It came as a surprise to me when I touched down in Bangkok in 2009, traveling solo on the heels of a long-term relationship’s demise, to find that I despised being in that city. My love for New York and Paris and Buenos Aires would not translate to this particular capital, with its cartoonish backpacker scene and, in other neighborhoods, overt provisions for the sexual fetishes of old white men. For a young bookish woman traveling solo, there was no niche to be found.
Like most American travelers to Thailand, I arrived in the middle of the night. From the airport at 1am, I took a bus to the backpacker area centered around Khao San Road, where I’d booked a room for my first night. The trip took an hour or so, after which I made my way to the hotel through streets that even at this time of night were bustling with nightlife activity. My room was concrete and sparse but clean and I crashed out immediately.
When I woke up the next morning, I learned the hard way that rainy season can arrive before the appointed time, which would have been the following month. From the café on the ground floor, which was open to the outside, I watched the sky unload and the street flood. I ate two consecutive meals at the café and booked another night because what else could I do. By mid-afternoon, the rain had stopped and the flowing water on the street gradually subsided to reveal dozens of dead rats strewn about. I danced around them to explore the street, in which locals supplied the workforce and under-30 westerners supplied the audience.
I left Bangkok the next morning, headed south on a bus until I reached the region famous for its beaches, found the escape I was looking for, and returned to Bangkok only in preparation for my flight home a week and a half later. For this last night, I took to the upscale Sukhumvit neighborhood and to what I still think of today as the city’s saving grace for a lady traveling alone, the Atlanta Hotel.
In the six years since my trip, memory has packaged Bangkok for me as follows: Khao San Road, mad automobile traffic (mopeds especially); occasional canals; sprawling neighborhoods for locals that I couldn’t begin to navigate with confidence, where families set up makeshift kitchens on the sidewalks in front of their homes every night; the upscale Sukhumvit area; and the Atlanta, where I lived a tropical daydream. I know there is more to the city than I saw in my collective couple of days there, but as it currently stands the Atlanta was the only thing I truly enjoyed in Bangkok.
The lobby and the pool, with their art deco touches that must have seemed a little behind when they were implemented in the 1950s, evoked a faded but sturdy glamour. Black and white, maroon and gold, this color palate lent the public area its romantic mood. In the café, old brass fans whirred with a lack of conviction but plenty of character. The pool is large and well-kept and around it, the landscaping is lush. It’s a true oasis that bests the pools of most five-star hotels I’ve stayed in. The alarmist warnings posted both throughout the hotel itself and on its website warning that sex tourism will not be tolerated, nor illicit drugs of any sort, would have been irritating anywhere else. In Bangkok, though, prudery is eccentricity.
The rooms, on the other hand, would be spare to a fault but for their price—the going rate today runs in the $25 per night range—and for the sense you get that via this austere tidiness you are refining your own character. Like at boarding school.
After checking into my room, I headed to a nearby restaurant, where a series of male senior citizens, most seemingly European, proudly sat at two-tops with Thai women a third their ages. I ate without humor and then walked to a bar frequented by expats, who made me feel I was already halfway home. I drank one beer and absconded immediately to the Atlanta’s pool, the best place in Bangkok to while away an April afternoon, when the average high runs a 96 soupy degrees. I would almost dare to call it a bookish woman’s niche.
The Atlanta Hotel
78 Soi 2 Sukhumvit Road
Feature Image credit Clay Gilliland from Chandler, U.S.A. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons