'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.

The hotel had two of the best Western restaurants in town: the Rheinterrassen (Terrace on the Rhine), modeled after a German hunting lodge, with a German cook and a Swiss baker; and the Continental, with teak-paneled walls and deep-rose velvet curtains, where the Queen of Thailand dined every Wednesday evening. There were fashion shows in the lobby and parties by the pool, with live music and the latest American movies on a cinemascope screen.

Things started going downhill in the mid-'60s, when the tourist industry began to transform backwater Bangkok. Bigger, more luxurious chain hotels eclipsed the Atlanta, and as the hotel's fortunes faded, Henn's interest flagged. The Atlanta was on the verge of falling off the map altogether when it was discovered by globetrotting backpackers, drawn to its air of ruined glory.

In the mid-'80s, when Charles returned to Thailand from his studies at Cambridge, the hotel was no longer the charming, ramshackle place he remembered. The property had deteriorated badly. Hard-core drug users and prostitutes had replaced the pot-smoking flower children from Charles's childhood, and in the restaurant where the queen had dined, junkies snorted the purest heroin in the world while watching porn videos on an overhead TV.

Charles painted the place, fixed what was broken and replaced the damaged furniture. He instituted and enforced new hotel rules -- no drugs, prostitutes, loud music or porn videos.

But what began as a rescue operation eventually became something else. Under Charles, the luxury-resort-turned-place-of-last-resort began to carve out yet another identity for itself. Even now, the Atlanta remains a work in progress, though its future might be glimpsed in its restaurant. It is the same restaurant, the Continental, where royalty dined and junkies nodded out, but there's no sign of either era now.

It's a simple place, or so it seems at first glance: a long, narrow room with red leatherette banquettes and Formica tables, a newspaper rack stocked with American, French and German periodicals and a shelf of travel books. It looks like a cross between an American diner and the faculty reading room of a small liberal-arts college. Each day, I discovered something new to admire.

The sound system played classical music in the morning and jazz standards in the afternoon, and every night after dinner, a movie was shown on an overhead TV screen. There were stylish, offhand references to Thailand: black-and-white photos of turn-of-the-century Siam, jazz recordings by Thailand's clarinet-playing king. The menu was a 10-page mini-disquisition on Thai food, with footnotes. There was always a waitress ready to take your order, from early in the morning until late at night.

It's the kind of place travelers are always looking for, where you can get a good, inexpensive meal, linger for hours over coffee or while away an afternoon over beer. It's a natural gathering place -- and what's best about the restaurant is what is best about the hotel: the mix of people. In an age of niche marketing, the Atlanta was an anomaly; it cut across the usual segregating categories of age, class and lifestyle.

During my two-week visit, there were has-been hippies and would-be hipsters, clean-cut college students and backpacking grandmothers, budget-minded families and middle-aged men on a Bangkok debauch, German scholars of Thai Buddhism, Swedish relief workers on R&R from Cambodia, blue-collar Brits, one or two indigents, and on the sidelines, quietly studying the show, a contingent of local day-trippers that included, every Sunday at noon, a small group of Thai Baptists from a neighborhood church.

The restaurant became my favorite place. People were around if you wanted company, but there was no pressure to interact. Conversations ended as easily as they began. One day I met a middle-aged Canadian radio journalist launching a new life as a Bangkok-based freelancer; on another day, it was a six-foot waitress from Amsterdam who had just traveled solo down the Mekong River from China to Laos, and on a third, a guidebook editor in her sixties, a tough, classy lady from New England, Katharine Hepburn with a backpack.

It was Christmas morning. I was in my room when I noticed a piece of paper under the door. Dear Guests, it began in an elegant cursive script. Christmas is a time when hotels and restaurants double or triple their prices. Here at the Atlanta, we have a different tradition. Here at the Atlanta, we offer guests a complimentary Christmas buffet, and you are of course warmly invited to join the party tonight.

The music that evening was mid-century American; the food was traditional English, with a nod to Germany. As Mel Torme crooned his way through Christmas standards, guests helped themselves to roast turkey and stuffing, English sausage, mashed potatoes, cranberries and stollen, German Christmas cake. Halfway into the evening, Charles entered the restaurant. He was dressed in his usual slacks, polo shirt and loafers, and if he were even a little disappointed that the guests had come in shorts and T-shirts, he didn't show it. He slowly made his way through the room, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

When I first met Charles, he had seemed out of place in his own hotel. Whatever the Atlanta had been in the past and whatever it might become in the future, it was still a low-budget hotel. With his impeccable British English, his smart casual clothes, his perfect taste carefully concealed behind an Oxbridge insouciance, he seemed to belong somewhere else.

It was easy to picture Charles in a small bed-and-breakfast in the English countryside, sipping a brandy in front of a fire with the guests, harder to picture him here, in a little-known budget hotel in a city that was Asia's best example of development gone amok. But not tonight. Tonight Charles didn't seem out of place at all. Tonight, as the old Atlanta briefly came back to life, offering a glimpse of a gentler and more genteel Bangkok, he was right at home. It was the guests who seemed out of place.

Rates at the Atlanta (78 Sukhumvit Soi 2, Bangkok, telephone 011-66-2-252-1650, www.theatlantahotel.bizland.com) range from about $13.50 per night for two-bedroom suites with air conditioning to $8.85 for smaller rooms. Book two weeks in advance; credit cards are not accepted.

Donald A. Ranard last wrote for Travel about Morro Bay, Calif.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company