Editors' Choice

The Accidental Hotel

by Donald A. Ranard

It was there all the time, obscure, disheveled, but bearing the riches of a bygone era.

One morning in Vientiane, Laos, after a fire had closed down my usual breakfast place—a no-name hole-in-the-wall—I found myself in a stylish new café catering to tourists and international workers. Munching my almond croissant, I noticed a guidebook to Bangkok someone had left open and face down on a chair next to me. I’m not in the habit of reading guides to Bangkok, after 25 years of visiting that city, but with nothing else to read—I’d forgotten my Herald Trib back in the hotel room—I picked up the guide, and there it was, the first thing I read, a two-paragraph reference to a low-budget hotel I’d never heard of, the "historic Atlanta." Historic? I thought the only hotel in Bangkok that could lay claim to that label was the Raj-era Oriental with its old-world elegance and its new-world prices. After the Oriental, the choices in Bangkok were pretty much indistinguishable from what you found in most Asian capitals nowadays: There were the 5-star chains, at one end of the spectrum, and the $5 backpacker dives, at the other end. And between the anonymous luxury of the one and the anonymous squalor of the other, there were the mid-range businessman’s hotels, clean, efficient, and charmless—downmarket, sidestreet editions of the luxury hotels that lined the city’s main thoroughfares.

But the Atlanta didn’t fit those categories—or any other I knew. Its prices, 350 to 535 baht (about $8.85-$13.50, at today’s rate of exchange), put it in the backpacker category, but whoever heard of a backpacker place with a swimming pool (the first hotel pool in Thailand, according to the guide), a lobby used as a backdrop for fashion shoots, and a restaurant that once catered to royalty and diplomats? I jotted down the address and telephone number.

Back in Bangkok, the mystery deepened when no one I talked to, not even my old Thai-hand friends, could tell me anything about the Atlanta. In fact, no had even heard of the place, and when my taxi pulled up in front of the hotel one muggy evening, I began to see why. A dirty-gray concrete mid-rise, tucked away at the end of a nondescript side street, the Atlanta was easy to miss even when you were there. From the outside, it looked like another one of Bangkok’s Vietnam War-era R&R hotels turned low-budget dives, the kind of place that had all the mod cons—and none of them worked. 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 today. Bangkok is an Asian L.A., a sprawling, disorienting place, without center or discernible design, perpetually gridlocked and on the brink of breakdown. It took us an hour to travel a distance I could have walked in 20 minutes.

The cab 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 red leatherette circular 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 fifties with hints of the Deco twenties. But it bumped up against an older aesthetic, Europe in the Gilded Age, in the room’s ornate chandelier and faux gold-leafed mirrors. Facing the entrance on either side of the lobby were two pedestalled bronze dachshunds, ridiculously elongated, someone’s private joke, 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 in Bangkok, and it didn’t look anything like this. But the girl at the front desk confirmed the guidebook prices: 350 for a single with a fan, 535 for a big room with air con. 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? She wondered. One had unexpectedly opened up. I would, I said, and drink in hand, 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 and 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. On the other side of the pool, jazzy geometric designs in cheery fifties colors ran alongside a wall, while on the sound system Louis and Ella traded riffs: "You say tomahto, I say tomayto/Let’s call the whole thing off." Except for the peeling paint on the wooden deck chairs and the cloudy water in the pool, it might have been an upscale American motel, circa 1957. 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 army boots sat under an umbrella, hand rolling a cigarette.

The bellhop, a friendly androgyne, beckoned to me; my room was ready. As we walked up the winding staircase, the hotel transmogrified itself 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 for the price, but I was disappointed; the downstairs had prepared me for something different, something out of the ordinary. My spirits lifted, a few minutes later, when I saw the 500 baht room. It had the same threadbare, mismatched furnishings, but it was spacious and had a sitting room with a sofa and 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 a twist of lime. I sat down in my Salvation Army sitting room 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 Charles Henn, whose father, Dr. 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, and when he wasn’t at the Atlanta, keeping an eye on things for his 93-year-old father, he was in England, teaching international law and advising big business on Asia.

