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The Asian resorts embracing ethical hotel design

Hotels are transforming trash into treasure to create luxury properties with an ethical design edge. Carolynne Dear speaks to the architects behind the innovative redesigns.

Ethical hotel design at Melia Koh Samui

Old rice boats line the pool at a luxury resort in Koh Samui.

Upcycling, recycling, repurposing. However you like to describe the act of saving and reusing rather than tossing aside, it’s an action that has become part and parcel of modern life as concern for the environment increasingly takes centre stage.

It’s heartening to learn that the trend has now crept into hotel design, with a number of hotel groups at the luxury end of the hospitality spectrum recently unveiling properties that began life as something completely different.

This autumn saw the launch of a hotel in central Thailand offering guest suites constructed from abandoned railway carriages. InterContinental Khao Yai Resort has been designed by award winning Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley, who has channelled the local area’s history as a gateway for rail transportation as his inspiration.

Ethical hotel design at InterContinental Khao Yai

Abandoned Thai railway carriages have been transformed into guest accommodation.

Alongside 45 traditionally constructed guest rooms, 19 heritage train carriages have been transported on-site and repurposed into hotel suites in a second phase of the build.

“I’ve always been a fan of upcycling and recycling, so repurposing train carriages was a dream come true,” said Bensley, who was blown away by the stunning mountainous location of Khao Yai in central Thailand on a client visit. He admits that one of his favourite aspects of the project was that “we’re breathing new life into garbage to create magic.”

The train carriages were unearthed from all over Thailand. Some were found abandoned in a field for more than half a century, ficus trees taking root on the roofs and enveloping the carriages. Others were more challenging to procure.

“I’d been aware for years of the old train yards in north Bangkok, but it wasn’t until recently that, passing by one time on my way to the old airport, it struck me that these carriages could be subject to a marvellous second life.”

Although the trains are sold at public auction, they are tightly held by Thai train enthusiasts and for the few carriages Bensley’s team managed to get hold of, they ended up paying more than anticipated. “It was like pulling teeth,” he said.

a bathroom embraces ethical hotel design

Gorgeous bathrooms with lake views at InterContinental Khao Yai.

But one of the project’s biggest challenges was transforming the narrow carriages into fully fitted out luxury suites.

“The Presidential carriage is the strangest proportioned suite anywhere in the world,” he admits. “It’s two 33m carriages placed back-to-back, so it’s 66m long and 2.5m wide. The ends are the bedrooms but everything else is a walkthrough space, along with the decks, of course.”

Bensley properties are renowned for their eclectic interior design, often incorporating antiques and flea-market finds, and Khao Yai is no different. He combed antique markets in the UK and Bangkok, uncovering what was to become his favourite discovery - a giant map of all the rail stations in Thailand - in a building by Chatuchak market. “It’s huge and dates from the 1920s and now hangs in the corridor of Pak Chong guesthouse,” he said.

Bensley says he hopes upcycling in hospitality design is a trend that will continue. “It’s the first time such a big hotel operator has backed upcycling on such a large scale. I hope that more (projects) follow suit, treading the lesser used path of major upcycling and recycling, as it brings huge appeal to any project and so much character. I would love to see an upcycled plane hotel, a grounded ship, or - and this is something I have been pitching for years - a 100% recycled hotel.”

Ethical hotel design in Japan

Hundred year old Japanese kominka housing in place at Pavilions Niseko.

In Japan, an international hotel group has embraced a movement to preserve the country’s traditional ‘kominka’ homes. The movement began twenty years ago and aims to transform the historical houses into viable guest houses, hotels and workspaces.

Kominka were originally built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as living and working spaces for rural families. Made from natural products, such as clay, wood and straw, and using traditional architectural techniques, these elegant standalone homes can still be found throughout the Japanese countryside. All were sturdily designed according to the region in which they were located to withstand Japan’s varied weather patterns, from extreme cold and heavy snowfalls to typhoons and heat. They were commonly inhabited by farmers, artisans and merchants and needed to be versatile enough to accommodate both the family business and the family itself.

The Pavilions hotel group is now in the process of painstakingly relocating two, centuries-old kominka to Hokkaido to become part of a villa resort.

The Pavilions Niseko is nestled in the Ginto forest and close to the ski slopes of Hirafu. It has been built in the ‘sukiya’ style, meaning its architecture works in harmony with the outdoor environment.

Blessing ethical hotel design in Niseko

A kominka home is blessed with an energy-calming ritual in Niseko.

The resort has now completed the relocation of its first kominka, which in a former life was a family home in Takayama in Gifu prefecture on Japan’s main island. Gifu was renowned for its master craftsmen and carpenters and the kominka was built using the same construction techniques as Japan’s 1,300 year old Heijo Palace and former imperial residence.

Prior to its relocation to Hokkaido, the kominka had to be dismantled by a traditional master builder. The 40 tonnes of timber were meticulously tagged and then transported more than 800 miles to the resort site on the island of Hokkaido.

Before the two-storey kominka could be carefully pieced back together again, a traditional ‘ji chin sai’ (ground-breaking) ritual was performed by a Buddhist monk to calm the energy of the land and bless the new building. Offerings including sake, rice and salt were presented and mochi rice cakes were scattered to bring abundance and good business. The reconstructed building will serve as the resort’s clubhouse.

The second kominka, which dates back to the 1850s and is in the process of being relocated, will house the resort’s spa.

Further south in Thailand, 100-year-old traditional rice barges have been reimagined as poolside villas on the island of Koh Samui.

A century ago, merchant vessels laden with rice rode Bangkok's Chao Phraya River, a busy waterway which was often referred to as the 'Venice of the East'.

The Chao Phraya River starts in northern Thailand at the confluence of the Ping and Nan rivers, the Ping river coming from a Myanmar-bordering mountain range and the Nan originating from a mountain range that straddles northwestern Laos and northern Thailand. The river flows through Bangkok and eventually empties into the Gulf of Thailand. Hundreds of rice barges once carried this important commodity from the central plains of Thailand to the capital.

Thirty of these barges have now found dry dock on Koh Samui at the recently opened Meliá Koh Samui Resort. The boats have been repurposed as two bedroom duplex suites with modern luxuries including polished wooden floors, soaking tubs and double showers. These days, their water views are of Choeng Mon Beach rather than Bangkok's bustling thoroughfare.

Ethical hotel design at Melia Koh Samui

Inside a transformed rice boat.

Converting the working vessels into sleek holiday accommodation was no simple task. The decayed teak wood structures required extensive refurbishment and the resort had to recruit experienced craftsmen to painstakingly repair and restore the boats.

Old, decayed wood was cut out and replaced, piece by piece. The strakes of wood that run the length of each boat in the keel were carefully repaired, as well as the intricate ribs that support the hull and give the boats their shape. The craftsmen used a traditional concoction of rubber oil and red lime with cotton rope to seal joints, gaps and holes.

"These boats were built to last due to the great strength and durability of the teak wood as well as the craftsmanship initially invested in them," said Meliá Koh Samui general manager Ernesto Osuna. "We turned to the tried and tested methods of the shipwrights to provide the sturdy foundation of our boat suites, that really are one of a kind."

The hard work has paid off and the barges now form a stunning backdrop to the sparkling resort pool.

As well as preserving local culture and the environment, such projects offer a more experiential and exciting travel experience. Why stay in a soulless box when you could be soaking up the glorious past of your holiday destination?

This feature was first published in the Winter 2022/23 issue of Asia Family Traveller magazine.


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