In 1968 I was on a vacation with my grandparents that took us from Illinois to South Carolina including a visit to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina where my grandfather had been stationed during World War II.
Twenty-five years later, maybe some of those soldiers who trained at Fort Jackson were on R&R in Bangkok and staying at the Reno Hotel.
Back in 1995, after coming back from Chiang Mai my late wife and I needed a place to stay for a few days while we waited for visas (my teaching visa and her spousal visa) from the Korean Embassy to be approved. We ended up staying at the Reno Hotel, which according to the blurb I read in the Bangkok Lonely Planet Guidebook had been a popular hotel during the Vietnam War for soldiers coming to Bangkok for R&R. Back then, a lot of hotels as well as bars were named after “Western” sounding places and Reno most definitely fit that criteria.
(That is also true for some of the bars I have been in Seoul that have catered to American GI’s stationed in Korea. There’s this back street Itaewon, infamously known as “Hooker Hill” that in Itaewon’s heyday used to be lined with bars like “Rocky Top, The Grand Ole Opry, and Dallas.)
After having been in Thailand for a little over a month while we waited to have our visas processed (back then you had to physically leave Korea to extend one’s sojourn—even if you were going to be working at the same school or company) we were running out of funds. Fortunately, a couple nights at the Reno wouldn’t bankrupt us.
Located not far from MBK, this sprawling entertainment and shopping complex across a busy street from Siam Square, the Reno was located down a narrow soi (street in Thai). What I remember most about this hotel was that it had a cavernous lobby, a couple chandeliers, lots of dark, stained wood and this massive winding staircase that led to rooms on the upper floors.
In 1995, there were not too many guests there; indeed, I think there were more people working reception and housekeeping than there were guests.
If you had known that this hotel had been popular during the Vietnam War era, you could close their eyes and probably imagine this place crawling with GI’s on R&R with a girl or two at their sides, trying to forget Charlie squatting in the bush, tripwires, claymores, and midnight patrols. And as you climbed that winding staircase to the second and third floors and started down hallways wide enough to drive a car down, you could probably also imagine how loud and noisy it was with all the music, singing, yelling, and laughing emanating from the rooms.
Although the hotel might have been a ghost of its former self in 1995, it could still boast large, airy rooms with high ceilings, and a bed that could sleep five comfortably. Most of the furniture was circa 1970’s; the TV once bolted to the wall was gone. There was a dilapidated balcony overlooking a courtyard and pool that obviously had not held water for some time.
It was the kind of hotel that might evoke such sentiment as, “it had seen better days.” Well, that much might be true, but at 500 Baht a night (around $15.00), you got what you paid for: a room. The bed was comfortable; hopefully the mattress had been changed. The bathroom was about the size of a modest Tokyo apartment. There were no amenities, not even those little bars of soap. We were just thankful for the fresh towels and toilet paper and an air conditioner that worked.
Housekeeping could have done a better job keeping the rooms tidy or at the very least, cleaning up after the last guest. In one drawer was half of a boarding pass from Kazakhstan Airlines.
It was the kind of thing—a boarding pass or a faint message scribbled on a notepad on the nightstand beside the bed—that might make you think about the people who had been in this room before you. And in the case of this hotel’s popularity for service members on R&R during the Vietnam War its link to the past, “if these walls could speak,” that sort of thing. It’s one thing to wonder about who might have slept in the bed you’re about to sleep in; it’s something totally different or surreal when you come across something the previous guest had left behind.
We ended up staying there for three nights and it wasn’t that bad all things considered.
I’ve also stayed at another Vietnam-era hotel in Bangkok, The Federal Hotel—as recently as last summer—which was also quite popular for officers on R&R as well as, if I can believe my friend “Rat” who was in the Special Forces during the Vietnam War, CIA “spooks.”
If you go there today, more than likely you’ll see some 60-year-old guests, mostly Americans, and more than likely Vietnam Vets who still enjoy a stay at the Federal when they are in Bangkok. In fact, when Rat, who I have sometimes bumped into at Jimmy Wong’s tattoo shop not far from the hotel, is in Bangkok he often stays there or the Miami (another Vietnam-era hotel, and interestingly one of the few ones in Bangkok not named after a “western sounding place”).
In many ways, The Federal Hotel resembles the Reno as far as the spacious rooms go, but it has been kept up more over the years, no doubt given its location down a quiet soi—off the nosier and busier Sukhumvit—in one of the more upscale areas of Bangkok. Unlike the Reno though, which had seen better days when I was there in 1995, the Federal Hotel built in 1962, has retained much of its original charm. Maybe that is why it is still popular with some of these vets I saw lounging around the pool or hanging out in the coffee shop as well as the hotel’s budget appeal for families.
The first time I stayed there in May 2007, I had a room that reminded me of the Reno. Although smaller and darker, I kind of felt like I had stepped back in time with its 70’s-style furnishings and dark paneled walls. You would not have thought that you were in Bangkok. Kind of felt more like some motel you might stay at in the American Midwest given the décor.
On and I stayed there again last summer for a few nights and we had one of the recently renovated rooms which definitely raised the bar for the hotel’s reputation as an affordable tourist hotel in Bangkok. The room we stayed in was brighter and the furnishings were more modern and tasteful and even came with Wi-Fi. And it had lots and lots of those little bars of soap.
Looks like the Federal Hotel is going to be around for another 40 years.