Charles, who grew up at the Atlanta in the sixties, 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, the Atlanta had been more than a hotel, he told me one morning 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 the two best Western restaurants in town: the Rheinterrassen (Terrace on the Rhine), the country’s first German restaurant, 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, every Wednesday evening, the Queen of Thailand dined. There were fashion shows in the lobby and parties by the pool, with live music and the latest American movies on a cinemascope screen. Henn built three yachts, the first privately owned yachts in the country, and took his friends on island-hopping trips off the southern coast 50 years before the area would become the latest backpacker falling-off place and the locale for the book and the movie The Beach. Henn established the country’s first scuba-diving club (The Sub-Aquatics) and its first travel agency (The Trans-Global Flying Club), and co-founded the Thai Hotel Association.

Things started going downhill in the mid-sixties, when the tourist industry that Henn had almost single-handedly launched began to transform backwater Bangkok. Bigger, more luxurious chain hotels eclipsed the Atlanta, and as the hotel’s fortunes faded, Max Henn’s interest flagged. He began to pay less attention to the Atlanta, leaving it in the hands of his staff, mostly distant relatives and old family retainers of his well-born Thai wife. 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.

"They were the early hippies, the flower power people," Charles told me. "They smoked dope, but they were nice. Father got on with them well. They all came here through India, and Father had lived for years in India—he was the original globetrotter. They stayed here for next to nothing. Some even stayed free. Father felt sorry for them."

For Charles it was a happy time that would seem unusual only years later, in retrospect. "My chauffeur would take me to school everyday," he said. "And then I would come back home and spend the afternoon with the hippies. They used to help me with my homework. We did Shakespeare together. They explained Blake to me."

With no one at the helm, the Atlanta continued on its downward spiral, and in the mid-eighties, when Charles returned to Thailand from his studies at Cambridge, the hotel was no longer the charming, ramshackle place he remembered. The place had deteriorated badly, and not just physically. Hard-core drug users and prostitutes had replaced the pot-smoking flower children from Charles’s childhood; in the restaurant where Thai society had dined on filet mignon, junkies snorted the purest heroin in the world while watching porn videos on an overhead TV. In the fifties, the Atlanta had been a regular feature in the society pages of the local English language newspapers; now when the hotel made it into the newspaper, it was under the headline, "Drug Bust at the Atlanta" or "Foreigner Arrested with Underage Thai Schoolgirl." The Atlanta was so rundown and seedy that even the Lonely Planet—the guidebook for shoestring travelers—was warning its readers away.

Charles found himself in a quandary. The Atlanta was on the brink of ruin, it was clear. And it was just as clear that he was the only one who could save it. But Charles was an academic, a Ph.D.; he hadn’t spent all those years at Oxford and Cambridge to end up running a broken-down hotel in Bangkok. He worked out a compromise: He would oversee the renovation of the Atlanta, but leave the day-to-day operation to the staff, freeing him to spend half the year back in England, lecturing and consulting.

Charles began with a modest goal: to halt the hotel’s decline. He painted the place, fixed what was broken, and replaced the badly damaged teak beds, desks, and dressers in the rooms with industrial strength furniture. He made the beds himself, out of scrap iron, having learned welding as a boy from his yacht-building father. The beds weren’t particularly attractive but they withstood the pounding of oversize farangs and their Patpong girlfriends. He instituted and enforced new hotel rules—no drugs, prostitutes, loud music, or porn videos—and put together a guide for guests on the dos and don’ts of travel in Thailand. (Charles on clothing: "Whatever going native may mean in the latter part of the 20th century, it does not mean a freakish or slovenly experience.")

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. Precisely what was hard to say. Even now, after more than a decade under Charles, the Atlanta remained a work in progress, though its future might be glimpsed in its restaurant.

