Cathy Wagstaff checks in to 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai for a glamorous taste of northern Thailand – past, present and future.
Sitting beside the long pool, enveloped by oasis-like grounds with huge Indian rubber trees, palms and poincianas, and backdropped by a staggering three-storey wall of vines, I feel like I’ve slipped onto a movie set. A dapper butler glides up next to me and delivers an ‘Old House’ cocktail – a zingy union of chrysanthemum-infused gin, honey and lime – and a cool, lemongrass-scented towel. Dragonflies flutter over ponds dotted with lipstick-pink water lilies. Gentle sunlight creates dappled shadows through palm fronds. Welcome to the wonderful world of 137 Pillars House, a 30-room hotel on the east bank of the Ping River in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai. The film-set appeal is not just in my head.
If you’ve seen the 1956 film The King and I – or watched it performed in theatres around the world – you will no doubt have fallen in love with the story behind the unlikely friendship between the King of Siam (as Thailand was then known) and British writer Anna Leonowens. The movie is based on Anna’s autobiography, The English Governess and the Siamese Court, and documents her six years spent looking after the King’s children at the Royal Court in Bangkok. Anna’s son, a ‘teak wallah’, took up residence in Chiang Mai, his grand home built in the 1800s as part of the East Borneo Company headquarters, for whom he was employed.
It’s here that I sit today, ensconced in the romance of the colonial period that has been so beautifully preserved at this boutique property – which, true to its name, features 137 pillars of teak in its gloriously glam foundations. This glossy tropical hardwood stars throughout interiors and exteriors, accented with elephant-printed cotton cushions and large celadon urns. I drift between my room (the East Borneo Suite, replete with rattan chairs and an alfresco shower) and the Nitra Serenity Centre, where therapists expertly buff, polish and massage my body until I gleam. And when I’m not being pampered, I’m indulging in Thai delicacies, whether served in one of the two dining rooms or bar, or whipped up myself – one afternoon I join executive chef Lakana Suakeaw to discover how to make made gaeng keow wan gai (green curry with chicken and eggplant) and som tam, a green papaya salad with the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
As dreamy as the estate is, where it really stands out is in its commitment to making Thailand a more sustainable destination, whether that’s through support for the local community with cultural tours and visits to galleries – Chiang Mai is known for having a creative spirit – or excursions to the city’s Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary that the hotel helps fund. The initiative was spearheaded by 137 Pillars general manager Anne Arrowsmith, one of the most inspirational hoteliers you’ll come across. There’s no patting, feeding or riding elephants here – the focus is purely on the conservation of these gentle giants and the habitats they call home through generous donations from hotel guests. Meeting them and seeing them thrive, gives me goosebumps.
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is run by the remarkable Saengduean Chailert, lovingly known as Lek. This place stands as a testament to her unwavering passion and commitment to the well-being of elephants. Lek’s affinity for these majestic creatures took root in her early years when her grandfather received a precious gift—an elephant named Thong Kham, meaning Golden One. As a traditional healer, he unknowingly instilled a profound love for elephants in young Lek, who soon became their fervent protector. Witnessing the agonising suffering of these gentle giants in the tourism industry spurred her into action. In the 1990s, Lek embarked on a mission to provide medical assistance to elephants in remote villages. It was the dawn of her extraordinary journey. With boundless determination, she began rescuing elephants, both injured and elderly, from dire circumstances, giving them a new lease on life. In 2003, she founded Elephant Nature Park, providing a permanent home where elephants could find solace.
Today, the park is home to over 100 elephants, each living free from abuse, nurtured within the warmth of their family herds, and allowed to forge genuine friendships with one another. Lek’s devotion and dedication have not gone unnoticed, with international recognition and media coverage that spotlight her relentless efforts. Her accolades include being honoured as one of the Women Heroes of Global Conservation by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the prestigious Legion d’Honneur awarded by French President Macron, and accolades from TIME Magazine and the Humane Society of the United States.
The elephants residing at Elephant Nature Park bear the scars of their past, many marked by lifelong injuries from their strenuous labour, such as hauling heavy logs. Some have damaged legs and hips, testament to the hardships they’ve endured. The park also employs mahouts, dedicated caretakers who ensure the well-being and happiness of the elephants under their charge.
A visit to Elephant Nature Park is a remarkable experience, not just for the chance to witness the remarkable transformations of these gentle giants but also to support a cause that embodies empathy, compassion and dedication. It’s an opportunity to be part of a movement that is working tirelessly to ensure that elephants are free from harm and can live out their lives with dignity and happiness.
I checked in to 137 Pillars expecting Thai history – and I was delivered that in spades. What I didn’t expect was to be protecting the country’s future, and ensuring it becomes a better place for generations to come.