Sep 16, 2020
Images courtesy of 137 Pillars.
Portals to the past can be difficult to come by in Thailand. Even so, the Kingdom still has its fair share of historic bolt holes that combine effortless luxury with romantic callbacks.
One of these evocative time capsules is 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai, a 30-suite gem tucked away in a sleepy residential area near the Ping River in a property that was once owned by Louis Leonowens, son of Anna (of Anna and the King movie fame).
Laid out in lush tropical gardens dotted with lily ponds, the colonially inspired suites take cues from the resort’s centerpiece building: a lovingly restored teak homestead that dates back to the late 1800s when it was the northern HQ of the (British) East Borneo Trading Company.
Inside guests can teleport back in time in Palette, your go-to destination for refined Lanna cuisine, and the suave, wood-paneled Jack Bain’s Bar. A more contemporary form of indulgence can be enjoyed at the property’s slimline 25-meter lap pool which is dominated by a stunning vertical plant wall.
Chiang Mai’s considerable charms reach peak seduction levels at leafy, charisma-drenched 137 Pillars House. My first stay at the property — a family affair in the company of my partner and our 3-year-old son — is a worthy sequel to a recent motorbike odyssey in northern Thailand that reaffirmed my love for both the area and its laid-back major metropolis. You’d need to have a serious aversion to beautiful things and impeccable service to pick any faults in the hotel.
First impressions count for a lot at any high-end property and the ones offered here are impactful. After the smoothest of airport transfers and check-ins, we are guided to our David Fleming Macfie suite by Orn, our gracious personal butler. As we saunter through gardens shaded by old-growth Lady Palm and Mimosa trees and past the croquet lawn that fronts the central teakwood building, I feel the stresses of the modern world melting away in this citadel of colonial-era splendor.
This sense of levity is only enhanced as Orn opens the door to our fabulous 80sqm suite. A new category added to the property’s suite inventory during a major refurbishment in 2019, the three David Fleming Macfie suites — named after a former occupant of the original teak homestead and a manager of the Borneo Company — feature rooms with adjoining tropical vintage-tile conservatories: perfect for families looking for a little extra space.
Upon settling in, my son takes great pleasure in larking around upon the giant daybed in the conservatory while I kick back on a rattan planter’s rocking chair and my partner luxuriates in the suite’s freestanding clawfoot bathtub.
Other suite categories include the seductive entry-level Rajah Brooke Suites, the upper-floor William Bain Terrace Suites, and the East Borneo Suites, which both come with sumptuous verandas. Or, for your plunge pool, splurge on one of the two ground-floor Louis Leonowens Pool Suites.
Other highlights of the recent refurbishment include new gym equipment with digital connectivity and the renovation by artisans of the perimeter walls using an ancient technique similar to that used in Thai temples where the color is incorporated into the plaster.
“The project (the refurbishment) was rather like polishing the diamond – with a design inspired by the rich heritage and history of the property and a lush tropical landscape, with a striking palette chosen to soothe the senses, while paying attention to precision and simplicity and a sense of place,” says general manager Anne Arrowsmith.
It’s difficult to tear ourselves away from the comforts of our suite, but we tear ourselves away we do. A highlight of the trip is an excursion to ChangChill, an ethical elephant sanctuary in the green mountains outside the city. Here, we watch the six resident pachyderms munch on bamboo trees and splash in a cool stream and help to make vitamin balls out of tamarind, rice, herbs, and plants for their mid-morning snack.
Back in Chiang Mai itself, we temple-hop, graze on northern delicacies at the city’s famous night market, and watch rowboats go by on the Ping River. Despite these diversions we often find ourselves migrating back to 137 Pillars for dips in its gorgeous slimline pool or signature treatments in the Nitra Spa and Wellness Spa. When an abode is as enticing as 137 Pillars House it’s all too easy to get attached to your home from home.
—By Duncan Forgan