The Atlanta, Henn explains, has been shaped by two generations of exiles, first his father, then himself.
Max Henn was charmed by Thailand and wooed by its nobility, who welcomed educated foreigners as investors in their country. In 1952, he founded Atlanta Chemical Co., a pharmaceutical lab that sold cobra venom to the United States, and he later married a chemist from the lab, Mukda Buresbamrungkarn. When the business foundered after a few years, Max started renting rooms above the lab to visiting foreigners. A hotel was born.
During the Atlanta's 1960s heyday, U.S. military officers planning Vietnam operations rubbed elbows with Queen Ramphai (widow of King Rama VII) in the hotel's popular Continental restaurant.
Until the 1950s, Bangkok was known as the Venice of the East; a vast network of canals transported people and goods throughout the capital. In an effort to modernize, the canals were paved over in the 1960s, but the drains were — and remain — inadequate to deal with the monsoons.
"The hotel was destroyed by the flooding," Henn says. "It was terrible. And it was neglected for quite a while until I came back in 1986."
Henn is a very private man (his age is among the many things he won't disclose), and the details of those in-between years are vague. His parents divorced when he was a child, and at roughly the same time Charles was sent to school in England, where he eventually studied at Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.
Max Henn's interest in the hotel waned, and he pursued other careers, including a stint with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Asia. It was Charles' mother, Mukda, who decided to keep the Atlanta so that Charles might one day inherit it. But Mukda, a pharmacist, had no interest in running the hotel herself, and from the 1970s until her son returned to Thailand, the Atlanta ran on autopilot, managed by family employees.
"When I came back to Thailand [in 1986], it was utterly appalling. It was shocking," Henn says, shaking his head. "The Atlanta was totally wrecked. I looked at the place and I wanted to cry." In the ruins he could still envisage the magnificence he remembered from his childhood. But he was alarmed by what had happened to the hotel's clientele.
Over a period of a few short years, the war in neighboring Vietnam had given rise to Thailand's sex trade, and the once family-oriented neighborhood of Sukhumvit had devolved into one of Bangkok's sleazier sections. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Atlanta's clientele was the "dregs of humanity," Charles says — men who didn't mind wading through knee-deep water to carry their bar girls, the Thai euphemism for prostitutes, upstairs to a cheap room.
Upon his return to Thailand, Henn decided it was time to target a different type of clientele. The language he wrote for the hotel's website leaves no question about who should steer clear: "Those who wish to spend their time indulging in alcohol abuse, prostitutes, drugs or other illegal activities should stay elsewhere. Tourism is not about going on a rampage through other people's country."
To be sure, Henn clings to a romantic idea about travel. "When you visit a country with an ancient civilization, you should really go with a certain amount of deference and respect to the old-fashioned way of living," he says. "Tourism should be approached in the same way as having tea with your vicar."
But Henn isn't prudish. In a particularly candid moment, he says he understands why some Thai women, especially those from the country's impoverished northeast, resort to prostitution. Some do, in fact, wind up married to rich Westerners. Henn's a realist and knows he can't put an end to sex tourism in Thailand. But he's capable of controlling it under his roof.
The "sex tourists not welcome" sign, which Charles hung out front of the Atlanta in 2002, was a straightforward directive necessary in soft-spoken Thai culture, where enforcing such a policy is inherently difficult. Thais have difficulty saying no, Henn says. It wouldn't be easy for his demure staff to turn away a belligerent man arriving with a buzz and a bar girl.
"Everyone was against me," Henn says, referring to his decision to hang the sign. "Even my parents."
His father said such a stringent policy would be impossible to enforce. "If you know anything about Weimar Germany," Henn says, "you know how liberal it was . My father said, 'Boys will be boys, and there's nothing you can do about it.' "
In 2000, Henn turned his attentions to caring for his 94-year-old father, who had returned to Bangkok and fallen ill. A few months after Max died in 2002, Henn got around to hanging the sign.
"Just as I was hanging it," he says, "two girls from the Calvary Baptist Church, right next door, were walking by and they started clapping. And I thought — well, the Baptists are clapping. Let's see who else is with us."