The Atlanta in Bangkok and Dr. Henn
From the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties my favourite hotel in Bangkok was the Atlanta on Sukhumvit Soi 2. It was there that I made an acquaintance that would have a significant impact on my life: Dr. Max Henn! That man was truly a character! He had to watch helplessly as his beloved Atlanta Hotel (once the number two hotel in Bangkok, second only to the Oriental, so he claimed) descended into a hippie dump. The somewhat obscure elderly gentleman was already in his seventies when we met and he viewed the hippies with deep distrust. Especially, as they didn’t buy his overpriced trips. But he had taken me to his heart, old Henn.
He was from my adopted home of Berlin and told me how great it was in the good old days of the German Empire. How he traveled to Spain with his parents on their Imperial passports – in other words, before the First World War! And we filled countless speech bubbles with chatter about Berlin and the interesting life in the Reich’s capital. Once I provided him with a photo of the Imperial Navy’s submarine U 18, on which his uncle had served in World War I. And when I brought him a panoramic map of Berlin back in the 1930s, we were almost buddies. I often met him in the morning in his office downstairs in the lobby where he and his long-time companion Lek ran a travel agency called Western Union. There he read the Bangkok Post, petted the cat and talked a bit on the phone. Then it was back to the famous Suite A 10, where he lived off the fat of the land with Lek. As proved by the countless tins of ‘Leipziger Allerlei’ (some kind of mixed vegetables)and other German specialties visible on the windowsill. As far as I know, nobody but the two of them had access to this holy of holies – at least that’s what I thought for a long time. In the afternoon he came down again and the twosome boarded a black Plymouth (complete with driver) and went shopping at the Central Department Store Chidlom.
And old Henn was quite a storyteller; once he got started, he wouldn’t stop talking! To this day there is a website about him on the internet – with very contradictory information. Some of the stories seem to be true: the German TV reporter Winfried Scharlau from the ARD Weltspiegel magazine mentioned him in his book ‘Four Dragons on the Mekong’. Accordingly to him, Henn (who had an office in Vientiane) offered to sell him secret information – allegedly he worked as a secret service agent then. As Scharlau wrote, he smelled a rat and refrained from purchasing the information. Rumour had it that Henn owned a boat which he had hired out to the Americans during the Vietnam War: Since it had two engines, it was extremely maneuverable in the
narrow channels of the Mekong delta. Even more fascinating the stories (the more people you asked, the more fantastic they got…) of his escape from Germany. It was said that he had a doctorate in chemistry and that he was a big shot in the SS in Berlin. Until one day his best friend called him and warned: “Max, you’d better not to go home! They found out that you’re half-Jewish!” He heeded that advice and fled to Paris. After the German invasion, he went to England. According to slander, he worked as a camp doctor in Auschwitz (the curse of the doctorate!) and became a millionaire thanks to gold fillings of the murdered Jews. Somehow, this doesn’t add up …? In any case, I’m sure the first version is correct!
Anyway, he was hired by British Intelligence (MI 6) and fought the Nazis on the news front. Of course, he knew Churchill (whose portrait adorned Henn’s office) and the Mountbattens personally: “Edna was eaten by cannibals in Borneo!” he told me once. Although this has been proven not to be true. Quite in contrast to the fact that the fun-loving lady was having an affair with Nehru. After the end of the war he accepted a position as private secretary to the Maharaja of Bikaner (India) and drove there all the way from London in his own car. An early traveler on the hippie trail, so to say. In the early 1950s he was offered a job in the Dominican Republic as private secretary to the famous playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. Since India was getting on his nerves, he accepted the offer and flew to Bangkok to embark for Dom Rep. Fate would have it otherwise: he met a beautiful, young Thai from a good family and fell madly in love with her. He decided to give Rubirosa a miss and bought the property where the hotel still stands today. However, he started with an ammunition factory, which as a chemist somehow made sense. Especially in those turbulent times. Others say that he was in the snake bite serum business. What is now the swimming pool was a snake pit then. Believe it or not! Later, however, he thought that it would actually be a better idea to open a hotel – and this is how tourism in Thailand was founded – by Dr. Henn! Not everyone knows that either… As he told me, those days a klong ran along Sukhumvit Rd. and people who wanted to go to the Atlanta had to take a boat across. As could be expected, he was a good friend of Jim (Thompson), his fellow secret agent who disappeared without a trace in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. Who knows to what extent Henn was involved. Anyway, the Atlanta, fully furnished in the style of the 50s, had only one competitor in Bangkok – the Oriental!
