Teak tours at heritage 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai

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 chaps in pith helmets and the genteel picture of yesteryear would be complete.

I’m at 137 Pillars House Hotel in Chiang Mai for a weekend break of full-luxe relaxation. 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 we step off our AirAsia flight. We are met at the gate, our baggage competently whisked away and we ushered into our airport transfer vehicle, cooling lemon-grass scented towels and water proffered as soon as we 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.

We are shown into an elegant suite, complete with rocking chair-bedecked verandah, al fresco shower, a stunning claw-foot bath and - joy of joys - a golden cocktail trolley. The sumptuous bed and beautiful furnishings make this one of the most luxurious hotels I’ve had the pleasure of staying in.

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. And so an adventurous young chap named Louis Leonowens joined the East Borneo Company and opened its Chiang Mai office. (It was interesting to learn that Leonowens’ mother, Anna, was governess to the Thai royal family and it was her that story inspired the 1956 musical The King and I, which was more recently remade as Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster).

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 shipyards of Bangkok.

The inviting hotel pool and 'green wall'.

During World War II, Borneo House was occupied by the Japanese and after the war it was sold to a Scotsman, William Bain, who was 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 Wongphanlert family eventually decided to open it as 137 Pillars House 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 a colourful character,” general manager Anne Arrowsmith explains as we sit sipping cocktails in his bar on our first evening. “His daughter still lives locally and generously shared stories of her father with us.”

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.

And 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 life in colonial times.

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. He is inspiringly enthusiastic about his subject matter and a never-ending seam of historical facts and figures.

On our first morning, after a filling al fresco hotel breakfast of cereals, eggs and homemade French pastries, 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 on for refreshments at the local Gymkhana Club. Back in the day, it was joked that where there was a handful of Englishmen, there was a club.

This particular gathering was started by a group of teak workers including Louis Leonowens and consul-general William Alfred Rae Wood and is today the oldest sporting club in Thailand. We receive a warm welcome from current club committee members Paul Drew and Non Nontalee Ya-Anan.

“I first came to the club to watch the Cricket Sixes in 2003,” explains Drew over a cool drink. “And it was the reason I chose to move to Chiang Mai three years ago. It’s a very special place and these days has a truly international membership. We provide free sports coaching to local children and if you’re a visitor to the area, you’re very welcome to drop in.”

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 international amateur cricket sixes in the world, which visitors can watch for free. Next year’s event starts on March 31 and lasts for a week.

Having bid our farewells, our next stop is the former British consul-general’s private home. The riverside property now stands opposite The Consul Garden’s Restaurant at the edge of a magnificent green lawn. The house itself is an interesting insight into the graceful, colonial life led back in the day of the teak wallahs.

We 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, another 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 on a boutique shopping expedition 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, we 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).

Asia Family Traveller was a guest of 137 Pillars House Hotel.