Troublemakers not welcome
Developers have given up making offers for Bangkok’s fabled The Atlanta Hotel because Charles Henn, the elusive owner, isn’t selling. “They know I’m an old stick-inthe-mud,” he says, “and I don’t want the hotel to change.”
The place has not changed since 1952 when it was opened by Charles’s father, Max, who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s and settled in Thailand, where he married a Thai aristocrat, Charles’s mother. Max was a chemical engineer and the original building, now housing hotel staff, was a laboratory. The site of the swimming pool, the first of its kind in Thailand, was a snake-pit used to keep cobras for making antivenene. Now there is a neighbouring mud-pit housing terrapins, including an ageing pair called Doris and Archibald named after Doris Day and Archibald Leach (aka Cary Grant).
Bangkok has grown around the hotel, once sheltered by guava trees, since the 1950s. So has the scourge of sex tourism. The Atlanta sits at the end of Soi Three, off busy Sukhamvit Road, with notorious streets Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy only metres away.
Signs throughout the hotel (written by Charles, who was educated in England at boarding school and then Oxford and Cambridge), make the hotel’s policy clear: “Sex Tourists Not Welcome.” Large signs at the entrance, on the walls and in the menu rail against the “flagrant, miscreant dregs of humanity” who come to Thailand to “slobber over and exploit wretched” people. The website announces a “bastion of wholesome, culturally sensitive and eco-aware tourism”.
The foyer is a snapshot of the 1950s with original features such as a chequered floor, red vinyl chairs and Bakelite telephones still in place. A selection of books, some signed by their authors, line the shelves of the reading room. Black and white photographs, including an autographed photograph of Margaret Thatcher and portraits of Charles’s mother, hang on the walls and a pair of wooden dachshunds guard the door. The impressive space is sometimes used as a film set and photo shoots by local and international crews.
A sweeping staircase leads to the guestrooms giving the illusion that they must be as novel as the foyer. An ominous sign on the way up warns: “Complaints not permitted ... Not at the prices we charge!” Unpolished terrazzo floors, blank walls in faded pastels and sparse furnishings make the accommodation a disappointment, but the bare essentials such as clean linen, soap and towels are provided. Tiles in a custard hue form a narrow bath and shower in our bathroom and line the walls.
The guestrooms may be as plain as a school camp but the restaurant is a treat. Anong, described in the menu as a “stern aunt” who “clucks over us like a kindly one”, has been the manager for 40 years.
The extensive menu, written in fascinating detail, out- lines her role as head bouncer: “Service refused at our discretion. No explanation given.”
A long horizontal window runs the full length of the dining area, shaded by yellowing venetian blinds. Red and white vinyl banquettes seat diners at a row of tables. An up-to-date assortment of newspapers and journals hangs neatly on a magazine rack.
Memorabilia, such as a letter from members of the US forces who stayed here after World War II, adorn the walls. A black and white photograph of a young George Bush Snr, Louis Armstrong and the late King of Thailand, playing instruments, makes for an unlikely trio.
The Atlanta Hotel has managed to hold out against the tide of change lapping at its door and is a time capsule worth visiting before it disappears.
That’s if Anong lets you in.
Lobby at The Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok