The Legendary 137 Pillars House
In the distant past, some houses in Chiang Mai were not included in the city’s property numbering system. Locals would simply refer to houses that did not have a number by the owner’s surname. However, when the time came to log one house built in the late 1800s into the system, Jack Bain, the owner at the time, decided to use a local Lanna tradition of counting how many pillars the house rested on. In total, the stunning Anglo-Malay-style house sat on 137 teak pillars hammered deep into the ground. And this is how the legendary 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai came to be known.
From its lofty beginnings, the former headquarters of the British Borneo Company gradually fell into a state of disrepair until Bangkok-based architect Panida Wongphanlert fell in love with the property and subsequently purchased the house and compound in 2005 from the original owners, the Bain family. Painstakingly restored to its original magnificence, 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai was turned into a boutique, all-suite hotel and soon became talk of the town again.
The colonial elegance of 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai and its serene surroundings quickly put the 30-suite hotel on the international map. Pretty soon, what was initially going to be a family home, was now a global sensation attracting noted travel writers and Instagrammers in equal measure. The Wongphanlert family, the Bangkokian clan behind the successful restoration, pondered the idea of turning a parcel of land they owned in the Thai capital into a 21st century hotel which might replicate the success their Chiang Mai venture.
During a visit to the Wongphanlert’s new property in Bangkok, I had the pleasure to talking to Lily Kittivorapod, Hotel Manager, 137 Pillars Suites & Residences Bangkok, who told me about the peculiar name of the original property. “Many of the old Lanna-style houses in the north are built on pillars or sao’s in Thai, which lift the building off the ground to save it from flooding and to allow cool air to pass underneath. The more pillars used in a building reflected the standing and wealth of the owner. In this case, it was the British Borneo Company and its manager Louis T. Leonowens, son of the famous Anna Leonowens.
“The owners of 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai were originally going to build a serviced apartment on the land in Bangkok, but due to the success of the Chiang Mai hotel they decided to include 34 exclusive suites along with 179 luxury residences. Some of the best architects and interior designers were approached to create 137 Pillars Suites & Residence Bangkok. Palmer & Turner (Thailand) Ltd., were tasked with the structure’s design, while interior’s were overseen by P49 Design & Associates Co., Ltd. The owners also put a lot of thought into the large gardens on the ground floor and the sky gardens on the 28th floor and rooftop and it was WabiSabi Studio Co., Ltd brought their ideas to life,” Lily says.
“We have multiple key selling points, but for many of our guests and residents, it is our proximity to many major shopping centres and also the Skytrain. We are also in a very busy residential neighbourhood which is famous for its wide variety of restaurants and international cuisines. However, guests always compliment us on the size of our suites, which start at 70-square-metres for the Sukhothai suite and grow to the 127-square-metre, two-bedroom Rattanakosin suite. Also, all our rooms have large private balconies that are furnished with oversized daybeds, rocking chairs and coffee tables. If guests start to feel the heat, an overhead fan ensures that a steady breeze keeps them cool,” she adds.
While nearly all of Thailand’s hotels were forced to close during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis from April to July 2021, Lily and her team at 137 Pillars Suites & Residences remained busy as they had to service their long-term residents. The two main restaurants at the stunning 32-storey building, Bangkok Trading Post and Nimitr, provided take-away options for residents and with both having outdoor options, diners can now delight in exciting menus. Furthermore, both infinity-edge swimming pools are outdoors and offer exceptional views of the city’s skyline.
“Many of our international guests choose us because they have seen our rooftop pool and gardens somewhere in a magazine or on the Internet. It is a huge draw for us having the highest rooftop pool in Thailand; it is also a relaxing space for our guests. From a local perspective, as we are located in a residential neighbourhood many of our walk-in guests at the weekend are local residents and their pets who like to enjoy the gardens outside Bangkok Trading Post.
“As a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, we get a lot of exposure overseas, but for the past couple of years we haven’t been able to welcome many of our usual guests. During the early stages of the pandemic, we were not too badly affected as most of our guests were long-term visitors who stayed for over one year. We did see a drop off in short-stay visitors, but once the government introduced the Test & Go programme we saw more short-term guests return. The trend is a positive one and we are seeing more direct bookings with us, especially for Test & Go,” Lily informs me.
A typical city hotel guest, be they a foreign tourist or a Thai vacationing at home, would generally stay for a few days in Bangkok. However, due to Covid, Lily and her team were pleasantly surprised to see that guests were deciding to stay longer as they switched to staying in a serviced apartment with a kitchenette, oven, washing machine and dryer. 137 Pillars Suites & Residences is able to provide everything a long-term guest requires.
