A very wise person once said, "there are only two kinds of people in the world who get to do anything they want--millionaires and journalists."
Photojournalists often risk their lives in war zones, trek through deserts, climb snow-covered mountains, and are witness to all sorts of human tragedy and natural catastrophes. If they're lucky, though, while on their journeys they also manage to locate the best places to relax and recharge their batteries. These finds provide the ultimate traveler's guide.
Some places are famous, others are nearly unknown to the average person, but they all share that special seal of approval that only travelers who have lived on the edge can give. Starting this month, we will be visiting some of these destinations, with the photographer as your guide.
We might as well begin at the top. The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, celebrating its 125th anniversary this month, has for years been acknowledged by the travel industry as "The Best Hotel in The World."
The Vietnam War was largely responsible for bringing journalists to this hotel on the banks of the "River of Kings." Bangkok became the jumping-off spot for trips into Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. It was also the favorite "R&R" spot for war-weary reporters and photographers.
There's something very special about being greeted by the Indian doorman at The Oriental, who never forgets the name of a guest. When he says "Welcome Home," you know you're in the right place.
I came to think that my corner room had its own crew. With a staff of two-and-a-half employees for every one of their 400 rooms, it's never been difficult to feel well cared for.
But there is another lure, beyond that provided by the sumptuous surroundings, the elegant teak and mahogany rooms, the fine cuisine and drink, the pampering. The hotel has always known it has a role to play in answering the needs of the press. This is why it is truly a legend throughout the world.
If you needed to find Pol Pot, say, the renegade leader of the Khmer Rouge, in his jungle hideout across the Cambodian border, all you had to do was hire a driver from the hotel. He would know the route and how to get you there safely.
The hotel, built in 1876, next to the East Indian Trading Company, has also been the favorite of many authors. A good reason why it houses the Graham Greene Suite, the Joseph Conrad Suite, The James Michener Suite, The Noel Coward Suite, and the Somerset Maugham Suite. These rooms, furnished with personal photographs and books of the writers they're named for, give you the feeling their namesakes have just stepped out for a drink in the garden.
I've watched as Time reporters such as Marsh Clark or Lance Morrow have locked themselves in one of these suites for days at a time in order to write a cover story. John Le Carre finished "The Honourable Schoolboy" while staying at the hotel. Many authors have been known to budget extensive stays in order to overcome writer's block.
In 1967, the hotel was bought by Kurt Wachtveitl, who had made his fortune by turning a small hotel in Pataya into the main housing for engineers employed in building UTAPO, which became the largest airbase in Southeast Asia. At the time, Bangkok was undergoing a major transformation, from a sleepy town of less than two million, to a "Sodom and Gomorrah," with countless massage parlors and bars catering to servicemen on leave from Vietnam.
Wachtveitl took a big gamble, and proceeded to expand the hotel by building a new wing, that at the time was the largest such undertaking in Thailand. The gamble paid off, and within two years the construction had been completed, just in time to begin offering its rooms to the thousands of people who had become addicted to this beautiful jewel of a city. Now the population of Bangkok is nearly 10 million.
The hotel boasts nine restaurants, including the finest French restaurant in the region, and a spa on the opposite side of the river, which can be reached by the Oriental's fleet of boats.
Following two months of unrelenting coverage of President Clinton's travels in the U.S., then the Middle East, Brunei and Vietnam, I was exhausted. When Air Force One took off from Ho Chi Minh City, it went without me. I was on my way to Thailand.
I arrived in Bangkok at 6p.m. Monday night. The Oriental Hotel's Mercedes picked me up at the airport. The next time I walked out the door of the hotel was Friday night. In the meantime, I had spent hours developing my tan by the pool, drinking Singha beer, and having massages, both oil, and traditional, at the spa. I even had a pedicure--never had one of those before.
I can't think of any other hotel in the world that I would be happy to exist in side of for five days. But then, this hotel is beyond very special.
By the way, The Oriental has a press discount policy. Just tell them The Digital Journalist sent you. You can find out more information at the Hotel's website: http://www.madarinoriental.com