In our Suite History series, we explore the greatest colonial and heritage hotels around the region, riddled with romance, glamour, and history, and underpinned as some of Southeast Asia’s most storied treasures. Consider it a chronicle of a time long gone in the spirit of the present, as we unravel the tales, uncover the secrets, and explore what makes these hotels stand out from the rest. This December, we’re checking into 137 Pillars House, Chiang Mai.
There is something captivating about 137 Pillars House from the get-go.
On doing our homework nose-deep into a history book, we uncovered that the number of pillars that hold up a traditional Thai house is directly correlated to how wealthy and important the house owner is. 137 Pillars House is named after the extremely impressive number of pillars that support it, and whilst there’s not denying that each and every one of its owners and inhabitants have been and remain ‘wealthy and important’, the story that surrounds its near 200 years of being are even moreso curious.
The now suite-only property is beautiful, and beautiful in a way only history can pronounce it. It is the articulation of a tale that is interwoven with heritage and culture, and like most things of beauty, is complex and intricately chronicled. From the foreign beginnings of the house to its transformation into a boutique hotel and a new tour that follows its saga, read on as we put together the pieces to unveil the suite history of this truly special place.
[All images courtesy of 137 Pillars House, Chiang Mai]
Our story begins in the royal court.
The infamous Leonowens
In 1883, King Chulalongkorn signed the Treaty of Chiang Mai, which allowed foreigners to cut trees across the precious teak forests of Northern Thailand. One of these was the Borneo Company. In 1886, Louis Leonowens joined this Borneo Company, and during his tenure opened the Company’s office along the Ping River, including the 137 Pillars House as we know it today. If Louis’ name sounds familiar, it could be because of Louis’ mother, Anna Leonowens — yes, that one — who was formerly also famously an English teacher to the King. She is Anna of the novel The King and I.
The house was the residence of the Borneo Company manager until about 1927, and remained the company headquarter until World War II. After this, it was sold to a man by the name of William Bain, who married a local Mon girl and raised a family here. His son, Jack, followed suit in the years thereafter.
It was Jack Bain that gave 137 Pillars House its now locally renowned namesake, when a publisher wanted to write about “the house with the most number of pillars.”
At the time, the importance and wealth of a property owner was measured by how many pillars the house had, and the more your house could boast, the more important you were. Jack proudly counted all 137 of them, after which even on an old map of the Wat Gate area, the house is referred to as “Baan 137 Sao” (“137 Pillars House”, for those with unpolished Thai).
Cut to the present day, and 137 Pillars House has been converted into a small luxury boutique hotel by a Bangkokian family who fell in love with the property. It is understandably so, between the romance of the wooden house and the quiet location tucked just a short walk away from the Ping River — chirpy birds at dawn, the sweet musk of frangipane, and a temple, an art gallery, and coffeeshops a 2-minute stroll away.
Suites & Experiences
An elegant lady of kind charisma and a book on Borneo in hand, general manager Anne welcomed us upon our arrival at 137 Pillars, dressed in resort wear in a way that spoke volumes for her character. A beaded necklace, a cotton blouse; small yet artful touches.
Such is a lot of the magic of 137 Pillars. The boutique hotel is small, what with just a select scattering of suites, and feels private and serene: small, yet with artful touches.
Large rooms and high ceilings evoke an aura of indulgence. We stayed in the East Borneo Suite (all suites have a name relevant to the property’s past), and swooned for the dark wooden terrace that overlooked the tropical gardens. A stand-alone bathtub greets you in a red-accented bathroom that feels almost like it belongs to Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl (perverse to admit, but true), and we love that the toilet sits in its own kind of — for lack of a better comparison here — glasshouse. The golden bar cart is a nice 1920s-style touch, the curtains feature really adorable elephants on them, and every evening at turndown service, a nighttime story will be placed next to your bed. It’s the little things. And it’s that continued sense of story, even in the details.
Bar room service, all meals are served within the original 137 Pillars House, whether it’s the fine dining Palette restaurant, the Jack Bains bar, or breakfast at the Dining Room. During the day, you can engage in a game of backgammon on the terrace. We inspected the gorgeous orchids that sit at the centre of the window frames, and flipped through magazines presented in the parlour lounge. An insider’s tip? Look for the romantic inscription within the pages of the wine list (the red wine section). You’ll smile.
The Tales & Trails of the Teak Wallahs tour
137 Pillars House boasts a spa, a gym, and event facilities. When we visited, a wedding also took place on the lawn between the gorgeously green pool and the wooden house.
Gentlemen foresters, or teak wallahs
Beyond getting married, though, for the avid singleton, The Teak Wallahs Tour is a fitting activity when visiting 137 Pillars House. An opportunity for guests to explore a side to a Chiang Mai less commonly spoken about, the tour is circled around the ‘gentleman foresters’ (namely the teak wallahs) who forested teak in Northern Thailand. You guessed it: Louis Leonowens, Jack Bain, and the lot. Our story continues.
The Tales & Trails of the Teak Wallahs tour is a full-day affair. It begins at a small museum just by 137 Pillars House, painting the bigger picture of 19th century expat life in Chiang Mai, between Western traditions and influences, and a thriving Thai teak industry.
An extremely knowledgeable guide takes you through the day from the Lanna Ancient House in Chiang Mai to the Gymkhana Club and colonial sports club. You’ll see the Foreign Cemetery, and the British Consul General W.A.R. Wood’s residence, and then you’ll take a power nap as the car takes you all the way to the neighbouring town of Lampang. The Borneo Timber Company had holdings here since the 1870s, a history that is explored by way of a horse cart ride in true Lampang style. You’ll visit the former office of the Louis Leonowens Company, as well as the 100-year-old forestry department office, Ban Sao Nak. Indeed, this house too has many pillars that support it, and you’ll sit beneath the house amongst these with a rice snack and a refreshment, too.
Ponders on the Ping River
It is an extremely detailed look into an extremely lesser-known archive, even if just an observation of foreign influences and characters. Over a lunch by the river accompanied by minced larb, Sai Oua sausage, and crispy pork crackling, you’ll discuss: “did you see the books that were on the shelf at Ban Sao Nak? Didn’t you find the Louis House eerily romantic? And did you know that the tree within the Gymkhana Club is one of the largest and eldest in the region?”
On the ride back you’ll encounter a new-found respect and appreciation for the tall teak trees that line the alleyways leading back to the hotel. They are the true arteries of the town.
It’s easy for the acai-bowl-slurping iPhone-addicted Bangkokian to head to Chiang Mai as cocky as always, and believe to have seen it all. Chiang Mai is easy to fall in love with, what with an impressive coffeeshop culture, thriving art scene, and relaxed and welcoming aura. Nevertheless, it is rare to encounter a side or a story to Chiang Mai that is lesser told. Perhaps that is where 137 Pillars House manages to tie together two really special elements of a real modern luxury.
On our return, we come back with a story to share that goes deeper than your average. You come to realise a heritage, and even live within it, and learn a lot along the way. The slice of Thai and Southeast Asian history is enriching at 137 Pillars House, but the boutique hotel also doesn’t shy away from a mean Eggs Benny at breakfast, and a pool so Instagrammable you may lose an envious follower or two. It is extremely tranquil out here, no matter what happenings have occurred within the premises back then. “Where the elegance of the orient meets the storied beauty of the past,” 137 Pillars House is embedded within the local landscape and culture all on its own, and stands well above all others with a contemporary charm beyond the rest.
137 Pillars House, 2 Soi 1, Nawatgate Rd., Tambon Watgate, Chiang Mai, +66 53 247788.