The Writer Who Made Southeast Asia Known To The World—Joseph Conrad

By Harold Stephens

Joseph Conrad, after he gave up the sea and became a writer.

“Who was the most interesting person you interviewed?” Who could that be? It’s a question that’s often asked when people learn that I write about people—newspaper stories, magazine articles, even books. Who’s the most interesting person?

I’d like to answer by saying there is one person I wished I could have interviewed. He was a Polish seaman, Teodor Korzeniowski. He hung around the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and made quite a name for himself. He became crippled up with arthritis, and when he couldn’t go to sea anymore, he took up the pen and began writing, and changed his name to Joseph Conrad.
We know for certain that early impressions of Bangkok came from Conrad’s novels. Were he around today there are hundreds of questions I’d like to ask him. For example, he arrived in Bangkok from Singapore to take his first command, the Otago, anchored midstream a little upriver form the Oriental Hotel.

He didn’t say it, but the ship was the last of the old sailing ships, an iron bark—and rusting. It was on its last leg, we might say. The shipping company couldn’t find a captain, as the previous captain had died and the entire crew was ill and in the hospital in Bangkok. Conrad was without a job, loafing in the Seaman’s Lodge in Singapore, when he was offered the job.

He accepted, his first command. Or course, he was thrilled, and in later years when he turned to writing, he gave us a different impression from what it actually was, as writers so often do.

The Custom House was there in Conrad’s day, but not fish-tail boats, of course.

I can imagine the management of the Oriental being annoyed that anchored a bit upriver was an eyesore, a rusted sailing bark. It wasn’t good for the image, especially for customers who dined on the verandah.  Conrad never ate at the hotel; he thought it might be too expensive for a seaman’s pay, but he did hang out in the Billiard Room while the Otego was being readied for sea.

I would like to ask Conrad what the expats in the room talked to him about. He spoke a very poor English and I can imagine what they said. “Here comes that seaman again, the guy with that heavy accent, from that tramp ship out there on the river. I get tired of him prying into out business, asking us all kind of questions.”
“Yeah, and that accent. I can hardly understand him. Let’s tell him some wild stories and then maybe he’ll go away.”

That could very well have been the way it was. We know that once the crew recovered and was back aboard the Otago, Conrad had found a pilot and decided to sail. In his most autobiographical novel The Shadow Line he wrote when Otago slipped past the Oriental, he and his crew waved to the early-risen guests who sat in cane chairs on the lawn. Those on shore all waved back to him. That’s what they call “an author’s prerogative.”

This was much like Conrad found the Chao Phraya River.

We can imagine what the people really had to say: “Good riddance. About time he got that eyesore got out of here.”
“The captain,” one guest remarked, “wasn’t he that the guy who hung around in the Billiard Room, the bearded guy who was always prying into our business?”
“Yep, that’s him”

That was Teodor Korzeniowski, later to be known as Joseph Conrad. We know that by reading the his writings––both short pieces and his novels––he gives us some wonderful glimpse of what Bangkok and the river was like a little more than a hundred years ago.

Where did he get his information? Obviously some of it came from the Billiard Room at the Oriental Hotel.

As a seaman, Conrad made three voyages to Southeast Asia, and it was this third voyage that brought him to Bangkok. The impressions he received from these travels were so powerful that when he later became ill and had to give up the sea that he loved, he took up a pen and began to write. His writings, of course, became classics of English literature. Perhaps no other writer in history made Bangkok better known to the world than Joseph Conrad.

Here was the Oriental Hotel when Conrad stepped ashore.

Conrad was filled with pride to have his first command in Bangkok, but he also admitted he met with immediate frustrations when he arrived. He expected to be on his way within a few days; it took him weeks. The loading of his ship went slowly and most of the crew suffered “various stages of sickness.” He was disappointed with the appearance of the Otago and went to the British consul to register his complaints. He met Dr. William Willis, who advised him to wait until his crew had completely recovered before he considered departing.


Here is the Oriental Hotel as writer Stephens found the hotel and wrote about it.

To re-supply his ship, Conrad obviously had to get around Bangkok. Would you believe, a hundred years ago, he complained bitterly about the traffic then. He found it dreadful.

To get around Bangkok, he had to travel by horse-drawn carriage and by sampan on the klongs. Another means of transport, but one that was congesting city streets, was by rickshaw. A few years before Conrad arrived, a Chinese nobleman had humbly presented a rickshaw to the Royal family. It was immediately copied and its use spread like wildfire across the city. #4 Street of Bangkok in Conrad’s day

Imagine had Conrad not been afflicted with crippling arthritis. He was, however, and he picked up a pen, and in a language that wasn’t his own he began reliving his days at sea. About Bangkok he wrote: “I remember that period of my sea-life with pleasure, because it begun inauspiciously, it turned out in the end a success.”
We can all be glad that he did take up writing. And I imagine, were he to return, he would continue to write some splendid things about the mighty River of Kings and Bangkok. Or would he?

We can only imagine what Conrad would say today had he sailed up the Chao Phraya River, compared to what he wrote about river when he first saw it­­­–

–“There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which has yet suffered no white conqueror. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, king’s palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated crumbing under the vertical sunlight. . . .”