Searching for Chiang Mai hotels? How’s a personal butler, serene grounds and an epic pool sound?
While researching our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I came across the fascinating story of the meticulous restoration of the former Borneo Trading Company headquarters, which was transformed into the stunning 137 Pillars House luxury hotel. As luck would have it, this special place was located in the Wat Gate enclave, where we were staying.
Upon our arrival at the property, we stopped in at reception, where we were welcomed by a lovely woman named Charm, who led us along a footpath through the lush and serene compound to the original teak homestead where the eponymous Jack Bain’s Bar, named after its previous inhabitant, is located.
A Trip Back in Time at the Jack Bain’s Bar
The spirit of the past still lingers in the air, and you feel as though you’re stepping back in time as you enter the intimate space. A photo of two of the home’s illustrious past residents, Jack Bain and Louis Leonowens, hang behind the bar.
Louis was the son of Anna Leonowens, the tutor to Prince Chulalongkorn, son of King Mongkut, from the fabled story of Anna and the King of Siam, or more famously known from the fictionalized 1950s Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Louis joined the Borneo Trading Company in 1886 and established its Chiang Mai headquarters in 1889. He was the first resident of the home.
The bar is named after Jack Bain, whose father bought the compound from the company.
“Jack was a colorful character and a bit of a playboy. He loved drinking and loved the company of women, which was quite the opposite of his Scottish father, William” said Santhiti Arunsit, who goes by San, the director of sales for 137 Pillars.
His family compound remains close by.
The bar’s interior was refurbished in December 2016 — it used to have more of a library feel, and there wasn’t an actual bar. A luxe leather-tufted bar was added, giving the interior the aura of a prestigious British gentleman’s club. Black and white images documenting the history of the Borneo Company hang on its richly paneled walls, and jazz music plays through the speakers.
We sat upon an avocado green leather grid-tufted sofa and met with San, our cordial host for the afternoon.
He had recently visited the 32-story sister property in Bangkok, which includes 179 residences and 34 suites on the top nine floors. Located in the capital’s Thonglor business and shopping district, the hotel boasts a rooftop infinity pool with 360-degree views of the city.
“It carries the same DNA as 137 Pillars but is more modern,” with such features as a freestanding circular bathtub that comfortably fits two, San told us, adding that every property will have a Jack Bain’s Bar.
I contemplated getting the theatrical Signature Cocktail, which is served in a flaming coconut, but in the end I’m a sucker for a well-crafted old-fashioned. The Jack Bain’s Bar version does not disappoint and is appropriately named the Aged Teak, which Wally and I both chose.
We were captivated as we observed the bartender masterfully prepare our drinks. After mixing the cocktail, a piece of cassia bark, the tree that cinnamon comes from, was burnt over the boozy beverage and a glass cloche placed atop. This imbues the cocktail with a slightly smoky note and makes for a spectacular presentation. Like a genie leaving its bottle, a wisp of cinnamon-scented smoke escapes the glass when the cloche is lifted.
The History of the 137 Pillars House
When Bangkok-born Panida Wongphanlert arrived in Chiang Mai looking for a relaxing getaway from the capital city’s frenetic pace, I’m betting she had no idea the role a centuries-old colonial teak estate would play.
After enjoying the laidback northern city of Chiang Mai as a casual visitor, Wongphanlert began putting some serious thought into purchasing a weekend home there, where she could stay when she desired an escape from urban life.
Encouraged by her family, she repeatedly revisited the northern city intent on finding the perfect vacation home. On one of these sojourns, she discovered the historic residence referred to by locals as the Baan Dam, Black House — so called as the teakwood had acquired a sinister and charred hue, due to natural weathering and the repeated application of linseed oil by its previous inhabitant to ward off termites. It’s located in the Wat Gate district, where foreigners, many of whom were involved in the teak trade, were required by law to live at that time.
