Published in Bangkok Post, Thailand
A MOTORBIKE taxi driver signals to me as I walk along a Bangkok alley. He produces a laminated menu of bikini-clad girls and tells me they are all ready to come to my room and ‘make me happy’. I tell him my room is at The Atlanta. He nods understandingly and shrugs his shoulders in defeat.
The Atlanta is a bastion of decency in a city of sin. It doesn’t just ban bar girls, it berates anyone considering bringing one through its cloistered doors. Established in 1952, the hotel has steadfastly remained in the 1950s, both in terms of decor and mindset. Throughout the hotel wonderfully eloquent signs warn anyone thinking about bringing depravity to The Atlanta. I am handed a welcome drink of mixed fruit and read the notice on the accompanying coaster: “Zero tolerance and sleaze-free zone. No sex tourists, junkies, louts and other degenerates.”
This isn’t just a hotel that has rules, it has commandments. It doesn’t have standards, it has ethics.
The Atlanta sits at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 2, next to the Calvary Baptist Church (surely no coincidence). From the outside it is a slab of concrete, enclosed by a mesh to ward off pigeons. But visitors who step through the smoked glass doors instantly step back in time. The lobby’s black and white tiled floor leads to a grand sweeping staircase. In the centre is a roundabout settee of dark red leather, upon which is stretched one of the hotel’s many cats. An elongated wooden dachshund looks on and Noel Coward sings quietly in the background. Art Deco is everywhere.
I book a room and ascend the staircase. At the top is a large sign further explaining the hotel’s policies. ‘Those who must frequent prostitutes should do so in their own country, where they will cause less psychological damage, less social humiliation and less cultural degradation. There may be places which tolerate, connive at, facilitate or even encourage illegal activity. The Atlanta is not one of them.’ My room is more in keeping with the 595 baht ($15) tariff. It is bare, basic, and clean, with a communal bathroom. A quick walk around the lobby reveals more 1950s’ nostalgia, and even more rules.
You wonder if all this preaching is just a gimmick, but the hotel’s founder Dr Max Henn was not a man prone to novelty. Born in East Prussia, he helped with British and Czech intelligence against the Nazis and then served a maharaja in India before arriving in Thailand in 1947. He started the Atlanta Chemical Company and when this venture faltered, turned the offices into a hotel. It soon became famed for its class and style. This was where the late Thai Queen Mother dined, where aristocrats stayed and where quiet civility made its home. The Atlanta was the first hotel in Thailand to have a swimming pool, the first to have a German restaurant, and the first to have a diving club.
Dr Henn died aged 96 in 2002, and according to an obituary on one wall: “will be remembered for his monumental strength of character, his unwillingness to suffer fools and crooks gladly and his ability to get things done when cheating, sloth and folly were all around him.” It adds that Dr Henn had a “contempt for cheating, a loathing for stupidity and for those who would work without engaging their brains.”
Over the years The Atlanta’s popularity waned, and when Henn’s son Charles returned to Thailand from studying in England in the 1980s, he found the hotel was full of prostitutes and drug users. This led to the current Renaissance, but it wasn’t the furniture or prices that changed – it was the attitude.
Today the hotel is full of reminders of its halcyon days and redolent with unequivocal advice for current guests.
In the restaurant there are signs reminding you to keep your feet on the floor. Anong, the restaurant manager, has been at The Atlanta since 1973 and seems to personify its ethos. As I eat an explosive combination of lime, honey, onions and herbs, she walks over. “No, not like that, like this.” She grabs my spoon and piles the salad onto it. “You must eat it all, the sweet and the sour together,” she says and returns my spoon. I eat, remembering to chew thoroughly in case I’m admonished further, and taste the incredible fusion of flavours. Anong is as much of an institution as The Atlanta, full of style, standards, and a little cheekiness.
The restaurant is one of the many surprises here. As well as sumptuous food at shockingly cheap prices, the menu is a work of art: a crash course in Thai cuisine with specially-created dishes, explanations about Thai ingredients and, of course, lashings of advice. “We do not kowtow to overblown losers who flock to Thailand for cheap beer and cheap prostitutes,” the menu says. “The Atlanta is not a place where the dregs of humanity come to grope, slobber all over, corrupt and sexually exploit impoverished women, boys and children. “Not even the worst Pariah state deserves general connivance of the commercial sexual subjugation of its youth and concomitant social dislocation and cultural degradation.”
I anticipate tonight’s coaster nearly as much as the food. Today it is number 5 in an indefinite series. “I take as much pleasure in welcoming guests who appreciate The Atlanta’s ethos as I do in throwing out those who do not. You must learn to do the same. Who decides what constitutes good character? I do. And my decision is final – Dr Henn, lecturing the manager.”
There is plenty of reading material in the menu and on the walls, but should you feel the need for more there is a writers’ corner. Three roll-top wooden desks sit in line with a carved dog resting on top, a carved pheasant hanging from its jaws. On the wall is a large book case containing the likes of Foster’s Peerage 1881, The Age of Reform 1815-1870 and The Works of T H Green. Outside, the country’s first hotel swimming pool is still there, while a rockery sits where a bandstand once was. There’s also a gym, although a sign warns potential users that it’s not for those ‘who only want to mess about’.
Such advice is typical of The Atlanta. It’s an enchanting place which tries hard to maintain its standards in the face of impossible competition. It may not be able to compete with the Marriot Hotel down the road, and it may loathe the Nana Plaza and its go-go bars which are paradoxically in the adjoining soi, but its popularity is still immense because it stays true to its beliefs, and its era.