Handy for market-shopping and temple-hopping, Chiang Mai boutique hotel 137 Pillars House is a nostalgic blend of historic Thai architecture and sleek modern design, with delicious dining, a super-pretty spa and dramatic pool. In the arty Wat Gate district, it offers a serene home-away-from-home amid day-bed-dotted gardens. No surprise, given this elegant 1889 property was once owned by Louis Leonowens, son of Anna (of Anna and the King movie fame).
Noon; check-in, 3pm, both flexible subject to availability. Late check-outs cost from THB500.
Double rooms from £365.82 (THB14,956), including tax at 18.7 per cent.
Rates include à la carte breakfast and welcome basket of Thai fruits and local gourmet delicacies.
Stay in the William Bain or Louis Leonowens suite before 31 October and you’ll be treated to a massage on arrival, a bottle of prosecco (or carafes of freshly squeezed juice), a fruit basket, Thai tapas, buffet or a la carte breakfast, priority spa booking and late check-out until 6pm, subject to availability.
At the hotel
Spa, gym, cooking school, library with CDs, DVDs and books, concierge, free WiFi throughout, gardens. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD/CD player, iPod dock, minibar, Nespresso coffee machine, pillow menu, Puripunn toiletries, personal butlers.
Our favourite rooms
All rooms are spacious, with private balconies, four-poster or super-king beds, indoor and outdoor showers, his and hers basins and fab freestanding, roll-top baths. Upstairs rooms have more privacy; downstairs ones sport their own back yard. We love the seductive entry-level Rajah Brooke Suites, but for a sumptuous veranda bag an upper-floor William Bain Terrace Suite, or for your own plunge pool, splurge on one of the two ground-floor Louis Leonowens Pool Suites.
In a quiet corner, the slimline 25-metre lap pool is dominated by a jaw-dropping vertical plant wall, with tempting sun-beds dotting the decking. Secluded relaxation salas shrouded with elegant silk curtains will lure lounge lovers, and free homemade sorbet, mineral water and cold towels are available poolside.
The hotel’s sophisticated spa has a modern treatment menu that’s rooted in traditional Thai wellness techniques. Drop in for a limbering massage or cutting-edge skincare treatment, or have the therapists draw up a comprehensive treatment plan that’s tailored entirely to you. There's also an air-conditioned gym that's open round the clock, and a studio for yoga and Thai Chi classes, which can be arranged on request.
Bring shopping bags for loading up at the nearby Night Bazaar or local market. Active types should pack kit for yoga, Pilates, the gym or elephant rides.
Smoking and non-smoking rooms are available; pets are not permitted. Older guests may prefer ground-floor suites, as the hotel has lots of stairs.
Welcome, although there's a fairly adult, romantic vibe. Free baby cots are supplied and extra beds for older children age 12 or under cost THB2,950 a child a night (free for kids up to age three). Babysitting costs THB300 an hour, with a day's notice.
Eco touches at 137 Pillars House include live plant walls by the pool to cool the area down. Food is locally sourced and seasonal, with some produce grown in the hotel's gardens, and eco-friendly lightbulbs are used.
Near the windows at the Dining Room, or out in the courtyard. Dreamy private dining can be arranged anywhere, from your bed or balcony to the tropical grounds (we like the curtained relaxation salas for secluded snacking).
Floaty Thai silks and cool, informal cottons.
From breakfast cooked to order to international dishes and seven-course Thai menus, dining is an impressive affair here, drawing on organic produce from the hotel's market garden. The Dining Room is your go-to destination for refined Lanna and Thai cuisine, and is a glamorous, grown-up affair set in a classic wooden house that's shaded by shutters and surrounded by a veranda. Open for dinner every evening, Palette seats up to 24 in an intimate dining room with an ornate teak wood ceiling and art by local artists. All the ingredients are plucked straight from the hotel's own farm, then fashioned into gourmet dishes with a western lean. Budding gourmets can pick up tips at the Kitchen cooking school, where visiting chefs often host meals or give culinary demos.
Linger in the suave, wood-lined Library Bar (aka Jack Bain's Bar), where you can flip through books on old Chiang Mai, while savouring a Cognac, cocktail or cigar. Coffee, tea and light bites are up for grabs all day, too, with a choice of enveloping sofas or swelligant chairs. You can also enjoy classic high tea in the Parlor Lounge, a sultry, shuttered space dotted with blue-hued seats and ceramic sidetables. Tea blends, coffee and Thai sweets will reward you for all those temple visits/elephant safaris, or if you prefer airy to cosy, take it outside to the Lawn or infinity pool deck.
The Dining Room is open from 6.30am until 10.30pm, with last orders for dinner at 10.15pm. Palette is open for dinner from 6pm to 11pm daily. The bar keeps pouring until midnight.
Available 7am to 11pm, serving the full menu during restaurant hours; minibars also come well stocked. Order the signature 137 Pillars House picnic with champagne for adventures on the river, in the jungle or on elephant back.
