Monday, September 25, 2017

Strand, Raffles, Majestic: the best colonial hotels in Southeast Asia

You might expect all vestiges of colonial life to be slowly fading from Asia’s modern, busy cities. But instead elements of those days, particularly the ones relating to the tourist trade, are being recreated, preserved and celebrated.

If you are travelling on a budget, many of the region’s colonial-era hotels may seem prohibitively expensive. But you can still get a taste of days of yore, should you wish to, in a hotel bar with an afternoon gin and tonic or taking high tea in a hotel lounge.

Dutch colonial architecture in Kota, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: ShutterstockDutch colonial architecture in Kota, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock

The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Modern Kuala Lumpur is like any big developing Asian city: malls, traffic, more malls, street hawker stalls, Chinatown, nice bit where diplomats live, shiny towers, malls … But there’s a pocket of KL that will be forever in the past.

Arriving at the Majestic Hotel – built in 1932 and recently refurbished – is like stepping into a Somerset Maugham novel. There’s a smoking room, where guys in linen suits (seriously!) light up, play pool and drink whisky; there’s a screening room that shows black and white movies from Hollywood’s golden age; and in the suites there are deep, lovely clawfoot baths where you can wash away the humidity and sweat of life in the hot zone.

During my stay at the Majestic (a 51-room hotel that combines neoclassical and art deco style), every afternoon the lobby was full of people enjoying English-style high tea – with plates of cakes, scones and pots of tea. Being serendaded by the piano “takes guests back to 1932”, one of the staff told me.

The Hermitage Hotel of Jakarta, IndonesiaThe Hermitage Hotel of Jakarta, Indonesia

Galle Fort Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka
Galle, the capital of the southern part of Sri Lanka, is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Galle fort was built by the Portuguese in 1588 then fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century.

Many of the Portuguese- and Dutch-era buildings have been restored and renovated, but one of my favourites is the Galle Fort Hotel.

Restored to its former glory, the hotel is one of the pricier places to stay in town (up to US$320 a night in peak season) – but you can soak up the vibe simply by having a G&T in the hotel’s bar, which is a pleasant porch area out the front where you can sit amid the tropical blossoms and watch the street life pass by.

A stay at the Hermitage Hotel, Jakarta, is the ultimate in luxury. Photo: FacebookA stay at the Hermitage Hotel, Jakarta, is the ultimate in luxury. Photo: Facebook

Galle Fort Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka
Galle, the capital of the southern part of Sri Lanka, is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Galle fort was built by the Portuguese in 1588 then fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century.

Many of the Portuguese- and Dutch-era buildings have been restored and renovated, but one of my favourites is the Galle Fort Hotel.

Restored to its former glory, the hotel is one of the pricier places to stay in town (up to US$320 a night in peak season) – but you can soak up the vibe simply by having a G&T in the hotel’s bar, which is a pleasant porch area out the front where you can sit amid the tropical blossoms and watch the street life pass by.

Mesa Stila, Central Java, Indonesia

The Mesa Stila resort in Indonesia is located on the grounds of a coffee plantation. Photo: FacebookThe Mesa Stila resort in Indonesia is located on the grounds of a coffee plantation. Photo: Facebook

On the grounds of a coffee plantation, surrounded by a ring of active volcanos, Mesa Stila in Central Java is strange, almost otherworldly place.

Now branded as a health and wellness resort, with an excellent spa, its buildings and furniture hark back to Dutch colonial times. In the central lobby, ceiling fans, wide day beds, a large verandah and a piano all add to the colonial vibe and afternoon tea is served daily.

The hotel was a favourite of the former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and only a few hours away from the incredible Borobudur temple complex.

Get some R&R at the Mesa Stila resort in Central Java. Photo: FacebookGet some R&R at the Mesa Stila resort in Central Java. Photo: Facebook

Raffles Hotel, Singapore
Raffles is a colonial icon – famous for its liveried Sikh doormen and its Singapore Sling house cocktail.

Open in 1887, Raffles Hotel Singapore is a prime example of colonial architecture, boasting period furniture and a tropical garden.

High tea is popular at Raffles – and you’re encouraged to book ahead. It’s the usual fare of cakes and crustless sandwiches served on a three-tiered stand, in the beautiful Tiffin Room. While you nibble on your sandwiches, a harpist plays in the background.

One thing I noticed at high teas at both the Majestic and Raffles that would have been unheard of in Maugham’s day: pretty much everyone, at every table, photographing their food.

Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon’s Strand Hotel is a classic example of colonial architecture. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar TimesYangon’s Strand Hotel is a classic example of colonial architecture. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar Times

No list of colonial hotels would be complete without our city’s very own Strand Hotel. The Strand’s website declares it was named “the finest hostelry East of Suez” by John Murray in his Handbook for Travellers written in the early 20th century. Built in 1901, the three-storey, five-star hotel boasts that it’s one of Southeast Asia’s “few grand colonial hotels and one of its most awe inspiring”. Make sure you bring your copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days to complete the experience.

– The Guardian


Other notable examples of colonial-era hotels in Asia

Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Metropole, Hanoi, Vietnam
Majestic Malacca, Malaysia
The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, Thailand
Peace Hotel Shanghai, China
The Peninsula, Hong Kong
Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The Imperial, New Delhi, India