Of the many Western-style hotels that mushroomed across Bangkok in the 1960s, principally to accommodate large numbers of U.S. servicemen on leave from the Vietnam War (which was raging about 1,000 km to the east), the Federal Hotel was considered the granddaddy of them all.
Perhaps this is because its construction — in a 1960s style recalling the 1920s moderne style — predated U.S. involvement in the Indochina conflict by a couple of years, and in large part because of its legendary excellent service. In any case, it gained extraordinary guest-loyalty over the decades.
Since 2000, many of the hotels of the ’60s have been demolished to make way for condos and shopping malls, including a beautiful icon of the 1960s, the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, which was knocked down in 2002 to make way for the Siam Paragon, a massive and unsightly high-end mall.
Now, with the closure of the Federal Hotel on Jan. 1, an army of old-timers feel that an era had truly come to an end.
There’s only a handful of such Vietnam War-era hotels left — the Atlanta, the Miami and the Rex among them — but there’s a strong sense that their days are now numbered too.
In addition to U.S. servicemen serving in Vietnam (many of whom have frequently returned to their nostalgic old haunt, “The Fed”), this recently closed hotel was popular with Western expats of a certain age from across the region, many of whom came to see the Federal Hotel one last time in its final week of existence.
Although nobody could ever accuse the Fed of being hip or trendy — it never updated its “look” — it had many loyal fans. The hotel’s yesteryear charm, passé decor of browns and ochres, and gracious focus on guest needs and comfort, lay at the heart of its popularity.
Its warmth paid dividends — low staff-turnover as well as repeat visitors.
Among its final visitors was Dundee Wyman, an international property investor who hails from Scotland and was determined to say goodbye properly to his home away from home.
“I have been going to the Fed regularly since 1990 but had been away from Thailand for about a decade between 2004 and 2013, and wanted to visit at Christmas before it closed at 7 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2014,” Wyman said. “When I visited reception, the young lady working there said, ‘Room neung see hok (146).’ I would have been astounded had it been anywhere else, but know that many of the staff there have been fixtures ever since I started going in the 1990s. She remembered that I had stayed in the same room for six months from November 2003 to May 2004, and even remembered the room number!”
Another frequent visitor to the Thai capital, Canadian academic David Prokop, also made one last trip to the hotel 48 hours before it closed its doors for the final time. “One of the best things about the place was the Fed coffee shop,” Prokop said. “I could always get good food from its voluminous menu, a real blessing for a vegetarian. I also liked the frangipani aroma that lingered around the place. I suppose the appeal of the Fed for me was the 1960s design. It reminded me of the style around me when I was growing up.”
Bob Wesner, an American university lecturer who lives in Tokyo, was among many saddened from afar by the news.
“I loved the Fed,” Wesner said. “I must have stayed there at least 30 times over the years. I’ll really miss the place. The staff were lovely, and the room service outstanding. So many good memories. Loafing around the pool, shooting the breeze and drinking beers with my buddies was pretty close to paradise.”
A musician and photographer, Herman Bartelen, was one of those buddies, and another who made that all-important last trip to the Fed at the end of December 2013. “The restaurant was excellent, in its own retro way, and I liked it all the more when it had a jukebox. Only rarely did anyone bother to put in coins, so you could hear your favorite tune as many times as you liked,” he said.
Enjoying a last meal at that coffee shop was also an elderly Australian gent, based in Hong Kong for decades, who said he had been a regular visitor since 1975.
“For its grace and value-for-money rates, this hotel has long been just about the best place to hang my panama hat in BKK,” he said, using the increasingly ubiquitous acronym for the Thai capital.
I was rather hoping to happen on American ex-serviceman, among the congregation of old-timers paying their last respects. Indeed, I did get lucky (although he chose to remain anonymous because he now freelances for the secret service of a Southeast Asian country).
This part-time spook served in the marines during the war. “Around Christmas 1965, on our first R&R break in Bangkok, we had a great time here. Some of the guys would jump from the top of the hotel into the pool,” he said. “We were young, and felt immortal then — even though a few if us had seen buddies die in combat. Now the old GI-hangouts like this place are dying out. Nothing lasts forever.”
All those memories are now sure to fade with time. Meanwhile, a new Bangkok is rising: a “Pacific Century” city.
While some of these affectionately remembered old hotels are being knocked down, many of these former “GI-hangouts” are simply being modernized and transformed for increasingly greater numbers of visitors from other ASEAN countries and from China. These visitors have different expectations — scope for nostalgia-tripping not being one of them.