137 Pillars House is in Chiang Mai's boho Wat Gate district, just east of the walled Old City and the Mae Ping river.
Fly into Chiang Mai’s international airport (www.chiangmaiairportonline.com), 90 minutes north-west of capital Bangkok, which receives domestic and regional flights from Phuket, Singapore, Hong Kong and Luang Prabang, among others. 137 Pillars House is just seven kilometres, or a 15-minute drive, away.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the most enticing rail journey in the country (www.railway.co.th). Each day, around six trains rattle up this 10- or 12-hour route, providing ever-changing landscape views; the sleeper services are excellent, with private two-berth cabins in first class, but you may want to bring your own food.
If you're driving from Chiang Mai, the hotel is 10 minutes from the town centre; free parking is available on site. Chiang Mai’s compact core is easily navigated on foot or tuk tuk, but if you want to venture further afield, it’s best to rent a car. Book a luxe tour or hire by the day from Limousine Thailand (www.limousinethailand.com). It’s possible to drive from Bangkok, but only the bravest motorists should consider it.
Worth getting out of bed for
It's hard to resist a cooling dip in the slinky pool, or time out on its harem of loungers, where you can order refreshing sorbets, snacks and drinks poolside. Old-growth Lady Palm and Mimosa trees shade the gardens, with indigenous flowers and plants lining the stone paths. Active types can book a yoga or Pilates session or head to the gym, tucked under the raised heritage William Bain House, with views through glass walls over cabinets of archeological curios unearthed during the property's revamp. Make a date with the spa, too, which tempts with a range of Thai treatments, including aromatherapy massage. Gourmets can learn to whip up Thai treats at the hotel's small cooking school, or look out for regular scheduled events on the Lawn, including Thai music and dancing, cultural lectures and cocktail parties.
Beyond the hotel, golfers can tee off at scenic Chiang Mai Highlands Golf Course, or staff can hook you up with elephant safaris for a more exotic day out. Hot shopping beckons a stroll, or tuk tuk ride, from 137 Pillars House, or request a chauffeur-driven car for gadding about. Just west over the river bridge, you'll find Ton Lamyai fruit and flower market, which also sells clothing and other edible produce (insects will appeal to the more adventurous). A hop further south, the famous Night Bazaar is a happy hunting-ground for more touristy souvenirs and handicrafts. The local Wat Gate area is worth exploring by foot or bike, with its legacy of European architecture from the days when this was the dedicated residential enclave for foreigners. The result is historic buildings such as 137 Pillars House, grouped around the Khar Ram Temple, still an active centre for monks. For a culture hit, check out the Wat Gate Khar Ram Museum on the same site, at 96 Baan Wategate, which displays Lanna (northern Thai) royal costumes, ancient coins, pottery and vintage black-and-white photos. This boho riverside neighbourhood is home to many local artisans, such as the talented weavers at the Healing Family Foundation at 2 Nha Wat Gate Road. A good street to wander is Charoen Raj Road, where you'll find independent stores Circle Source Paper, Oriental Style, Vila Cini and Kome Tong, perfect for picking up quality textiles, paper art works, lanterns, homewares, ceramics and antiques. Nussara, at number 88, is worth a look for stylish scarves, indigo-dyed fisherman's pants and monk's bags, or buy a cute elephant ornament at Colour Factory, at number 154.
In need of a sushi fix? Then stroll to Kitchen Hush, one of the best Japanese restaurants in town, and an especially good spot for dinner. For pan-Asian curries spanning Thai, Indian, Burmese and Sri Lankan styles, gorge yourself at Hinlay Curry House, an informal, open-air eatery with a patio overlooking the river. The neighbourhood's best known restaurant The Gallery, attracts the diplomatic and celebrity set with its tasty Thai and international fare, aided by a prime spot by the Mae Ping river (Hilary Clinton is a fan). Head to the tree-shaded terrace for sunset cocktails. For another romantic option, try riverside Deck 1, a smartly designed open-air space with a creative menu, embracing fusion dishes such as grilled salmon with wasabi mash, along with cocktails or healthy mocktails.
Enjoy sweet treats at cosy Bite & Bake café in Wat Gate, where the American-trained Thai chef whips up bagels, buckwheat pancakes, wraps, sandwiches and enchiladas. Climb the stairs to Green O'Clock, along the road at number 10, Soi 2, a casual café in a lofty nook, which serves up local faves such as pad Thai and chicken stir-fry with cashews, as well as chunky American-style sandwiches.
A top spot for a drink, including cocktails and draft beers, is The Riverside Bar & Restaurant, at 9-11 Charoen Raj Road. A legendary, if a dash touristy, venue, the Riverside also offers Thai and international food, live music and river boat rides for dining on the Ping.
'Uh oh'. These are not the words you want to hear in your head as you're checking into a hotel. Yin, fronting reception at 137 Pillars House, has just invited us to cocktails and a modern dance production in the courtyard that evening. Mrs Smith's eyes are bright with excitement. I, on the other hand, am wincing. Contemporary dance is my personal anathema. The last time my other half dragged me to a performance I sank into a coma-like sleep and awoke thinking I'd lost control of my bladder. In fact, I'd just emptied half a glass of Chablis into my lap. Could the sunburn on my forehead possibly allow me to feign sunstroke? At least I have a few hours to plan my excuses.
