How many 26 years olds do you know that have actually built their own hotel? We’re not talking about operations of service once the building is occupied; we’re talking about laying the foundations, designing the building and working with constructors to ensure the hotel stands to last. 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok was a labour of love taken on by Nida (Natty) Wongphanlert, an engineering graduate from Clare College Cambridge who had no idea that one day she’d be a hotelier. She may not have started the project, but after a change of heart in what 137 Pillars Suites & Residences would be, she was the one who finished it.
Perhaps the strange and unique mix of engineer and hotelier is in her very DNA. From the outside looking in, one may have predicted her journey thus far. Her father, Niphan Wongphanlert was an engineer until the age of 45 and too had a change of heart in vocation after his mother stumbled upon a piece of forgotten land in Chiang Mai. This was no ordinary property; it was home to what was once a teak house belonging to the son of Anna Leonowens, the famous tutor of Rama IV’s children, made famous in the novel-turned-film The King and I.
The property was dormant with a rich and complex history just waiting to unravel, yet no one realised it until the Wongphanlerts came along. Plans to turn it into a holiday home soon evaporated as Niphan and his family decided to build what is today considered to be one of Asia’s top luxury boutique hotels, 137 Pillars Chiang Mai. The burgeoning, family-made brand shines a unique light on real and home-grown Thai hospitality, something that is appreciated by many luxury travellers today. We sat down for an hour with Nida to find out more about the woman who built her ground running.
My dad’s family has been running the Textile business for over 50 years and it is still the core business today, but when my grandmother stumbled across a really special piece of land in Chiang Mai, the family decided to expand their business ventures into the hospitality industry. Initially, my family wanted to build a holiday home but not long after entering the property, we realized we were looking at something far greater than just a holiday home. When we first bought it, we only saw it from the outside: we saw it had a lovely garden and some nice trees. But once we explored more, we found that there was a very old house on the land made of teak.
One of my aunts (Panida Wongphanlert) had studied Architecture at Harvard and insisted she had seen the house somewhere before. After some research she soon found that the house had belonged to Louis Leonowens, the son of Anna Loenowens (governess and teacher to the children of King Mongkut, Rama IV). The house had such a special history to it. It also housed the Borneo Trading Company, one of the first British companies in Thailand that traded teak over 150 years ago.
So once we discovered this history, we didn’t want to build a holiday home anymore. My family did some research into the hospitality industry and decided to go with a luxury hotel as during that time there weren’t too many in Chiang Mai.
I remember very vividly my dad’s research into luxury hotels as he took my family along with him. I was around 12 and I went with him to Bali where we looked at many hotels; then we went onto Phuket where we looked at about 10 more. By the end of it I was so sick of hotels and pledged I never wanted to enter one again! I was very young then and didn’t really understand what was going on. My feelings definitely changed. Look at me now! Thinking about it, that research really was very useful because it allowed me to look at different designs and the different levels of service. Now I really know what luxury is as I’ve seen it many times with my own eyes. It helped me build this hotel we’re sitting in today. And we still hotel hop wherever we go abroad, even to this day.
I call myself a hotelier nowadays but I actually have a degree in Engineering. People often wonder how I went from one to the other as they are both very different industries. Well, Engineering was something I studied at university and the reason I did was because during high school, I was very strong in Maths and Physics; I always liked inventing products and building things. I remember having a talk with an architect once who said something which really struck me: “Wouldn’t be nice if you could walk past a building and say you built it?”
This got me thinking that maybe I should consider architecture. But because my Maths was far better than my artistic side, I decided to go with engineering during my university years. But then things changed, as they do.
When I graduated, my dad, who was also an engineer, had just started a hotel business and he had been working at it for about 4 years in Chiang Mai. The property had done so well that he decided to start one in Bangkok. By the time I graduated the property was already about 7 floors up and at that point it was going to be only serviced apartments.
When I returned to Thailand, the Chiang Mai property was No.1 in Travel + Leisure USA for hotels, so my family felt like they were doing something right as the brand seemed to be working. It was decided that 137 Pillars Bangkok wouldn’t just be serviced apartments as originally planned, but that it would be a hotel too, with suites for luxury travellers.