It was the same restaurant, the Continental, where royalty had dined and junkies nodded out, but there was no sign of either era now. It was a simple place, or seemed so at first glance. A long and 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 looked to be a cross between an American diner and the faculty reading room of a small liberal-arts college. But there was more to the restaurant than first met the eye; each day I discovered something new to like. The sound system played classical music in the morning, jazz standards in the afternoon, and every night after dinner a video from Charles’s private collection of film classics was shown on an overhead TV screen. There were stylish, off-hand references to Thailand, so low-key you didn’t notice them at first. On the wall, black-and-white photos showed scenes from turn-of-the-century Siam, poised between its Thai past and its Western future, and at noon everyday there was an hour of gently swinging jazz by Thailand’s clarinet-playing king. Among the newsmagazines was a scholarly journal on Southeast Asian studies from Amsterdam, and Charles’s video library included every Western movie set in Thailand, from the 1926 Chang, the first Western film about Thailand, to The Bridge on the River Kwai.

One thing you did notice, as soon as you ordered your first meal, was the menu— not the food on the menu, but the menu itself, a 10-page mini-disquisition on Thai food, complete with title (Thai Food: What It Is, How to Order It, and How to Eat It), text, and footnotes. The text explicated each dish with mock-scholarly seriousness, but the footnotes were a random meander: Ketchup, the all-American staple, got its name from the Chinese koe chup, you learned on one page; in ancient Indonesia, lemon grass was cut by young girls, "as their purity would bring out the best in the plant’s fragrance," you learned on another. There were quotes from 19th-century travelers to Siam, including this one from Edwin Young, an Englishman, on native eating customs: "Whenever the voice of hunger makes itself heard, its appeal is promptly responded to, and consequently, great irregularity prevails in the times of meals."

The quote could stand as a motto for the restaurant, where there was a waitress ready to take your order from early in the morning until late at night, whenever the voice of hunger—or thirst—made itself heard. It was the kind of place travelers were always looking for, a combination restaurant, cafe, and bistro, where you could get a good, inexpensive meal, linger for hours over coffee, or while away a hot afternoon over beer. It was a natural gathering place, and what was best about the restaurant was what was best about the hotel that housed it: 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. 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, freelance writers, 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; when I was in the hotel and not sleeping, I was there, planning my day over coffee in the morning, reviewing it over beer in the afternoon. For someone like me, who at times likes to be with people and at other times just likes to be around them, it was perfect. It had what Ray Oldenburg, in an essay on French cafés, called the "unique blending of the public and the private." People were there 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-tall waitress from Amsterdam who had just traveled solo down the Mekong River from China to Laos, and on a third, a 60-something guidebook editor, a tough, classy lady from New England, Katherine Hepburn with a backpack.

***

He was there everyday, a small, elderly gentleman in a bush suit, sitting at a desk to the side of the travel section, quietly working his way through a newspaper. At 93, he was as old as the century, and nearly as experienced. Wherever you’d been, whatever you’d done, he’d been there, done that—and probably before you were born. He was a man of strong opinions and firm will, which made it all the more odd the way his life had unfolded, by quirk, luck, and happenstance. The hotel was full of would-be adventurers, wannabe Indiana Joneses, but Max Henn, the man who built the Atlanta, had had more adventure by accident than all of the guests put together would ever have by design.

"I do not like journalists," he snapped when I approached him for an interview. But when he found out that I’d spent the last three years in Sri Lanka, he softened. He’d been there years ago, when it was Ceylon and belonged to the British. What was my analysis of the war? He wanted to know. He listened intently to my less-than-articulate response, then delivered his own cogent analysis, in precise, German-accented English.

He had come to Thailand in 1948, by way of India where he’d worked for British Intelligence and the Maharajah of Bikaner, in remote Rajasthan in the northwest, and before that, Germany, where he’d grown up in World War I Berlin in a Prussian Jewish family of some prominence; a favorite uncle had built some of Germany’s most famous warships. His Ph.D. thesis on TNT had earned him a coveted government job, testing explosives, and in another era he might have spent his life quietly working his way to the top of the civil service, but this was the time of the Third Reich. One day he received a warning from a high government official, an old family friend: It was no longer safe for him, a half-Jew, in Germany. He should leave at once.

