There’s more to Chiang Mai than night markets, discovers Carolynne Dear on a recent visit to 137 Pillars House in the northern Thai city.
137 Pillars House, the perfect location for afternoon tea overlooking the croquet lawn.
The congenial clack of mallet hitting ball drifts up from the immaculately manicured croquet lawn, across the verandah of the old teak house and into the sun-dappled parlour where afternoon tea is being served. All that is missing are a few colonial-type chaps in pith helmets and the genteel picture of yesteryear would be complete.
I've flown down to Chinag Mai in northern Thailand for a weekend break of full-luxe relaxation at 137 Pillars House Hotel in Chiang Mai. Freed momentarily from the tyranny of the kids’ weekend sporting fixtures and the ‘joy’ that is Hong Kong’s Kings Park on a Saturday afternoon, I lazily dollop cream onto a second scone and take a refreshing sip of Earl Grey.
At just two hours from Chek Lap Kok, the northern Thai city is an easy-to-do getaway if you’re short on holiday leave or just want to step away from Hong Kong for the weekend.
The luxe begins as soon as I step off my AirAsia flight. I'm met at the gate, my baggage competently whisked away and I'm ushered into the airport transfer car, cooling lemon-grass scented towels and water proffered as soon as I sink back into the comfortable leather seats.
The hotel is a mere fifteen-minute drive from the airport and is located on the eastern - and what used to be the ‘foreigner’ - side of the Ping River. It earned its moniker from the 137 teak posts that were used to elevate the building to protect it from flooding. In Chiang Mai, the importance of a property owner was often measured by the size of their home - the more pillars it had, the more important the owner.
I'm shown into an elegant suite, complete with a rocking chair on the breezy verandah, al fresco shower, a stunning claw-foot bath and - joy of joys - a golden cocktail trolley.
The David Fleming Macfie Suite at 137 Pillars.
But 100-odd-years ago, there was no golden drinks trolley and no decadent fixtures and fittings. The teakwood house that forms the focal point of the hotel property was known as Borneo House and it was not a luxury boutique hotel, but the headquarters of the East Borneo Company, one of the first foreign teak trading companies to set up business in Chiang Mai towards the end of the 19th century.
At this time, an agreement had been signed allowing foreigners to cut trees for commercial purposes. The highly durable teak wood that grew in the surrounding forests was in high demand around the world for shipbuilding purposes. From the late 1800s to the second world war, foreign companies, predominantly British, held logging rights across the region.
The Chiang Mai office of the East Borneo Company was opened by one Louis Leonowens.
Described by general manager Anne Arrrowsmith as a "bit of a character" (read gambler and a bit of a bounder), Leonownens was born in a remote West Australian convict settlement in 1856. He spent his childhood in the court of Siam while his mother, Anna, was employed as governess to the future, modernising ruler, King Chulalongkorn, Rama V. It was her that story inspired the book Anna and the King of Siam and the subsequent 1956 musical The King and I, both of which are banned in Thailand. More recently her story was adapted for the big screen as Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster. Louis went on to join the Siam Royal Cavalry and in 1889 was appointed Chiang Mai superintendent of British timber firm, the Borneo Company.
When Leonowens first arrived in Chiang Mai in the 1880s, just 50 foreigners were living in the region. The men would spend months at a time, deep in the forests, felling enormous teak trees and floating them down the Ping River, which flowed into the Chao Praya River and on to the sawmills and shipyards of Bangkok.
The inviting hotel pool and 'green wall'.
Borneo House continued as company headquarters into the twentieth century, but during World War II, it was taken over by the Japanese and after the war it was sold to a Scotsman, William Bain, the last managing director of the East Borneo Company. His eldest daughter eventually sold the house in 2005 to the Wongphanlert family. It was originally intended to be used as a private family holiday home away from the bustle of Bangkok, but the family eventually decided to open it as a hotel.
The house, which pre-renovation was known as Baan Dam, or Black House, due to the darkened hue of its weathered teak wood walls, was located in the Wat Gate (or ‘foreigner’) district of the city. By the early 2000s, was derelict and overgrown, but Panida Wongphanlert, who had initiated the family’s holiday home project, could see its potential.
Members of the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club in the 1930s.
