Civilized oasis in wild Bangkok
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!”
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.
It’s easy to imagine him composing the no-nonsense verbiage on the hotel’s website, descriptions such as, “Run on conservative principles and imperiously heedless of fashions and trends, The Atlanta is untouched by pop culture and post-modern primitivism.”
The Atlanta, Henn explains, has been shaped by two generations of exiles, first his father, then himself.
“My father was Prussian, you see,” he says, “so an exile from a country that no longer exists.” Max Henn, a Berliner, first left Germany in 1936. He aided British and Czech intelligence against the Nazis until 1938, when he left Europe for good. Max traveled overland from Morocco to India, where he stayed until 1947, and then moved on to Bangkok.
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.”
No advertising needed
On the intrepid traveler circuit, the Atlanta is revered as the Taj Mahal of budget hotels. Operating entirely on word of mouth and guidebook recommendations, its rooms are often fully booked.
The restaurant is abuzz every night, and it’s not unusual to see a limousine parked out front, ferrying diners from five-star hotels who come for the Atlanta’s exquisite, and amazingly inexpensive, Northern and Southern Thai fare. The menu is a veritable treatise on Thai cuisine and etiquette -- and is copyrighted.
Last year Henn received an award from Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana (the King’s sister) in recognition of his patronage of traditional Thai performing arts, which he promotes among the Atlanta’s guests with concerts and presentations. Regularly scheduled cultural programs in the Atlanta’s lobby, free to guests, might include traditional Thai puppetry or a discourse by a visiting biologist on a rare Thai frog.
“I’m not a businessman,” Henn tells me. “I keep the Atlanta going for sentimental reasons. It’s a toy, an inheritance, a legacy. There’s nothing else left from those 10 years that my parents were together.”
I wonder aloud whether the Atlanta can preserve its niche in Sukhumvit. Henn assures me that the booming commercialism of Bangkok and the flood of human debauchery won’t wash away the Atlanta’s foundations.
“The kind of person that would want to know about the Atlanta, well, would be in a minority anyway,” he says, “It appeals to a certain kind of traveler, and that’s just as it should be.”
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From LAX, Thai Airways offers direct (stop, no change of planes) flights to Bangkok. JAL, China Airlines, ANA, Northwest, Korean, China Eastern and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares start at $730.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Atlanta Hotel, 78 Soi 2, Sukhumvit; 011-66-2-252-6069, fax 011-66-2-656-8123, www.theatlantahotel.bizland.com. Reservations by fax only. Two-bedroom suite $32; one-bedroom suite $18; small rooms, $9-$15. Payment only in Thai baht due daily.
Tourism Authority of Thailand, (323) 461-9814, www.tourismthailand.org.
-- Times staff