He bummed around Europe for a year, working in Belgium as an explosives expert with an anti-Franco group with links to British Intelligence, and, then, after Germany tried to extradite him, fled by boat to North Africa. With papers provided by the British, he traveled by car from Morocco to India, crossing Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

When he arrived in Bangkok in 1948, he was only passing through, on his way to the other side of the world, to the Dominican Republic, to take a job as the industrial adviser to President Rafael Trujillo. But Thailand, lovely and languid, the surface texture of life so full of ease and grace, captivated Henn. And, in a country in the first stages of modernization, there were opportunities for men like him, practical men of science. Henn ditched his Dominican plans and settled down in Bangkok, marrying a Thai woman from an old Bangkok family. One morning, years later, he would pick up the newspaper and read that the Latin American dictator he’d almost worked for had been assassinated.

The hotel came to Henn only after his first business, a pharmaceutical company, failed to get off the ground. There were just a few international hotels in Bangkok then, none of them very good—the Oriental was badly dilapidated—and when a team of American cartographers needed a place to stay, Henn converted the top floor of his laboratory into rooms. After the Americans left, Henn put up a group of displaced Dutch from recently decolonized Indonesia. Opening a hotel was the next logical step, but one that Henn resisted at first. He was a scientist, he told his friend the American ambassador, not an innkeeper.

He was not a diplomat either, but in the late sixties, with Indochina engulfed in war, he became one. As a stateless businessman with high-level contacts on both sides of the war, Henn was perfect for the role of unofficial go-between. He practiced his own shuttle diplomacy, meeting with General Giap in Hanoi, Prince Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, and Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane. Though his sympathies were pro-American, Henn came to believe the war—or at least the way America was fighting it—was a terrible mistake. "Make war or make business," he told General Westmoreland, who had moved his family into the Atlanta in the mid-sixties. Henn began a correspondence with Senator William Fulbright, the anti-war senator from Arkansas. "Your letters are wonderful," Fulbright wrote back, "but your English is a little Germanized."

In 1970, with the hotel—and his own marriage—floundering, Henn left Bangkok to take a job as an agent in Vientiane with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In the remote, hilltribe regions of Indochina, opium had long been used as a painkiller by the old and the sick; now it was being manufactured into heroin and shipped to Saigon, where it was sold to American GIs. It was a hugely profitable business involving Chinese drug lords, Corsican gangsters, renegade CIA agents, local businessmen, and high government officials. Henn saw the work as a chance to do something socially useful, to fight an unequivocal evil. Instead, he walked into a morally murky world of smoke and mirrors. He lasted three years. "I didn’t like the people I worked with and I didn’t like their behavior," he said. "Most of all, I didn’t like what they told me: ‘Dr. Henn, remember whatever you do, don’t embarrass our organization. If you deal with generals, admirals, or people in high political office, don’t touch them. Refer your knowledge to New York and don’t talk about it.’" Back in Bangkok, in the crumbling world of the Atlanta, Henn wrote long, anonymous letters to the English language newspapers, detailing the dirt of the drug trade. He signed the letters "Mephisto."

He delivered his story in one seamless monologue, and now, with hardly a pause, he was off on another topic: the collapse of the Thai economy. I let him go on; I was curious to hear what a Western businessman with half a century’s experience in Thailand would have to say about the biggest story in the region since the fall of Saigon. He rounded up the usual suspects—corrupt politicians, crony capitalists—but then took off in a startling direction. The root cause of Thailand’s problems wasn’t too little democracy, as most critics had it, but too much: Democracy had ruined Thailand, turning upside down the natural order of things, the proper relationship between ruler and ruled, husband and wife, father and child. His criticism wasn’t new, it was as old as democracy itself, but it was startling to hear it today, on the brink of the new millennium, when everyone at least paid lip service to modernity’s reigning ideology. He reached into his desk, took out a stack of postcards, and handed me one. There were two gold-engraved Egyptian figures on either side of the card, with text running down the middle. "A Warning From Isis," it said. "A higher knowledge of nature is essential to master the magic of cosmic energy to avoid a cataclysm of total destruction of our planet and mankind."

