Seedier side of town

The district of Sukhumvit is home to the Atlanta Hotel - a "wholesome" bastion in one of Bangkok's more notorious areas. (James Fenton)

Hanging beneath the water-stained eaves of the Atlanta Hotel is a hand-stenciled sign: "This is the place you're looking for — if you know it. If you don't, you'll never find it."

A more blunt notice is posted nearby: "Sex tourists not welcome."

Plenty of hotels have amenities. Valet parking. A heated pool. Room service.

The Atlanta has a conscience.

The hotel's unlikely location has everything to do with its moral imperative. Situated in the heart of Sukhumvit, one of Bangkok's most notorious sex tourism districts, the Atlanta is a self-proclaimed "bastion of wholesome and culturally responsible tourism," an isle of morality in a sea of human decadence.

At neon-lighted Nana Plaza, just a few blocks northeast, prostitutes sway on stiletto heels outside bars named G-Spot and Playskool, waving to American and European men who stroll past as if browsing through an exotic market. Street vendors hawk cheap sunglasses and tacky tourist T-shirts, and Euro pop tunes blast from speakers.

The Atlanta is perched unassumingly at the end of a long block on a parallel lane, Soi 2. The residential street is lined with food stalls by day and illuminated by the odd neon sign advertising massages at night. The hotel's deceiving exterior wears patchy remains of its original 1950s paint job. Its five floors are stacked with 59 rooms, their small windows peering out on the quieter end of the street.

A bellhop in a starched white shirt swings open the Atlanta's wood-framed glass doors, revealing an Art Deco oasis. Classical music floats on the sultry air and retro lamps tinge the foyer with a golden hue. A stylish leatherette couch sits atop black and white floor tiles. Roll-top desks in the "Writer's Room" have fountain pens and embossed paper to encourage old-fashioned correspondence. A harem of cats keeps tabs on all comings and goings from atop the reception desk and below the coffee tables.

In the lush gardens, resident tortoises Archibald and Doris (as in Day) lumber around a mini pond surrounded by dense vegetation. Guests can refresh themselves in the hotel's large swimming pool, and there is a separate pool for children. In the Atlanta's excellent Thai restaurant, music composed by His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is piped in daily during lunch.

The rooms, sufficient if spartan, don't have the character of the hotel's public spaces. But most have air conditioning, hot showers, desks and blissfully firm mattresses (rare pleasures in budget accommodations in this part of the world).

Spacious suites — with shared bathrooms, separate bedrooms and communal lounge areas — make an attractive option for families.

At about $12 per night, the rooms are a bargain, even by Bangkok's affordable standards. A sign at the reception desk makes that clear: "Complaints not permitted — not at the prices we charge!"

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A look back in time

The Atlanta is full of interesting signage and literature about the hotel's history, and photos and paintings decorating the walls pay tribute to its founders and famous guests. But there's a certain air of mystique to the place, as if the strings are being pulled from behind the scenes. I'd heard that the owner, Charles Henn, was nearly impossible to meet; the staff was under strict orders never to point him out to guests. He was a reluctant innkeeper, I'd been told, a man with an aversion to shaking hands, not to mention mingling with strangers.

On the last of my five nights in Bangkok, I was in the Atlanta's lobby busily scribbling down insights from a notebook of collected tips labeled, "Some advice before you go out on the streets of Bangkok for the first time." I was surprised when a man approached to ask what, exactly, I was doing nosing around the lobby with my notepad in the wee hours of the morning.

I quickly recognized his features — a seamless mix of the portraits of a European man and a Thai woman hanging on the wall: smooth, pale skin and wise eyes. "Are you … ?" I began to ask, but he interrupted.

"It depends who's asking."

His soft voice delivered impeccable English polished at Cambridge. Henn divides his time between Bangkok and Birmingham, England, where he is a senior fellow and teaches international law at the University of Birmingham's graduate school. He also works as an advisor to foreign ministries, he tells me.