'In Residence At the Atlanta'

By Donald A. Ranard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 2, 2003

No one in Bangkok, not even my old Thai-hand friends, had heard of the Atlanta, and when my taxi pulled up in front of the hotel, I began to see why. A dirty-gray concrete mid-rise tucked away at the end of a nondescript side street, the Atlanta is easy to miss. From the outside, it looks like another one of the city's Vietnam War-era R&R hotels turned low-budget dives, the kind of place that has all the mod cons -- and none of them works.

But no matter how bad it turned out to be, I'd already made up my mind: I was going to spend the night. Nothing was going to get me back out into the city that day. Bangkok is a Far East L.A., a sprawling, disorienting place without center or discernible design, perpetually gridlocked. It had taken us an hour to travel a distance I could have walked in 20 minutes.

The driver stared at the hotel glumly. I knew what he was thinking: Anyone staying at this dump wasn't going to tip. But I did, surprising him, then stepped out of the cab and into the hotel, and it was my turn to be surprised.

I did what everybody does entering the Atlanta for the first time. I put down my bag and looked around in wonder. What was this place? I'd stepped back into another era, but which one? With its circular red leatherette sofa in the middle of the room, polished terrazzo floor and wide, winding staircase that seemed to float in space, the lobby evoked a sleek, modern grace -- the 1950s with hints of the Deco '20s. But it bumped up against an older aesthetic -- Europe in the Gilded Age -- with its ornate chandelier and faux gold-leaf mirrors. Facing the entrance on either side of the lobby were two bronze dachshunds on pedestals, ridiculously elongated, a kitschy counterpoint to the rest of the elegantly appointed space.

I crossed the lobby to the front desk, bracing for disappointment. I knew what you got for 350 baht (about $8.85) in Bangkok, and it didn't look anything like this. But the woman at the front desk confirmed the guidebook prices: 350 for a single with a fan, 535 for a big room with air conditioning. My room, a single, would be ready in a few minutes. She handed me a mango drink garnished with a purple orchid. Would I also like to see a 535-baht room? One had unexpectedly opened up. I said I would, then wandered off to get a closer look at my surroundings.

The Western Union Travel Section, consisting of a couple of desks and a high table stacked with laminated travel maps, occupied one side of the lobby. Tucked away on the other side was a small sitting area with an overstuffed sofa, an armchair and a writing desk stocked with hotel stationery ("In residence at the Atlanta," the letterhead said) that brought to mind a 19th-century London hotel for gentlemen bachelors.

Time and place shifted again as I stepped outside the lobby, past a small tropical garden, to the swimming pool. Jazzy geometric designs in cheery '50s colors ran alongside a wall, while on the sound system, Louis and Ella traded riffs: "You say tomayto, I say tomahto / Let's call the whole thing off." Except for the peeling paint on the wooden deck chairs and the cloudy pool water, it might have been an upscale mid-20th-century American motel. All that was needed to complete the picture was a buxom blonde in a one-piece sipping a daiquiri. Instead -- back to the 21st century -- a thin young woman in a buzz cut, peasant dress and combat boots sat under an umbrella, hand-rolling a cigarette.

The bellhop, a friendly androgyne, beckoned. As we walked up the winding staircase, the hotel transmogrified again, this time into its opposite. If the downstairs was an unclassifiable mix of styles and eras, there was no mystery about the upstairs. Now I know where I am, I thought, as I followed the bellhop inside a fourth-floor single. It was the kind of featureless, functionally furnished affair that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has traveled on the cheap in Asia. It was good value, but I was disappointed; the downstairs had prepared me for something different. My spirits lifted a few minutes later when I saw the 535-baht room. It had the same threadbare, mismatched furnishings, but it was spacious and had a sitting room with a sofa and a coffee table: Embassy Suites furnished by Salvation Army.

I went down to the restaurant and got a bottle of soda water, a tall glass of ice and a lime. Back in the room, I mixed the favored drink of old Thai hands: Mekong whiskey and soda with lime. I sat down and tried to puzzle out the place. I'd gotten to the point in my travels where I could tell at a glance what to expect from a hotel, but so far the Atlanta had confounded me every step of the way.

What was this place?

Fifty years ago, the Atlanta was the top hotel in Bangkok -- so I learned the next day from owner Charles Henn, whose father, Max Henn, had built the hotel. A neat, slight figure in khakis and a polo shirt, Charles was half German, half Thai and all English, a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge universities. And when he wasn't in Bangkok managing the Atlanta, he was in England teaching international law and advising big business on Asia.

Charles, who grew up at the Atlanta in the 1960s, was too young to remember much about the hotel's glory days, but having seen the scrapbooks and heard the stories, he was an expert guide to the era. In its heyday under his father, a Jewish scientist who had fled Hitler's Germany in the late 1930s, the Atlanta had been more than a hotel, Charles told me in the course of a two-hour tour. It had been the center of social life for the city's Thai and expatriate elite, a place where foreign diplomats and businessmen rubbed shoulders with local movie stars and royalty.

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