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Grand old dame of the Oriental

May 29. 2016
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THAILAND’S oldest hotel employee Angkana Kelantanan, 93, joined the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at the end of World War II.
“A room cost Bt100,” she recalled. “The Oriental was considered the most luxurious [hotel] in the city as all the rooms had electric fans.”
She made guests laugh during her speech at the reopening of the Authors Wing, which forms the oldest part of the legendary 140-year-old hotel.
Angkana was recruited by war correspondent Germaine Krull, who was made general manager by then owner Jim Thompson. Thompson bought the hotel with Thai partners.
Thompson went on to amaze the world with Thai silk while Krull became a celebrity in Paris with her powerful photos. In Bangkok, Angkana would see a city evolve through numerous coups, financial shocks and wars and a long peace that came with the end of the ‘Killing Fields’ in Cambodia.
“It used to be you could drink from the canal on Sathorn Road,” she said. “We used to have picnics there and washed the plates using the water from the canal. Now all the trees, boulevards and waterways are gone.”
The Oriental remains one of the few surviving old landmarks of Bangkok. Angkana has a special room there called the Office, which is part of a Bt550-million restoration of the property.
Angkana reminisced about the days when actors such as William Holden, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier were entrusted to her care.
She became close friends with guests such as Barbara Cartland, the British romance writer. 
“I attended her every day. I helped to dress [her]. Once I told her she had [fake] eyelashes upside down,” she laughed.
Cartland was so fond of Angkana she named her heroine after her in “Sapphires of Siam” in 1987.
“She asked if she could use my name,” Angkana said. “I jumped up and down saying ‘Yes, yes.’ I was so thrilled.”
Other authors who used her in their books included Alec Waugh in “Bangkok: Story of a City”.
The Authors Wing is one of the grand attractions of the hotel, with suites named after Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, James Michener and Joseph Conrad.
General manager Amanda Hyndman’s favourite writer John Le Carre was also a frequent guest and has a suite named after him in the new wing.
Women general managers usually make strong impressions on the hotel, said Hyndman. She reminded guests of Maria Maire, who in 1923 found her guest Maugham had come down with malaria.
“She tried to persuade the writer to leave, saying she did not want him dying on the premise,” Hyndman said.

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