The Reading Room

The Eastern and Oriental Hotel, Penang

Following in the footsteps of literary greats…

e-twoThere is something about visiting a hotel which has an enviable history of welcoming important literary guests, add the lure of the Orient into the mix and this particular blogger wants for little else. As someone who has long been fascinated by the Far East and in later years the authors (Greene, Maugham, Conrad, Kipling et al) who visited these shores and stayed long enough to write masterpieces set in the heyday of colonial rule and extravagance. the E&O in Penang is the perfect hotel to recreate those halcyon days.

The Eastern and Oriental is steeped in history, situated in Georgetown on Penang Island, Malaysia, it is one of South East Asia’s most famous grand hotels and the forerunner to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore which was built by the Sarkie Brothers who created the E&O in 1885.

Described upon opening as ‘The premier hotel east of Suez’ it was a remarkable hotel by the standards of the day. There were one hundred bedrooms with almost half enjoying adjoining bathrooms and in-room telephones. It isn’t difficult to imagine the relief for distinguished travellers finding comfort in hot and cold running water after weeks of travelling in hot and humid tropical conditions.

Now, as before, the E&O boasts the longest sea frontage of any hotel in the world, palm trees sway along its borders from the breeze blown in across the Malacca Straits and as the sun begins to fade so begins the delightful piano music to accompany ‘sundowners’ and elegant Malay cuisine. But it is the hotels famous guests which grabbed my initial attention. The hotel proudly boasts of Herman Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr as former guests and it is remarkable to follow in their footsteps and soak up an atmosphere which is seldom experienced anywhere else.

When one reads Greene or Maugham and their novels set in South East Asia it becomes immediately obvious why they wrote what they did. This part of the world gets under the skin quite unlike any other and now we see a new wave of authors from across the region taking up the mantle and producing absorbing stories from a younger, modern perspective. But interestingly, little has really changed since the days of Greene smoking an opium pipe, corrupt officials and hearts lost to beautiful young women. The themes remain inherently the same and for me the E&O encapsulates this perfectly. On the one side you have the original heritage rooms, restaurants and ballroom, on the other a new, modern wing with every amenity but still in keeping with its historical past. It’s the old and the new embracing each other and that’s what Asia really is all about.

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