Formalities finalised, Yin leads us across a pool and past an epic green wall alive with hanging money plants. Propped on teak stilts – 137 in total, hence the hotel’s name – the main communal space houses the lounge, bar and restaurant. Inside, it’s like walking into an Agatha Christie novel, with an opulence harking back to an exotic bygone era. Delicately carved oriental lotus lattices cover the ceiling. Chrome wall-lights cast an inviting glow. A backgammon board sits beside a superbly stocked single malt whiskey cabinet. One wall is consumed by a well-chosen library. The rooms seduce me and I yearn to seek out a cosy teak-lined corner, palm a G&T and turn the pages of the tome I’ve lugged around for the past three holidays yet failed to read. Before I indulge the urge, Yin guides us towards the two buildings that house the 30 suites.
As the door opens to our Louis Leonowens Pool Suite, scarlet accents contrast with rich teak and rattan furniture, cream cushions and draped textiles. The bathroom, with its freestanding Victorian tub, combines turtle-egg-blue etched tiles with dappled marbles – the fiery red motif continues with pillows placed on seating that encourages company while bathing. ‘We should redesign our bathroom like this!’ exclaims Mrs Smith as she stares at the two outdoor showers. ‘But then it wouldn’t be special,’ I say, with my oft-used get-out clause. I don’t bother pointing out that we’d have to knock through both bedrooms to match its size.
The space is sophisticated but also comfortable. Modernity is never on show – the state-of-the-art flatscreen TV, for instance, is covered discreetly by sliding wooden panels – ensuring comfort without sacrificing aesthetics. The tastefully chosen music playing on the iPod is programmed to shift from daytime to evening – yes, they have thought of everything. This intelligent mix of luxury and tradition is what defines 137 Pillars House and attracts a clientele looking for refinement and serenity amid the organised chaos of Chiang Mai.
Forgetting my impending affectation of sunstroke, I crack open the complimentary bottle of red wine. As the light dims we sit on our spacious veranda – one of two private outdoor spaces – and listen to the tinkling of a piano being carried from the Parlor Lounge on the evening’s warm thermals. As I drain the last of the wine, Mrs Smith gears up for the performance. Although reticent to leave our fabulous boudoir, I follow her towards the seating that overlooks a softly illuminated stage in the shadow of a grand Banyan tree dotted with fairy lights.
‘It’s so dramatic,’ I announce, surprising myself. Mrs Smith hands me information on the dance production, which is choreographed by Jitti Chompee and called Muet. The show commences and, perhaps caught off guard by the effects of the wine, I am spellbound by the whirl of martial arts-inspired movement artfully woven into a complex tale of friendship and betrayal. The use of light and the energy in these stunning surroundings are thrilling. My sudden conversion even seems to have earned the respect of my other half. No one is more shocked than me at how well the evening has turned out.
Post-performance, we venture into the Dining Room and confront a menu with far too many tantalising options for a couple so challenged when it comes to decision-making. Highlights of our three courses include a perfectly grilled starter of chilli squid and a deliciously lime-tart Thai beef curry inspired by neighbouring Burma. The produce, our waiter informs us, comes mainly from the hotel’s organic garden, but having already witnessed the gigantic local markets, fresh ingredients are never going to be a problem in these parts. Back at the suite, we peruse the library of films on offer on an iPad and Yin delivers one to our room.
Despite the evening feast, the following morning I have generated a gut-trembling appetite. Starting abstemiously with fruits and house-made muesli, I swiftly dispense of the health-conscious options and progress to a sweet and hot Thai soup. I consider the term ‘holiday’ to be one of life’s great get-out clauses. However, having increased my daily intake of food and Singha lager to beyond even vacation acceptability, I ask Mrs Smith a question that generates an open-mouthed gawk: ‘Could I join you for your workout?’
Chiang Mai’s grid layout makes jogging unsatisfying, so we venture to the wellbeing centre nestled under the stilts of the main building. The tedious task of running on a treadmill is elevated by a view of a small museum of the site’s history showcasing artefacts found during the restoration of 137 Pillars. Ten minutes later, contemplating a rewarding swim, I’m asked by the hotel’s personal trainer if I’d be interested in a free muay Thai session.
My partner’s derisive ‘I don’t think so!’ propagates pure machismo and I follow the trainer to a small, privately owned Thai boxing gym around the corner. Not for the first time on this trip the words ‘Uh oh’ enter my mind, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much fun I have training with boxer ‘Chooky Jim’. After an intense(ish) bout I return to my suite, where Mrs Smith looks genuinely impressed.
Buzzy Chiang Mai will continue developing apace, with its multi-culti mix of markets, temples, boutiques and backpacker haunts, but staying at 137 Pillars makes you feel like you can arrest the speed of change and step back in time. It’s an intoxicating place – casting a spell of tranquillity unaffected by the distractions of modern life.
It’s easy to describe the design and functionality of 137 Pillars House. Tasteful. Elegant. Sophisticated. Romantic. What is harder is communicating how you feel having spent a few days enveloped in its calm. Blissed out is the best I can offer.
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