That was when I took on an active role. With my engineering background, I was really involved in the design of the hotel, especially after the family decided to change the concept from its original plan of only serviced apartments. It sounds like a small thing but when the plan was changed, it was like coming up with the whole concept again. I had to re-design everything, from the rooms and first seven floors to the pools, restaurants, bars and rooftop. Not only did I build the hotel but I experienced the change process throughout the five-year project.
When I graduated, I wasn’t sure if I should be involved with 137 Pillars. But then one close friend brought up something which stuck. She said: “You know it’s such a rare opportunity for someone to build their own luxury hotel right in the middle of Phrom Phong. I realised it was an opportunity that was really so valuable.
I was able to use my engineering skills when looking at the design aspect. And once I started, I got more and more into it. I eventually realised that doing this actually suited me. It was all a natural progression from what I had been thinking and doing previously. Building the hotel and its brand became a part of my life and lifestyle.
Chris, COO of 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts had at that point said the vision of the brand was to be the No.1 luxury boutique hotel in Asia. When I heard that, I had my doubts during construction and I questioned whether it could really be number one. Someone then said to me: “If you don’t believe in the product, don’t do it”. So I decided to believe. And once I believed in it, the passion came.
My dad doesn’t normally comment on my life choices or tell me what to do. There were only two times in my life he made his opinion known. The first was when he thought I should be an engineer and the second when he said he thought I should take up the Bangkok hotel opportunity. He only ever said it once though, about 3 months after I graduated. He would never push me to do anything I didn’t want to do. If I ever did before, I don’t look at it as my duty anymore. I look at it as my passion and every day I want to do the best that I can.
So after the hotel built, I moved into sales, marketing and PR for the hotel, very different to what I was previously doing. I now focus on brand’s marketing strategy, campaigns, F&B initiatives and events for both Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Our events are centred on four pillars that really reflect the story of the brand: art, fashion, history, and music. My time these days is really dedicated to coming up with events that are in line with our four pillars such as farmers markets, wellness workshops and art tours as well as supporting sales and marketing team. In the future, I probably will move into operations and financial planning, which I want to get more experienced at. I’m currently doing an Online Cornell course about hotel investment because I actually had no hospitality background and learning on the job. Now with my experience and then this course I can say I’m beginning to see the overall picture of the business. There are a lot of numbers though!
Firstly, there aren’t many Thai brands who have won the Travel + Leisure award. When my uncle went to receive the award in New York, he was the only Thai in the room receiving the award. We’re a family business with our own luxury brand and that in itself already sets us apart from the big international hotel chains. When people come to Thailand I always ask them what they like about the country. Almost always they’ll say the people. Thais, in their own way, have the hospitality mind rooted within them so to be a Thai hospitality brand is already a unique selling point. Arguably, Thais are the best at hospitality and 137 Pillars try to bring back that true Thai hospitality.
We seek to offer a more personalised service that not only teaches our guests about Thai culture but also makes them feel like they are at home. Our staff have a face; they actually speak to our guests in a warm and friendly manner; they don’t keep themselves at a distance. Our design concept is also different. My aunt is a leading architect and has spearheaded the designs, which is rooted in our brand’s pillars and the history and local cultures of our country.
Two people, my dad and Stephen Hawking. My dad because I really respect his decision to start all this, it’s not easy to start a career in another industry at 45. He and my family knew nothing yet they decided to do a luxury hotel that would compete with top brands. He is also an avid learner and you’ll catch him reading a lot. He encouraged my love for reading from a very young age. Whenever I travel with him, I don’t need to google anything. It’s amazing how he can talk about the history of a country so well. His desire to constantly learn and evolve is inspiring.
Stephen Hawkin was my alumni at Cambridge and I was awe-struck the day I found out. I had looked up to him almost my whole life and I’d always been interested in all his theories. It was an interest that I read into a lot but I never knew how to apply such theories like the Black Hole to real life. But his story enlightened me. Here was a man who had a crippling disease yet he didn’t allow that to stop him creating a machine that would allow him to communicate his ideas and knowledge to the world. In spite of the things he couldn’t do, he did so much. Even when the doctors said he wouldn’t long, he lived until the age of 76. The day I met him in Cambridge was one of the best days of my life. The thing I admire most about him though is the element of surprise. He’s a physicist with a soft side, he’s not just logical and left brained. I’ll always remember his quote: “It wouldn’t be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love”.