She enlisted the help of Chiang Mai University’s architecture department to help with the renovation and the house was ‘lifted’ from its original location and carefully moved to the middle of the current property. The crumbling pillars were replaced, original fretwork was painstakingly repaired or recreated and one ceiling completely replaced to allow for air conditioning units. Old relics uncovered during the renovation are today displayed in a small museum beneath the house.
The building is now home to two restaurants and Jack Bain’s Bar, named after the son of William Bain. Jack was another colourful character, according to Arrowsmith and his daughter, who still lives locally, shared many stories about her father with the hotel team.
The mixologist has done a fine job of evoking the past with a cocktail list that includes The Teak and The Legend of Pillar, both of which combine Asian flavours - think cinnamon, nut mage and ground sugar cane - along with plenty of malt whiskey as a nod to Bain’s Scottish heritage.
Surrounded as it is by all of this rich history, the hotel has now launched a Tales and Trails of the Teak Wallahs tour in collaboration with local historian, Frans Betgem. The tour lasts a full day and takes in both Chiang Mai and the nearby old teak town of Lampang. It is a completely fascinating insight into the logging heydays of the region.
Betgem is a Dutch national who has been living in Chiang Mai since the 1990s and has become something of a local expert on the teak wallahs of the 19th and 20th centuries.
I meet up with him on my first morning and we begin the tour with a peek inside one of the most eclectic museums I have ever visited. It was opened by Jack Bain inside nearby Wat Ket in 1999 and is crammed with a diverse and slightly quirky array of items, from old Thai ceramics and silverware, to historical clothing and a wide collection of old black-and-white photographs of the teak era.
We then move to the local Gymkhana Club, of which Leonowens was a founding member. Back in the day, it was joked that where there was a handful of Englishmen, there was a club and having emerged from months of hard labour deep in the teak forests, the 'teak wallahs' would emege to float their logs from Chinag Mai and inevitably head to the club for a spot of tennis and polo and no doubt a few gin slings. It's very British club in an area of the world that in fact refused to succumb to the British Empire and steadfastly remained part of what was then Siam.
Today, it's the oldest sporting club in Thailand. We receive a warm welcome from current club committee members Paul Drew and Non Nontalee Ya-Anan.
What once was a polo field is now a shady golf course, huge, hundred-year-old rain trees spreading their boughs luxuriously over the links. The club also hosts the biggest annual international amateur cricket sixes in the world, which visitors can watch for free.
Drew's first brush with the club was when he came to watch the cricket sixes in 2003 and it became the driving force behind a move to Chiang Mai ten years later. "It’s a special place," he says, noting that these days it has a truly international membership and nurtures strong links with the local community, such as providing free sports coaching to local children. Tourists to the area are welcome to drop in.
Betgem and I then hit the road out of Chiang Mai and on to the pretty river town of Lampang, a journey of around an hour. Here we stop for a Lanna-style lunch by the river, trying to imagine the gentle waters crowded with giant teak logs jostling their way to Bangkok, before trotting our way across town in a traditional pony-and-gig to the Louis House. This impressive teak building was once the former office of the Louis Leonowens Company, the teak trading company that Leonowens set up after leaving the East Borneo Company.
We also take a look at a breathtaking Burmese temple, glittering brightly against the storm clouds that are beginning to gather over Lampang at the end of a steamingly hot day.
Back in Chiang Mai, we shower and head out for dinner at nearby David’s Kitchen to mull over the day’s discoveries.
And as I wander across the Ping River the following day, I feel I know Chiang Mai just a little bit better than if I had spent the day languishing by the pool or sprawled in the spa. Although fortunately, I still have a day to go.
The hotel at a glance
Thirty suites are set amongst tropical gardens - many of the trees date back to the old Borneo Company trading days. The suites comprise Louis Leonowens Pool Suites, William Bain Suites with private terrace, East Borneo Suites with private terrace and Rajah Brooke Suites which can be interconnected to offer family-size accommodation. Children are welcome at the hotel. Facilities include an outdoor pool, Nitra Spa & Wellness, gym, croquet lawn, Jack Baines Bar, Palette Restaurant (western cuisine) and the Dining Room (Lanna and Thai cuisine). 137pillarshotels.com
Frans Betgem runs tour companies Green Trails and Chiang Mai a la carte, green-trials.com Asia Family Traveller was a guest of 137 Pillars House Hotel.