Trou­ble­mak­ers not wel­come

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - SUSAN MUR­PHY

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

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