He settled back in his chair. He was finished. "Do you have a question?" he asked. Did I have a question? Yes, I had a question. I had 50 questions, maybe 100, but I didn’t know where to begin—I was overwhelmed by the material, the sheer improbability of his story, the elusive character of the man, and now the strange turn the conversation had taken. Who was this person, this globetrotting, German-Prussian-Jewish refugee turned spy-innkeeper-diplomat-DEA-agent, this engineer who issued warnings of apocalypse from Egyptian goddesses, this businessman who had helped bring the modern world to Thailand and now railed against it? I probed, politely, his political affiliation. I needn’t have been polite. He told me forthrightly that the only political party he had joined, back in Berlin in his university days, had supported the return of the monarchy. Of course! A monarchist! I’d been wondering where he fell on the political spectrum, and now it turned out he didn’t fall on the spectrum at all, not on the twentieth century’s spectrum, at any rate.

Later on that day, I bumped into Charles in the lobby. I told him about my talk with his father.

"I’m a bit surprised Father talked to you," Charles said. "He doesn’t talk to many people, especially journalists. Did he tell you how he got out of Germany?"

"Some government official warned him. "

"Did he tell you who?"

"No."

"It was Hermann Goering—you know, Hitler’s right hand man. Goering not only warned Father; he helped him get out. He made all the arrangements."

"Goering! How did your father know him?"

"He was a family friend, through his mother."

"And how did she know him?"

"Now, that’s a story in itself. Goering got into a car accident in Berlin. Grandmother happened to be there at the time, and came to his assistance. They became good friends after that."

***

It was Christmas morning. I was in the sitting room of my Salvation Army suite, on the threadbare sofa, tying my shoe laces, when I noticed a piece of paper under the door. I read it twice before it sank in I was being invited to a party. Dear Guests, it began in an elegantly 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 in the restaurant that evening was mid-century American; the food, served buffet style, was traditional English, with a nod to Germany. As Mel Tormé crooned his way through a medley of Christmas standards, guests helped themselves to roast turkey and stuffing, English sausage, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and stollen, German Christmas cake. On the door a marquee announced the evening’s video. It was—what else?—White Christmas.

Halfway into the evening, Dr. Henn and Charles entered the restaurant. They slowly made their way through the room, greeting people, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Father and son were dressed in their usual outfits, the father in a pearl-grey, Thai-silk bush suit, the son in slacks, polo shirt, and loafers, and if they were even a little disappointed that the guests had come to Christmas dinner in shorts and T-shirts, they didn’t let on.

Charles paused in front of a guest who was tucking into his food as if it were his last meal. Which just might have been the case: The day before I’d heard him on the long-distance phone in the lobby pleading for money. He was an American, in his late 30s, a solitary figure, tall and gaunt and unkempt, with a limp and the smell of bad mental health about him. He was the kind of lost soul who washed up in Bangkok all the time, and to Charles he must have been a reminder of the bad old days, when the Atlanta had been full of people just like him. But the suave and gracious host didn’t miss a beat: "How’s the food? Good? Great. Be sure to go back for more—there’s plenty."

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; for the past week, I’d been trying without success to get the cheerfully incompetent cleaning crew to do something about the grime on my bathroom floor. With his impeccable British English, his smart casual clothes, his perfect taste carefully concealed behind an Oxbridge insouciance, Charles seemed to belong somewhere else. ("Oh, I don’t know much about music," he’d said after being complimented on the Haydn, Mozart, and Bach that played quietly in the restaurant in the morning, each piece seguing seamlessly into the next. "I just follow the BBC policy—nothing after the nineteenth century before nine.") 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.

***

Postscript

Since this article was written, Max Henn, the Atlanta's founder, has died. Charles Henn, Max's son, continues to make improvements in the hotel, without altering the Atlanta's essential character. Rooms have been renovated, the swimming pool has been retiled, and a small writing room, with old roll-top desks, has been added to one corner of the lobby. Room rates, however, have been left largely untouched.


Donald A. Ranard is a writer and editor in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and the Washington, D.C. area. The son of diplomat parents, he grew up in Japan, Malaya, and Korea. He has lived, studied, and worked in Taiwan, Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Honduras. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.




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