels including Singapore's Raffles and Myanmar's Strand, but it all started in George Town, Penang, back during the Malaysian island’s days as an outpost of the East India Company.
The grand dame of all Sarkies brothers' hotels was initially two separate accomodations -- the Eastern Hotel, built in 1884, and the Oriental Hotel, built a year later on an adjacent piece of land.
The hotel simply became known as “Eastern & Oriental” between 1889 and 1900.
Current room rates: from US$200. Eohotels.com
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, Thailand
Famous Guests: Paul Theroux, John Steinbeck, Ian Fleming, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson.
Thailand's first luxury hotel also holds the distinction of giving Bangkok its first elevator (installed in the Garden Wing extension in 1958) and first city spa, opened in 1993.
Suites in the original Authors' Wing highlight the hotel's longstanding relationship with the literary world, housing Heritage Authors' Suites, each one unique and named after previous guests -- Noël Coward, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and James Michener.
During World War II, the hotel was used as a Japanese officer's club. After the war Jim Thompson, Thailand's silk king and former co-owner who also has a suite named after him, oversaw restoration of the property.
Current room rates: from US$300.Mandarinoriental.com/bangkok
Famous Guests:Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Ava Gardner.
Originally a 10-room bungalow on the corner of Beach and Bras Basah roads, Raffles is another iconic Sarkies hotel.
The familiar neo-Renaissance main building was added 12 years after opening, introducing many of Singapore's firsts -- including electric lights, fans and a French chef.
The hotel's Long Bar is the birthplace of the fabled Singapore Sling cocktail, created sometime before 1910. The last wild tiger in Singapore reportedly took its final breath in 1902 under the original elevated Bar & Billiard Room after being shot. (Conservation wasn't so high on the agenda in those days.)
Current room rates: from US$500.Raffles.com/singapore
Hotel Metropole Hanoi, Vietnam
Famous Guests: Catherine Deneuve, Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda, Stephen Hawking, Oliver Stone, Mike Jagger, Roger Moore.
When the neoclassical Metropole first opened in August 1901, full board rates ranged from US$7 to US$125 per month.
In 1916, co-founder André Ducamp was granted permission to screen Hanoi's first ever musical-accompanied movie at the hotel's theater-cinema. In 1936, Charlie Chaplin spent part of his honeymoon at the Metropole with his leading lady Paulette Goddard.
The hotel has lived through a succession of French, Japanese, and Chinese occupations. A further indication of its tumultuous past is the air raid shelter built in the 1960s under the Bamboo Bar, only excavated last year, and opened to the public this year.
Current room rates: From US$155.Sofitel-legend.com/hanoi
The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar
Famous Guests: George Orwell, Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, David Rockefeller, George Soros
Built in then-Rangoon by a British entrepreneur during British India's heyday, the three-story hotel's Victorian influences are evident in the colonnaded entrance, marble floor inlaid with teak wood, hand-carved wooden bed frames, rattan furniture, chandeliers and black ceiling fans.
The Strand Hotel was later acquired by the Sarkies brothers, and within the first decade of operation, it was also noted to be "patronized by royalty, nobility and distinguished personages" in a 1911 edition of Murray's “Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon.”
During World War II, a bomb tore through the roof to land -- though it failed to explode -- in the current day Princess Hall and hotel manager's office.
Current room rates: From US$340.Thestrandyangon.com
Manila Hotel, Philippines
Famous Guests: Ernest Hemingway, The Beatles, Marlon Brando, Senator Robert Kennedy, Charlton Heston, the Rockefeller brothers, John Wayne.
One of the Manila Hotel's most notable long-stay guests was General Douglas MacArthur, who was invited to form the Philippine Army and stayed at the hotel from 1935 to 1941 with his family in a penthouse suite atop the fifth floor (now the MacArthur Suite).
In the early 1940s, the hotel became the seat of government during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and after re-opening at the end of the war welcomed a stream of globetrotting high flyers, including The Beatles in 1966.
It would be the last time any of the mop tops set foot in the country, given the terrifying ordeal attached to their visit.
Accounts very, but legend has it nobody in Manila had told Epstein and co that then First Lady Imelda Marcos wanted to meet them. So they didn't.
But papers ran a "Beatles snub Prez" splash, police withdrew security, a mob howled for blood and the Fab Four were detained at the airport as they had not paid "income tax" on their concert fee.
Current room rates: From US$195.Manila-hotel.com.ph
Hotel Majapahit, Surabaya, Indonesia
Famous Guests: Joseph Conrad, Crown Prince Leopold II and Princess Astrid of Belgium, Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.
Built by Lucas Martin Sarkies, a second-generation Sarkies, the former Oranje Hotel took one year and 500,000 guilders to complete.
During World War II, the hotel, along with the then Dutch East Indies, fell under Japanese occupation, and the hotel was used as a temporary prison camp and military barracks.
After the war, the Dutch returned, setting up camp in guestroom No. 33 before hoisting their national flag, which ignited the three-week Battle of Surabaya between Dutch and British soldiers and Indonesian troops and a five-year struggle for independence.
The turning point in the country's history is depicted in an oil painting in the lobby.
Current room rates: From US$127.www.hotel-majapahit.com