Sep 16, 2020
Images courtesy of 137 Pillars.
Chiang Mai’s considerable charms reach peak seduction levels at leafy, charisma-drenched 137 Pillars House, 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” 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, enjoying refined Lanna cuisine then moseying over to the suave, wood-paneled Jack Bain’s Bar. In muggy, mountain-backed Chiang Mai, the hotel’s slimline 25-meter lap pool, dominated by a stunning vertical plant wall, is a salve that also offer a modern take on sense of place.
My first stay at the evocative time capsule that is 137 Pillar House—a family affair in the company of my partner and our three-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 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, our gracious personal butler, opens the door to our fabulous 80-square-meter 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 private waters, 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 have a preschooler to entertain. 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 our resort for dips in its gorgeous pool or signature treatments in the Nitra Spa & Wellness space. When an abode is as enticing as 137 Pillars House it’s all too easy to make it home.
—By Duncan Forgan