Chiang Mai, nicknamed the Rose of the North, is a city in Northern Thailand which allegedly boasts more temples (wats) than Bangkok, despite being a fraction of the size. Arriving by plane, the misty mountains that surround the city are spectacular, possibly even affording a view of the impressive Doi Suthep temple, perched upon a mountain overlooking the city. Once here however, the opulent golden rooftops of historic temples combine with ramshackle eateries and independent coffee shops aplenty, serving the digital nomads that have in great number made Chiang Mai their home. There are also hints of a colonial past, some of which can be found at 137 Pillars House, where a restored teak house on – you guessed it – 137 pillars forms a striking centrepiece to a delicately designed suites-only hotel.
137 Pillars House is named for the structural supports that, as is tradition in Thai house design, hold the enclosed area of the home above an open space which provides flood protection, as well as an extended outdoor loggia, a place to keep animals or – in this case – a place to keep a carefully curated museum of artefacts associated with the property and its former residents. The teak house itself, restored with a focus on historic preservation by the architect Prof. Julaporn Natapanich and design company P49 Design, holds the public areas of the hotel: a restaurant and bar, as well as a number of little spaces and seating areas where guests can embrace the traditional. The surrounding area is given to newer two-storey houses, still tastefully in keeping with period property, where the hotels 30 suites are located.
Our suite, the enormous William Bain terrace suite, featured a large terrace overlooking the teak house, an ample lounge and bedroom with grand four poster bed and bamboo mat headboard. Décor was contemporary with colours that one often finds in Asia: hues of various woods, pale neutral tones and a deep safflower red. The bathroom is separate from the sink and dressing table area (but also large enough to fit a whole sofa, in case you need someone to converse with you as you bathe) and there are showers inside and outside. A word about the bed: if you’re someone who likes your bed just right like Goldilocks, this is the one. The best night’s sleep in Thailand was had here, with the Sealy Posturepedic Premier Ultra Plus super king mattress, 400 thread count bed linen and our choice of pillows (when you say you want firm, that’s what you actually get!).
We arrived from Bangkok feeling the slight discomfort of a short flight and the discombobulation of coming from the metropolis to the mist-wreathed mountains. The hotel had generously sent a car for us at the airport so they were ready when we arrived, a drink of bael fruit juice and the smiles of General Manager Anne Arrowsmith and our personal butler Ray providing a warm welcome. Both accompanied us on a tour of the property, pointing out unique features like the living wall that towers over the cool glade of the pool area. Rainy season in Thailand won’t stop us swimming; after a long day of sightseeing in the Old City, this is the perfect pool to dip into when the oppressive humidity finally unleashes a torrential downpour to refresh the air.
We were also shown the Nitra Serenity Centre, where we both had a massage to relieve those tense muscles, tired from lots of sightseeing and aching from confinement on the plane. Our therapists, Fon and Menu, were delightful and soft spoken, creating a very relaxed atmosphere from the outset. We both opted for scrub treatments, coffee detox scrub for me and a green tea scrub to restore moisture for Charlotte. The smell of both treatments was delicious and the oil that was applied after the scrub made us both feel wonderfully silky, but the timing of the treatment did leave one of us feeling a little short-changed when one had to wait for the other to shower the scrub off midway through and then the treatments still finished at the same time. However, we were certainly relaxed and refreshed after the treatment and went to our suite to prepare for dinner in a pleasant haze of exotic aromas.
Dinner was served in the teak house, in a little private corner room where flowers and candles had been set up to create a charming, intimate dining area. We were served by James, who first won our hearts with a bottle of Delamotte champagne, then piqued our curiosity by telling us about the hill tribe he was from and how he often retreats from bustling Chiang Mai to the mountains to recharge. The set menu, selected for us by the chef, contained some classics of Thai cuisine, such as tom kha coconut soup, red curry with pork and crispy snapper with tamarind. Satay chicken and spring rolls also featured – and we even managed to persuade the chef to rustle up some soft shell crab (read the other Thailand reviews to find out how obsessed we are with this!). A Babich Pinot Noir from Marlborough was a fitting accompaniment, but we struggled a little with the dessert of mango sticky rice – tasty and traditional but too sweet for our palates and, after already eating quite a substantial amount, very filling!
Dinner for guests and visitors is usually held in the restaurant Palette, where Thai regional and traditional specialities feature. The restaurant also serves a buffet breakfast with some food available to order and even provides light bites for guests lounging by the pool. Also in the teak house, one can find the Jack Bains bar, named for a former resident of the teak house, which serves delicious cocktails and a range of imported wines and spirits. Afternoon tea is also available, with 137 Pillars House signature tea and coffee blends and a range of edible treats; you can even order champagne which is opened by sabring in with a ceremonial sword.
Ray, our butler, was a great help in directing us to restaurants and activities in the city, but we were also able to arrange a real experience of a lifetime at the Elephant Nature Park, which is supported with a donation from 137 Pillars House for every guest, including those in their other properties in Bangkok and Phuket. Elephant Nature Park, run by conservation celebrity Lek Chailert, rescues elephants most in need of a new life from neglect, injury and unethical practices such as being used in illegal logging operations or for tourists to ride on (yes, we all might have been led to believe elephant rides were being offered by sanctuaries with the elephants’ best interests at heart – it’s better than a life logging, isn’t’ it? – but think about it for a second and ask yourself whether this isn’t just a different kind of labour). At Elephant Nature Park, you can see the elephants choosing how to spend their time, whether that’s splashing about in the river, hanging out with their elephant BFFs in a mud bath or just gobbling down a few bundles of steamed rice with banana. There are also water buffalo, cats, dogs and a host of others roaming free in the park and our guide, Tommy, was funny and knowledgeable in explaining the lives of the animals. Proceeds from guests, naturally, go to the upkeep of the park and looking after the animals, but you do get an excellent buffet lunch!
137 Pillars House is a unique combination of high end luxury and fidelity to the people of the mountainous region and the unique culture of Chiang Mai. The support of Elephant Nature Park is a real draw – you can enjoy your suite, knowing that you are giving something back – and having your own butler is hardly a downside. Within walking distance of Chiang Mai’s Old City and yet still on the leafy outskirts, 137 Pillars House is a romantic getaway from which you can enjoy, discover and indulge in some of the most special and unique aspects of Thailand and, if you like a twin centre holiday, pairing this property with the ultra modern 137 Pillars Suites and Residences in Bangkok is a perfect combination.
137 Pillars House Chiang Mai
2 ถนน NHA Wat Kaet 1 Alley,
Tambon Chang Moi,
Mueang Chiang Mai District,
Chiang Mai 50000,