Woman for all seasons
“Who is Angkana? Is she still alive?” a guest asks the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel lobby as the person in question Angkana Kelantana walks by.
“They had named my office after me in the Old Wing but there was no explanation attached to the room.
“So new visitors were wondering who was this person?”” Angkana, 96, recalls the surreal moment as she overheard the query regarding her possible death.
Known for her quick wit, she could have recited Mark Twain’s famous reply: “News of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
But she kept cool and waited for the staff reply. He didn’t know either, which may have infuriated a less humble personage. But Angkana took it in stride.
After all, forgotten but not gone is a predicament that befalls numerous old rockers and movie stars. Angkana, a giant in her time, was reconciled she was not so different.
To be sure, what made her so special is that she is among the very few living links between Old and New Bangkok.
She’s lived through World Wars, insurgencies and numerous coups and financial crashes.
So is the Iron Lady of Bangkok’s most famous hotel reduced to a question mark?
“I have no regrets,, it was a wonderful job,” she says of her 70 years serving, first as manager and then guest relations chief at the now 142-year-old riverside property that was home away from home for the Who’s Who of the World.
She first worked at the Rattanakosin Hotel in Rajdamnoern on 1943 and after the Pacific War ended in 1946, met Germaine Krull, the celebrated French-German-Dutch photographer and news correspondent.
Later when Krull was appointed general manager of the hotel by a new group of owners led by Jim Thompson, she was poached by Krull to work as her deputy in 1946.
For the next 20 years, Krull and Angkana would run the hotel and received numerous celebrities and authors that passed through Bangkok including Edward G. Robinson, Marlon Brando, and Jackie Kennedy.
The hotel was already famous, Angkana adds, because it had served literary figures such as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward.
“Madam Krull and I became fast friends. She liked me because we were both tough. We were as able and could do the work previously done only by men.”
When Krull departed in 1966, Angkana continued to serve under several general managers.
“Kurt Wachtveitl was the smartest of them,”” she says of the German hotelier who joined in 1967. He is widely regarded as the architect who took the hotel to its apogee when it was named “Best Hotel In The World” for 10 years straight by New York Banking magazine Institutional Investor from 1981 to 1990.
When Wachtveitl retired in 2009, he hosted a gala farewell party that also marked Angkana’s official departure,
“It was fitting we left together,” she jokes.
Many changes would come and names and faces would soon be changing fast.
The new name of the hotel became Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, and would henceforth adopt cookie cutter approaches to maximize profits.
The four unique authors suites at the Old Wing would be demolished.
Wealthy Chinese tourists would replace Hollywood stars.
Angkana continued to serve as advisor and in 2012, when a new general manager Amandsa Hyndman was appointed, the highly accomplished British hotelier brought her back to help revive the hotel’s glamour.
Amanda renamed the Library that stored historic books and documents as “Angkana’s Room” in a major renovation in in 2014.
In a hugely competitive tourism market, things sometimes get bitchy.
Being named Best Hotel sparked jealousy, not just from hotels abroad but locally as well.
Angkana remembers how her colleague Pornsri Luphaibon was hauled in by the government public relations department who remonstrated her about a story published in Bangkok Post citing its winning the New York-based award in 1981.
“They told her: ‘You cannot call yourself the best hotel in the world’ They assumed it was an advertisement throwing out the idea a Thai operator could beat global giants.
“Ponsri simply apologized. She is the perfect public relations person who can put up with anything however ridiculous.
“If I were her, I would have given them a piece of my mind,” fumes Angkana, the daughter of a Naval officer. “I would have rebuked them.
“I would probably have been sacked for that,” she adds jokingly.
“In the end, the industry begrudgingly accepted there was something special about the Oriental.
“We won because we had people who could win the hearts of guests from the highest echelons. from Kings and Queens, Presidents to Hollywood stars.”
“Everyone in show business from Charlton Heston to Sidney Poiteir came.
“They were followed by Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr, Bette Midler, Renee Zellweger, Julie Andrews and Hugh Grant.
Angkana so impressed writers such as Barbara Cartland and Han Suyin that she appeared in their novels.
“How could,” Angkana would dare, “we not love our jobs?”
Top: Longtime General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl and Angkana Kelantana bid guests farewell at a gala party in 2009.
First in-text: Angkana points to an exhibit as GM Amanda Hyndman, Chairwoman Nijaporn Charannachitta and colleague Ponsri Luphaiboon look on at the Oriental in 2014.
Second in-text: Germaine Krull, the Oriental’s general manager from 1946 to 1966 hand-picked Angkana as her assistant
Third in-text: An.exhibit chronicles the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s 142-year history.
By Cimi Suchontan