BANGKOK—An infamous hippie hotel in Thailand’s capital city has turned over a new leaf. The Atlanta, a let-your-hair-down stop on the hippie trail through Asia in the 1960s and ’70s, is now a family-oriented budget hotel with a special following among the literary crowd.
It’s just a stone’s throw from the girlie bars on Sukhumvvit Street, but miles away in ambience and clientele. Where once the hotel turned a blind eye to what went on in its rooms, today a large sign at the front door spells out “Sex tourists not welcome.”
Roger Le Phoque, an affable Welshman who lives at the Atlanta and manages it when its Thai-German owner is away, says, “We get many taxis rolling up. A gentleman gets out, does a double take and leaves. He hasn’t done his research. Today there is zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour.”
It wasn’t always so. My husband stayed at the Atlanta in 1971, when American G.I.s serving in the Vietnam War routinely went there for rest and recreation. In that era, the first person to knock on your door after check-in was a tout offering sex and drugs—or anything else a young Western traveller might want. When we both stayed there in 1979, French hippies repaired to the roof to snort easily obtained heroin.
These days, you’re more likely to run into a movie crew or a French fashion shoot in the red, black and gold art deco–style lobby, proudly unchanged since the hotel was built in 1952. Glass cases display books mentioning the Atlanta or written there.
The hotel’s founder, Max Henn, was a German industrial chemist. In the 1940s, his dislike of the Nazis led him to flee Germany for Asia. In Bangkok, Henn founded the Atlanta Pharmaceutical Company and, near where the hotel’s swimming pool now provides respite from Bangkok’s humid heat, kept snakes for whose venom he developed an antidote. He had no intention of becoming a hotelier, but in the early ’50s he converted a laboratory to house visiting American cartographers, and thus began a new career. Le Phoque said the hotel had some posh years, but later lost its way.
Henn was 96 when he died in 2002. His son, Charles, the current owner, divides his time between Thailand and the United Kingdom, where he is a law professor. He has written several pages of advice for first-time visitors to Bangkok that rest on a lectern in the Atlanta’s lobby. Among other things, they warn that a Thai bar girl—even one who appears to be a “delightful, friendly and innocuous-looking slip of a thing”—is capable of drugging an unwary tourist and running off with his valuables.
Bangkok is one of the world’s fleshpots, but the Atlanta wants no part of that. Le Phoque said the sign at the front door is evidence of a policy of keeping “miscreants,” troublemakers and obvious sex tourists out. “I mean, men are men,” he said, but when they’re staying at the hotel, they must be “quiet, well behaved and discreet.”
For more information, visit theatlantahotelbangkok.com.
Rebecca Wigod is a member of the Meridian Writers’ Group.