The Place You Could Be Looking For -- From The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them by Thomas Swick

The Place You Could Be Looking For: From The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them

All hotels are surrogates for home; some of them are more luxurious, some of them less. Even the lowly ones we cherish, because in a place where all our senses are stretched—a new city, a foreign land—they make it okay to fall unconscious. They conquer the alien with the intimacy of a bed. Staying in a hotel is as close as we get to returning to the womb.

This is why you often see people deliberating in the lobby, back-slapping in the bar, opening their doors to room-service carts. They’re in no hurry to brave the elements. Here is safety and order; out there the big, thrumming unknown.

The Atlanta offered no bar (a magnet for bargirls) or room service, but it had a comfortable, clubby feel that made it an especially difficult place to leave. Stepping out in the morning, even into the vibrant pageant that is Bangkok, I always had the nagging suspicion that I was going to miss something good. When I returned in the evening, the people huddled in the restaurant somehow looked more intriguing than the in-house diners at other hotels.

Breakfast was a much-anticipated event. My second morning, I studied the menu while listening to madrigals. In addition to footnotes, giving the historical and cultural backgrounds of the various dishes, were literary quotations. "There is no love sincerer than the love of food."—George Bernard Shaw. (One that, banned from writing in my notebook, I committed to memory.) In the back of the menu, there were specials named for friends of The Atlanta.

When my banana shake arrived, I eagerly picked it up and turned over the coaster.

"There are only two things to do with prospective guests: welcome them if they are decent and clean, or welcome somebody else if they are not. We don’t rent rooms to Calibans."
Dr. Henn's instruction to reception. Number 3 of an indefinite set.

"What does yours say?" I asked the woman at the neighboring table.


"What's written on the other side of your coaster?"

"I didn't know anything was."

She was a freelance writer from New York City, traveling around Asia on a quest for self-realization. Perhaps this explained her blissful unawareness of her immediate surroundings. Though, she was very conscious of her pocketbook. "You can get better rooms at this price in other parts of the city," she said. "I don’t like the Sukhumvit area."

The Atlanta, never at a loss for words, had a sign at the reception desk for people like her. COMPLAINTS ARE NOT PERMITTED, it read, NOT AT THE PRICES WE CHARGE.

The hotel sat next to a Baptist church at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 2, one of the quietest of the numerous dead-end streets that stretch off from Sukhumvit Road like the elongated legs of a centipede. Sukhumvit Soi 4, by contrast, throbbed with bars—musical stockyards—that spilled forth women of wide-ranging affections. It was one of those places in Bangkok where Western men suffering from low self-esteem can receive instant cures.

The night I discovered it, Charles' exhortations no longer seemed so excessive. Nor did they derive, I realized, from simply a moral position. For over half a century, his family'ss hotel had graced a neighborhood that he had watched turn from modest to grotesque. The sex industry had become a blight on his home, its leech-like culture an affront to his sensibilities. In one of the articles displayed in the lobby, he was quoted as saying: "I am more in sympathy with the 19th century, or pre-war Europe, than I am with post-war Europe, let alone the 21st century." This sensibility was reflected in his inheritance.

Hotels by their very nature transport you to a different place; The Atlanta deposited you in another time. That it was a little voluble in doing so was understandable; it was a strident fogey because the world outside had become a strident boor.

It didn't just provide a wholesome environment for foreign tourists, it carved a preserve of civility out of the encroaching 'tude. It was as advertised -- "untouched by pop culture and post-modern vulgarity."

Returning to the hotel that night I noticed a sign (what else?) above the entrance: THIS IS THE PLACE YOU'RE LOOKING FOR -- IF YOU KNOW IT. IF YOU DON'T, YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT. Finally, I saw the hotel's name. It was engraved on a small silver plaque by the door.

An essay featured in the upcoming book by Thomas Swick, The Joys of Travel
Excerpted with permission from The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them by Thomas Swick. Copyright 2016, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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Thomas Swick was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for nearly two decades, and has traveled to more than sixty countries, chronicling his experiences in work that has appeared in the American Scholar, North American Review, Oxford America, Missouri Review, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, New York Times Book Review, and more. He is the author of the travel memoir Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Published: April 14, 2016

© 2016