The Nazis had stripped him of his German citizenship, which didn’t bother him much. Although, a German friend of mine and long time Bangkok resident once told me that there used to be a signboard at the entrance: Forbidden for dogs and Germans! Wouldn’t know if that’s true … In any case, dogs are more than welcome today (see house rules) and Germans have also been allowed in for a long time. I am the living proof! At that time, the German embassy was a few steps away on Soi 2 Sukhumvit. Diplomats often came to his hotel to have lunch or dinner in the Rheinterrassen Restaurant. What a name! The wall was decorated with a panorama of the River Rhine. I’ve seen it myself! One day, Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a German MP of the Bavarian Conservative Party (CSU) paid him a visit. He was a member of a German parliamentary delegation. He apologized on behalf of the Federal Republic for the injustice done to him and offered to restore his citizenship. Which Henn was happy to take advantage of. And so the happy family life could have gone on as usual (in the meantime the couple had a son). But then N. came from Isan with her cardboard suitcase to take up a job as a maid at the Atlanta. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with the little girl and cheated on his wife with the maid.
Which isn’t really a problem in Thailand. But he wanted more than a one-night stand or, for that matter, a ten-night stand. He left the family and moved into the said suite with his flame. And there they lived happily and harmoniously together until his death. Well, not quite! By the time he was 95, she confided to me that he was cheating on her with young girls whom he brought into the suite while she sat downstairs in the office. “Can you imagine that? The old fart! I’ve always looked after him, after all he’s a very old man – and now this!’ she blurted out. “That’s impossible! What an ungrateful man he is!” I said. In fact, I thought, “Hats off! If you can still do it at 95, you can pride yourself on it!”
The ‘Doctor of Bangkok’ died on May 13, 2002 at the age of 96. His son Charles made a virtue of necessity and marketed the dilapidated fifties box as a cult hotel à la Chelsea in New York or whatever… ‘Bangkok’s only hotel in the unadulterated style of the 50s’ – that’s how it’s proudly advertised. Sometimes even a film team looking for a fifties setting breezes in. If I’m not mistaken, a few scenes of the BBC crime drama ‘The serpent’ about infamous hippie killer Charles Sobhraj were shot there.
Contrary to the past, strict customs now prevail at the hotel (see below!). That’s how the times are a’changing: In the past, many of the guests were ‘borderline cases’. I myself was considered one of the more respectable guests there! Swiss guide book writer Robert Treichler doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about the Atlanta: ‘Despite the swimming pool and palm garden, this old-timer from the traveler scene is too expensive because it’s run down.’ he scolds. Klaus Holm from Nuremberg even reports: ‘Ants in the bed at night!’ Wow, they’re venturing out into the wide world and complain about ants in the bed … Kill ‘hem and go back to sleep! The clientele was very mixed: simple travelers like you and me, but also would-be businessmen like Conny, who earned millions by sending workers from Thailand to the Gulf. But his millions didn’t go to his head, he kept staying at the Atlanta. Once I had to rescue him in the ‘Long Gun’ go-go bar on Soi Cowboy. The bouncers threatened to beat him up if he didn’t finally pay his debts. I put the money on the table and Conny, big Conny, wept on my shoulder! Drunk with gratitude!
Of course I never saw that money again. But you’ll have to understand that: If someone is juggling millions, he easily forgets that he owes a few hundred baht to a little traveller. For my part, I’ve forgiven him. And once Conny started, things really got going. He told me that one day he was at the German embassy with a Thai woman whom he wanted to marry. They made him wait forever before he was accepted by the ambassador.
It’s not entirely clear to me what the ambassador had to do with that matter, but since Conny told it, it must be true. At some point he got fed up and threw open the door to the ambassador’s room. And what did he see there? “There’s the guy with his pants down and fucking his secretary on the desk!”. “Really?” I asked doubtfully. “Yep, saw it for myself!” was the reply and five minutes later the good man was married – that’s the way to do it! Dr. Henn hed already confided to me back then: “That guy’s a con man!” But at the reception they didn’t want to listen to him, because Conny was living in two so-called luxury suites and invited everybody who happened to be near him. And then he suddenly disappeared, probably had to quickly jet off to the Gulf in a deal worth millions, And in his hurry he completely forgot to pay his bill! Dr. Henn was happy: “You see, I told you right away!” he smiled. On the other hand, he considered myself trustworthy: once he lent me the equivalent of 20 dollars in local currency – after I had pawned my ID card to him …
For a place like the Atlanta Hotel, it’s not easy to find employees. Even a Thai from the provinces soon realizes what he’s gotten himself into. And he’ll use the next opportunity to look for something better. The staff is suitably qualified: I want to check out after 5 days and pay for the room. Costs 1000 baht a night. I went to the reception: “I want to check out please!!” – “How many nights?” – “Five for 1,000 each!”. “O.K., wait a minute!”. The receptionist takes a calculator, types in 5 times 1,000 and says with a smile on her face: “Five thousand baht, please!” I couldn’t believe my eyes.
In 1997, the tiger states of Southeast Asia landed as bedside rugs and were trimmed to their true size. Suddenly the bubble burst and the whole beautiful illusory world of eternal growth and wondrous multiplication of money collapsed. Stock markets in the region plummeted, followed by currencies: the Thai baht, like the currencies of neighboring countries, lost half of its value in just a few days. The decline was symbolized by a photo of Indonesian President Suharto being forced to sign a humiliating document under the stern eye of IMF Director Michel Camdessus. The mighty man sat at his desk like a schoolboy who had done something wrong, while the headmaster stood by with folded arms and checked whether he had signed correctly. This picture contributed not a little to its decline. As the crisis peaked, desperate investors jumped from the high-rise buildings, making it Bangkok’s No. 1 killer, even ousting AIDS from its top spot. But that’s not all: AIDS even fell back to number 3: Behind those who were killed by those jumpers!
However, the protagonist of the following story was not one of the victims of that crisis. Me and my girlfriend had just completed a one and a half year trip in SE-Asia which had taken us as far as New Guinea. We stayed at the Atlanta the last night before flying to Europe. Meanwhile it had become damn hot. The rainy season was just around the corner. We didn’t feel like staying in SE Asia during that time. We woke up suddenly in the middle of the night: there was a tremendous noise in the next room, then a loud bang and then a groan. We looked out the window: there was our neighbor bleeding in the street and groaning pitifully. What had happened? I had often noticed him and his brother in the restaurant, drunk and rioting and swearing at the staff. Everyone was happy when the twosome finally took off to fly back to Austria. But they came back in the middle of the night! He had caused a scene during check-in at the airport and the airline refused to take the two with them.
They came back and moved to the room next to ours on the second floor. As it seems the two had got into a quarrel. As the brother reported, the other suddenly leapt up, jumped onto the bed and from there threw himself through the closed window onto the street – unbelievable! At least that’s what the only witness said. Heaven knows, whether that’s true. And when the ambulance and the police came, the street lit up with flashing lights and the air was filled with the sounds of their horns. And while people were chattering and standing around the poor fellow who was bleeding like a pig, suddenly the monsoon broke out. A downpour, the likes of which is only known in these countries, accompanied by thunder and lightning, made for an unreal scene. Somehow we had the feeling that something ended with a bang – ‘finale furioso’ of a great trip. The next morning there was nothing to be seen apart from a few pieces of broken glass – the rain had completely washed away the blood!
House Rules, THE ATLANTA Hotel, Bangkok
The Atlanta is run on conservative principles and fosters traditional values.
The Atlanta does not hesitate to refuse rooms to persons unsuited to the prevailing ethos of The Atlanta – even if they have a confirmed reservation.
1/ The Atlanta does not welcome SEX TOURISTS, and does not try to be polite about it. Borderline cases are not given the benefit of the doubt, but are treated as sex tourists.
Those who are borderline cases should stay elsewhere.
Guests who attempt to bring in bar girls, catamites and their like will be told in plain language to settle their bills and leave. Remaining on the premises after being told to leave will be treated as a police matter.
The Atlanta does not ask for or listen to explanations or excuses, and does not apologise for the manner in which miscreants are thrown out.
The Atlanta also does not apologise for any mistakes it may be accused of having made with regard to the identification of sex tourists.
To keep The Atlanta private, secure, wholesome and sleaze-free for the kind of guests we welcome, room guests are not permitted to take visitors / outsiders upstairs into the building and their rooms, or into the garden and pool area.
Exceptions may be made in appropriate circumstances at the management’s discretion. Suitable visitors / outsiders may be entertained in the restaurant.
2/ The Atlanta operates a ’ZERO TOLERANCE’ policy regarding
TROUBLE-MAKERS, POSSESSORS AND USERS OF ILLICIT DRUGS and ALL OTHER ILLEGAL AND NEFARIOUS ACTIVITIES
3/ The Atlanta also does NOT WELCOME
UNDOMESTICATED PEOPLE – the sort of people whose conduct and appearance give tourists in general and their compatriots in particular a bad name.
When The Atlanta states ‘NOT WELCOME’, The Atlanta means it. There will be no politeness about it.
4/ The Atlanta welcomes FAMILIES and prides itself on its child-friendly staff, but families are welcome only if CHILDREN are KEPT UNDER REASONABLE CONTROL.
The Atlanta is not a playground for children: children must not be allowed to disturb other guests. Families that do not keep their children under control will be told to settle their bill and leave in no uncertain manner.
5/ The Atlanta particularly welcome guests who like PETS and ANIMALS.
The Atlanta is home to many rescued cats, terrapins and one dog, all of which are well cared for. The garden of The Atlanta is also home to many squirrels, birds, etc. However, guests are not allowed to bring in pets or other rescued animals. The Atlanta already has too many rescued animals on the premises.
Visitors who object to any of The Atlanta’s policies or who intend to spend their time in Thailand whoring, behaving badly, indulging in alcohol abuse and illicit drugs should stay elsewhere. The Atlanta is not that kind of place.
Tourism is not about going on a rampage through other people’s country: Those who cannot travel abroad without behaving badly should stay home.
On these policies, The Atlanta is not interested in dissenting public opinion or what the business world calls ‘customer feedback’. The Atlanta caters to a certain kind of clientele and that is the end of the matter.
No discussion. No compromise.