At the young age of 26, Nida Wongphanlert took on a project that would give Chiang Mai one of its exclusive addresses…a hotel on the east bank of Ping River and with just 30 suites built around a beautifully restored teak building that was once the home of Louis Leonowens. This is the story of the 137 Pillars House, as told by daughter of the current owner Niphan Wongphanlert, and the mind behind the hotel’s stunning design and experiences.
Meet Nida Wongphanlert
GLH: Hello Natty. It’s an absolutely pleasure to have you answer a few of our questions. So, for our readers who may not know you, could you please introduce yourself and tell us how you came to be the owner of 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai?
Nida Wongphanlert: My name is Nida Wongphanlert and I am the daughter of the family who founded 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai. Our family started in the textile business more than 20 years ago. They decided to venture into the hospitality business because of Thailand’s rising tourism industry but they had not decided where to begin. Initially, the family went to Chiang Mai to search for a plot of land for their family vacation house. When they bought the land, it had an old teak homestead on it which was dilapidated. After doing some research on its history, they found that the house used to be owned by the son of the teacher of King Rama IV, who was managing a teak trading company. The house was completely built of teak and over 150 years old. So the family decided to turn the plot of land and this old house into a luxury boutique hotel so they could preserve and share this piece of history with the world.
The name of the hotel also comes from there…137 is the number of pillars the old house had. Back in the day, the number of pillars a house had represented the wealth and prestige of the owners. Following the success of the property, which just celebrated its 9th anniversary, we opened another property in Bangkok, some 4 years ago.
GLH: The hotel has a very strong personality. Do you try to keep this history alive and how do you do that?
Nida Wongphanlert: Definitely, we keep the history alive through many aspects of the property, from the design of the hotel to our branding and storytelling. During the design phase, our family had a vision to develop a contemporary Thai hotel but combine this with the original Colonial Lanna style. Most importantly, we keep the history alive by telling our guests the stories we discovered during their stay. We published a beautiful coffee table book on the history of the house and its transformation to the hotel it is today, which guests can buy as a souvenir.
GLH: And the design of 137 Pillars House is very unique. Can you tell us how you chose your team to create this particular style and ambiance?
Nida Wongphanlert: We had no background in hospitality, but we had the taste and vision to develop this truly unique property. Before starting the project, my dad took my family (I was only 8 years old) to Bali, and we looked at numerous properties to understand resort design. Then we came back to look at hotels in Phuket and Koh Samui and came across Thai designers. The family didn’t want a big firm but a smaller contemporary firm where the founder would understand the design aspects that were suitable for the property.
We came across P49, Habita and P-Landscape. Around 10-12 years ago, they were not as big as they are now but the property turned out to be a tremendous success. I graduated as an engineer in 2014 and worked with P49, P Landscape and Palmer & Turner on the Bangkok property. I have always been interested in design, so I considered myself very lucky to be able to work with these top firms in Thailand.
GLH: We also noticed how 137 Pillars House is very much in touch with the arts. Why is that? And do you work with particular artists?
Nida Wongphanlert: Art is one of our brand pillars and during the design phase, we worked closely with our interior designer to pick unique and valuable art pieces by Thai artists to install in our hotel. As a contemporary Thai brand, we focus primarily on up and coming Thai artists. After we opened the property, we wanted to continue this practice and came up with the Art Rotation series. We had top Thai artists show their pieces at our Baan Borneo Club. We had a variety of art genres from abstract to pop art to traditional Thai art as well. The Thai art scene has definitely grown globally the past few years and we are very happy to be supporting this.
GLH: You often talk about Thai hospitality being something innate. Can you tell us more about that ?
Nida Wongphanlert: I would say Thai people are born with some of the best hospitality traits in the world. No matter where I go, people mention the gracious hospitality and friendliness of the Thai people. After studying overseas, it is very clear that Thai people are generally more laid back and gentle. I believe this, together with the tropical climate, the amazing food and the unique culture, makes Thailand an incredible destination. Don’t we all call it the “Land of Smiles”.
GLH: And according to you, why should travelers come to 137 Pillars House?
Nida Wongphanlert: 137 Pillars House is located in Chiang Mai, which is one of the most famous cities in the world. It’s also a city full of culture, history, arts, cuisine, nature and everything a traveler can ask for. And to be able to experience a real essence of Chiang Mai during their visit, 137 Pillars House is the best place to stay. From the Colonial Lanna design to the history of the teak house, your stay is more than just a normal hotel experience; you’re also experiencing culture, lifestyle and boutique luxury, all a few minutes’ walk from the historical Wat Gate Temple, Ping River and boutique shopping area.
GLH: If you had to describe a perfect day at the hotel, what would it be?
Nida Wongphanlert: For me, a relaxing day at the hotel is the best thing I can ask for. I would start an early morning with the most important meal of the day, followed by a stroll with my camera around the Wat Gate neighbourhood. It’s amazing what you can find within a few 100 metres of the hotel, from a Thai temple, to art galleries, cafes and a footbridge crossing the river. Before the sun hovers too high, I would go for a walk around the property and perhaps a dip in the pool.
GLH: And finally, if you had to plan a perfect itinerary in Chiang Mai, where would you go and what would you do? Any secret address you’d like to share?
Nida Wongphanlert: After breakfast, I would head up the mountains to either Mon Jaam or Mae Kumpong. Seeing the mountains and the authentic villages is a must during a visit to Chiang Mai. I’d also have lunch on the mountains followed by a visit to one of the best galleries in Thailand (not just Chiang Mai); MAIIAM. Its permanent collection is full of the most impressive Thai art pieces…a place I could visit again and again. Then it’s time to go back into town for a cup of coffee at Weave Artisan Society, a café with hip design.
The temples I often visit are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. A short walk from the second temple is the Lanna Architect Centre. This is my secret address for the trip; the museum is full of history on Lanna design and Chiang Mai and even links back to 137 Pillars House. After an eventful day I would go for a casual street food restaurant, Midnight Fried Chicken and head back to Jack Bain’s Bar at 137 Pillars House to end the day with a nightcap.
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