“We are seeing a shift in the demographics of our guests with a lot more younger couples and independent travellers staying with us. However, the majority of residents in our serviced apartments are from Thailand and other countries. Before Covid, we would normally welcome mature tourists who would stay with us here in Bangkok or at our sister property in Chiang Mai.
“Without a doubt Covid has been the biggest challenge for us in the service industry. Traditionally, ours is a very hands-on industry welcoming guests, but now with social distancing and wearing masks it has limited the welcome that we normally give to our guests. To make some of the processes safer and more convenient, we’ve introduced a number of touchless interfaces for our guests. We also implemented new room servicing protocols that really highlight hygiene and safety measures. For example, when a guest departs, their room is deep-treated with UV light before the next guest checks in.
“We’ve strictly followed the government’s guidelines throughout the pandemic and this compliance has helped us achieve SHA+ status. As a hospitality community servicing Thailand, I am proud to say that many hotels and restaurants came together to share information on how to deal with situations and what hygiene protocols should be followed. Hopefully, all our hard work will be rewarded with many of the travel restrictions being lifted in July when Covid is re-listed as endemic.
“Thailand’s vaccination plan is going ahead and at 137 Pillars all our staff have had two jabs and a booster jab. I have had some guests explain to me how complicated it was to get a Thailand Pass, so I will be happy to see this particular requirement lifted. Our main short-stay guests have normally been from Asia, but now the trend is changing and we are seeing more American and European travellers. Personally, I think it is counter-productive to have too many tourist as over-tourism can have negative effects on the environment.
“I would love to see a manageable, eco-aware tourism sector emerge after Covid has been reclassified. It is clear that we cannot control what will happen in the future so we must protect ourselves by getting vaccinated, being aware and working together to stop the country being closed again. That would be disastrous for the hospitality industry. In many parts of Thailand, the shutdown has helped our wildlife rebound and there are now sharks swimming in Maya Bay in Krabi province. We don’t want to see our nature destroyed by over-tourism and so we need to manage our resources sustainably,” Lily says.
With millions of tourists now unable to travel, Thailand has seen tens of thousands of tourist-related business close. The same knock-on effect has also hit 137 Pillars Suites & Residences, which has had to temporarily suspend some outlets. However, Lily says that over the past few months, the indicators are starting to look positive, occupancy and walk-in traffic are increasing and rules and regulations are being relaxed.
“We are slowly reopening some food and beverage outlets to residents and guests. For example, Baan Borneo will open as a venue for our new Afternoon Tea promotions while for other indoor areas, we will keep abreast of the what the government dictates. While our owners are very accommodating and understand the situation, we still have to be proactive to what’s happening. I personally have a lot of projects in the pipeline such as working with outside retailers on our food and beverage offerings, and formulating new menus for the restaurants.
“We are also working closely with the Elephant Foundation in Chiang Mai as part of our corporate social responsibility programme (CSR). That’s why you can see a lot of elephant images around the hotel. Our history through the Borneo Company is inextricably linked to elephants as they were used to transport the huge teak trees out of the jungle. Our guests also support us by giving donations to the Elephant Foundation. Another community initiative that is very close to our hearts is the Autistic Foundation. Recently, our chef turned a series of drawings by autistic children into delicious cakes,” adds Lily.
“Many guests coming to Thailand often do research on the history of 137 Pillars and tend to stay here and then visit our sister property in Chiang Mai and vice-versa. I really like to get to know our guests before I recommend visiting other parts of Thailand or eating Thai food. As a Buddhist country, I suggest they visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, where they can see the amazing reclining Buddha. Also, the beautiful murals and works of art found there are so unique. There are charming places in every province in Thailand from Lanna in Chiang Mai to sea gypsies in the south.
“We’ve had many guests call us in advance of their stay to make special arrangements. Some have asked to rent out our rooftop for a romantic candlelight dinner, another couple proposed on our rooftop and then came back to have their wedding here and many have celebrated their anniversaries with us. Our facilities are perfect for small gatherings like weddings, engagements and private parties. But for most of our foreign guests, it is sea, sand and sun that they come for and really like. So now, in Phuket, we have a luxury yacht that they can rent when they travel to the world-famous Phuket island,” she says.
If you are interested in hosting a special, intimate event in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket, such as an engagement, wedding, birthday or meeting, contact 137 Pillars at +66 (0) 2079 – 7000 or email: email@example.com.
Source: Punch Media Digital.