Sarkies Hotels


On my recent trip to Surabaya I stayed at the prestigious Hotel Majapahit, established in 1910 as the Oranje Hotel by Lucas Martin Sarkies, a member of the famous Sarkies clan of leading hoteliers.

Public Domain,
Clockwise from top: Arshak, Tigran and Aviet Sarkies

The Sarkies brothers, (Aviet, Arshak, Martin and Tigran) were Armenian businessmen born in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of Isfahan in Iran. They founded a hospitality empire in South East Asia at the end of the 19th century which included the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Penang), Raffles (Singapore) and the Strand (Rangoon).

A few antiques fill the foyer in the oldest section of the hotel.

Lucas Martin Sarkies was the son of Martin Sarkies and continued the family tradition in Surabaya. He commissioned noted architect RAJ Bidwell to create a Dutch colonial art nouveau hotel with a budget of 500,000 guilders. Bidwell also designed Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. 

Needless to say, I did not stay in the opulent and massive 806 square metre Presidential Suite shown here.

The Oranje soon became the place to stay in East Java and famous guests have included Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad and now, Thrifty Traveller.

The art-deco section of the Hotel Majapahit, opened in 1930.

In 1930 a new art-deco style lobby was added and is where the hotel’s main lobby is now located.

Painting of the flag incident on the roof of the hotel in 1945.

The flag pole on the roof is where a celebrated incident took place at the end of World War Two as Dutch forces were attempting to re-establish control after the defeat of the Japanese. Leaders of the Indonesian independence movement ripped the blue strip off the Dutch flag, leaving just the red and white which became Indonesia’s national flag.

Apart from the Majapahit, I have also had the good fortune to visit the other surviving former Sarkies hotels, even if I could not afford to stay in any of them.

Raffles Hotel in June 2014.

Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Continues to be the ultimate in colonial-era luxury. The Long Bar (home of the Singapore Sling) is the only outlet I’ve visited in the Raffles.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang in December 2011.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel, George Town, Penang. An advert for this hotel in 1906 boasted that it was ‘perfectly appointed, unrivalled situation,sea, lawn, excellent cuisine & wines, terms moderate’ . All still apply, except perhaps the bit about moderate terms. The Sarkies also ran an establishment next door called the Oriental Tiffin & Billiard Rooms, a great name which should be brought back.

Vintage postcard of The Strand.

The Strand, Rangoon – ‘the finest hostelry East of Suez”’ said the 1911 edition of the ‘Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon”. Still the top hotel in Yangon.

Sarkies Bar, The Strand, Yangon.

I enjoyed a quiet drink with my son at the Sarkies Bar at The Strand in 2010. The hotel’s website says that the bar ‘has played host to many a thirsty traveller, explorer and celebrity alike, and the names of Noël Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Orson Welles are worth a mention.’

Traveller’s Palm

I cannot claim to have green fingers, especially as I employ a gardener to do all the hard work.

But one gardening achievement I am rather proud of is my traveller’s palm.

When I planted it in my garden some 5 years ago it was quite a puny sapling.

My traveller's palm sapling in 2009

Since then it has grown into a magnificent specimen with a fan of symmetrical branches and a sturdy trunk.


What’s the secret? Apart from luck in picking a suitable spot for planting, regular watering with worm tea (produced from my home vermiculture kit) might have had something to do with it. That, and regular pruning by the gardener of the lower stalks as they become old, brown and tatty.

Travellers Palm seeds. Source: Wikipedia

The tree has never flowered so far which is a pity because their seeds are an incredible, vivid lapis lazuli colour. In their native Madagascar, Traveller’s Palms are pollinated by lemurs. We are not likely to get lemurs in our garden in Malaysia. Could monkeys do the trick? Or one of our strange squirrels perhaps?

Malaysian Squirrel

Some say that travellers palms are not good to have around because water collects at the junctions of the stalks and provides a breeding ground for the aedes mosquito which transmits the nasty dengue fever virus. While that could be true, far more common habitats for aedes mosquitos are clogged gutters, plates under potted plants and discarded plastic containers. It would be a shame to shun the traveller’s palm for this reason.

Raffles Hotel Singapore advertising material

The East-West orientation business mentioned in this image is supposed to be a myth. However the orientation of the leaves on my tree is exactly East-West so perhaps there is something in it after all.


If Raffles Hotel in Singapore needs any help in improving the look of its Traveller’s Palms I am available for hire.