137 Pillars House – A Legendary and Exquisite Boutique Hotel
I have always been enthralled by the provenance of buildings with interesting history and would let my imagination run wild when I am staying in one. I would conjure images in my mind’s eye and regressed back in time to when the original residents occupied it and what life was like for them. So it was fortuitous that we stayed at the fabulous 137 Pillars House, a luxury boutique hotel in Chiang Mai on our recent visit to the city known as “Rose of the North”, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Lanna. The hotel’s heritage strikes a chord with me as it has a historical link to Sarawak, my home state in Malaysian Borneo before I moved to the UK many eons ago.
In the 19th century, maverick British men in the Victorian era would sail to the East in search of fortune. There were natural resources and spices to exploit with huge opportunity to get rich and famous. Among the most illustrious of this band of men was James Brooke, a young Englishmen from Devon. He landed in Sarawak in Borneo, helped the ruling Sultan to quell local rebellions and piracy and was made the White Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. He founded the Borneo Company Ltd in 1856 to facilitate trade between Sarawak, Sabah and Britain, mainly dealing in forestry and mining. The success of the company led to the opening of offices in Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Thailand under East Borneo Company.
One of the founders of the East Borneo Company in Chiang Mai was Louis Leonowens, the son of Anna Leonowens the English governess to the royal children of King Mongkut of Thailand in 1862. Her tenure as the royal governess was romanticised in the famous book and movie “The King And I” and “Anna and the King”. King Mongkut was succeeded by his son King Chulalongkorn who appointed Louis Leonowens as a captain in the Thai Royal Cavalry at the age of 27 in 1881. The young king ruled Thailand with a modern approach for that time and gave permission to foreigners to log teak from the forest in Chiang Mai.
Leonowens left the royal army and joined the East Borneo Company and opened its branch in Chiang Mai in 1889. He set up its northern headquarters in Baan Borneo (or Borneo House), a massive stately house constructed from teak supported by 137 pillars on the eastern bank of the Ping River in Wat Gate, an enclave once designated to foreigners. Leonowens lived there briefly but it was the resident of the company manager until 1927.
During the Japanese occupation in 1941 in World War II, it was taken over by the Japanese army. After the war, it was sold to William Bain, a Scotsman who was the last managing director of the company. It belonged to the Bain family until it was sold to the Wongphanlert Company, a Thai company based in Bangkok. Panida Wongphanlert, a Harvard graduate architect was looking for a holiday home in Chiang Mai when an estate agent showed her the house locally known as the “Black House” due to the colour of the weather-beaten teak.
It was in a ruinous state with overgrown compound and it was said the locals were afraid to go near the spooky house. As an architect, Wongphanlert could visualise the potential of the house as a resort. The rest is history.
137 Pillars House: Baan Borneo Born Again
Against this beguiling legacy, Baan Borneo rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix and was transformed into the 137 Pillars House, a splendid 30-suite boutique hotel. It was lovingly and faithfully restored to its former glory keeping the original wood and foundation with the wooden pillars elevated 3 metres higher to protect from floods.
Having seen a picture of the house before it was restored, the transformation is breath taking. I could imagine the colonial residents of yore working in the sprawling house and enjoying a spot of gin and tonic or a glass of wine, smoking their pipes and cigars on the verandah in the evening.
Sequestered in an upscale residential enclave near the Ping River at Thanon Nawatgate, 137 Pillars House is set in a walled sanctuary of tranquillity and elegance. On entering the gate, we were immediately transported to a different planet from the bustling streets of the touristy side of Chiang Mai on the western bank of the river.
A charming water feature with water lilies at the entrance set the tone of the serene garden. The enchanting garden is festooned with verdant landscape of tropical plants, flowers and luxuriant trees, some of which have borne witness to the legacy of the house. Day beds with ethereal drapes are dotted around the nook of the garden for guests to relax and enjoy the garden.
A tempting swimming pool is tucked away in a quiet corner of the compound flanked by an awesome 45-metre high of green wall of cascading money plants. Baan Borneo has certainly rekindled its charm once again and the homestead now houses two restaurants, Palette Restaurant and The Dining Room serving western and Thai cuisine, Jack Bain Bar for drinks, light refreshment and a library and afternoon tea at the Parlor. Memorabilia of its past and artwork adorn the walls, shelves and display cabinets. It is like walking back in time to its colonial days and the spirit of the past still lingers in the air.
Accommodations at the resort are elegant new-built villas in the compound, which were supervised by historian architects and conservationist to meticulously conserve the integrity of the architecture and style of the era of 1889. The 30 luxury suites are named after the founders of the East Borneo Company namely Louis Leonowens, William Bain and Rajah Brooke. We stayed at a Rajah Brooke suite, a well-appointed room with a King size bed and sitting area that opens on to a large verandah with a rattan planter’s chair and a plush day bed overlooking the garden.
A commodious walk-in closet-cum-dressing room leads to a large bathroom with free standing claw-feet Victorian bath and an indoor shower. A glass door opens onto an outdoor shower in a mini patio garden to revel in the joy of bathing in the open air. As a special touch above other hotels, mini bar drinks are complimentary except for the hard liquor.
137 Pillars House: Dining Lanna Style
One of the highlights of our stay was the “Thai Night Khantoke Dinner” at The Dining Room on our last night feasting on a typical Lanna cuisine prepared by the Executive Chef Thiti Thammanatr and his team. It was a sumptuous feast served with a starter dish of northern pork sausage, sour pork sausage and shrimp crackers.
It was followed by the main course of seven delicate dishes beautifully presented on a brass tray in a typical northern Thai style. The menu featured confit of pork with ginger tamarind curry; grilled young chilli paste with minced pork and tomato sauce served with steamed vegetables; Chiang Mai herb pork sausages paired with crispy pork skin; stir-fried chicken with garlic pepper; stir-fried sayote and roasted duck red curry accompanied by assorted boiled vegetables.
Two types of steamed rice accompanied the meal with white rice served in a dainty palm leaf basket and red rice covered with a banana leaf cone.
Dessert was the famous mango with sticky rice accompanied by a melange of “Auspicious” Thai desserts of mini sweet cakes. Every dish was delicious with a balance of different flavour and layers of taste that only the Thai could master with such panache using the freshest ingredients in season.
Compliments to Chef Thiti! The highlight of the evening was the entertainment featuring traditional Lanna songs and dances accompanied by traditional folk musical instruments.
I forgot to count the pillars to check if there were really 137 pillars supporting Baan Borneo. I intend to return to count them next time….well, any excuse to go back to this extraordinary resort- a hallmark of style, sophistication and sumptuousness with superb service.