Wongphanlert was told that the property belonged to the Bain family, and when she was granted permission to the visit the compound, the house was vacant, neglected and hidden by dense tropical overgrowth. The walls of the structure sagged, but despite this, the charm and character as well as original features, including detailed fretwork, remained intact.
Once she learned the layered history of the Black House, Wongphanlert fell in love with the property and felt compelled to share its story. With the vision to return the homestead to its former greatness, and the permission of Bain’s eldest daughter, she acquired the compound in 2005, and the Wongphanlert Holding Company was established.
Scale and Potential
“The original plan was to have the home as a vacation home,” San told us. “But they decided, we can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to share this with everyone.”
To get it right, Wongphanlert, herself a trained architect, sought to restore the weathered teak homestead, which took over four years, enlisting the expertise of Chiang Mai University architect and lecturer Julaporn Nathapanich. She also collaborated with Habita Architects on the design of the surrounding British colonial-style structures to create a relaxing 30-suite luxury hotel. The suites are named after three of the original founders of the West Borneo Trading Company.
The distinctive heritage Anglo-Malay-style structure that houses the Jack Bain’s Bar gives the hotel its name: 137 Pillars (alluding to the number of teak posts that once elevated the structure to protect it from flooding). Architectural elements, such as the ornamental fretwork, had to be painstakingly repaired, revived or created anew.
This approach maintained the integrity of the original teak house, which involved moving the house via hydraulic lift — “slowly,” San says — to the middle of the property. Deteriorated parts that were unsalvageable were removed and faithfully reproduced, keeping the historical features intact. The pillars were replaced, and the structure was raised, allowing adequate air circulation beneath the building to avoid rot. Load-bearing steel beams were added to ensure structural integrity. If floodwater comes, it doesn’t compromise the structure above.
During this process, an odd mix of relics was discovered, including an Edison light bulb, crockery fragments, ornate wood carvings, bottles and even a bathtub. A few of these curiosities are now displayed under the home next to the glass-walled gym.
The homestead now accommodates two restaurants. Palette is so named as it features the works of local artists, and the striking Dining Room, in an adjacent building, with indoor and outdoor seating, is where breakfast is served daily. Palette offers Western cuisine and the Dining Room serves Asian food.
137 Pillars also offers a cooking class where guests can learn how to prepare Thai cuisine. Appropriately named the Kitchen, you are not simply shown how to prepare a dish but are taken to a local market, accompanied by the instructor, to shop for ingredients.
The grounds were transformed by landscape design studio P9. The old house provided the starting point and conceptual foundation, making it the foremost element within. The courtyard includes mature native trees that were incorporated into the design, with plaques identifying their genus.
The stunning swimming pool is shielded on one side by a 50-foot-high living wall of vines.
The Suite Life
Guests can experience accommodations reflecting the stately colonial era, with the comfort of modern amenities. Each room has a personal butler and a spacious suite set amid the tranquil tropical grounds.
San showed us two of these opulent suites, which any guest would be remiss not to let their worries float away in the idyllic setting.
Rajah Brooke Suites
There are a total of three Rajah Brooke Suites. The rooms include a personal bar, pre-loaded iPod, four-poster king-size bed and walk-in wardrobe. The tiled veranda has a daybed and a rattan rocking chair. The spacious bathroom with dual washbasins leads to a private garden patio with an outdoor rain shower.
Louis Leonowens Suite (the Pool Suite)
This spacious suite is as luxurious as it gets. Consisting of a large sitting room with a library of curated books and comfortable sofa and chairs, it would be easy to never want to leave. This room even comes with a private plunge pool. Elephant-motif sculptures and black and white framed photos of old Chiang Mai on the walls evoke the city’s history.
If you’re looking for distinctive luxury lodgings with a glimpse into Chiang Mai’s colonial past, 137 Pillars House has it all and then some. –Duke
137 Pillars House
2 Soi 1, Nawatgate Road
Tambon Wat Gate
Muang Chiang Mai, 50000 Thailand