I knew things would be slightly different when I ran into the famed CNN host Richard Quest at the breakfast buffet. Turns out though we had similar goals staying at the 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai, to learn more about what is perhaps one of the most important luxury hotel brands in the world no one has heard of. That’s not quite fair, plenty of people have heard of 137 Pillars, but they are those in the know. They are travelers who seek unique experiences away from the mainstream while also enjoying the height of luxury service and amenities. They don’t want to be a number in some multi-national resort, no, instead they want to be active participants in the travel experience. Throughout my recent trip around Thailand I had the great opportunity to stay at both 137 Pillars properties in the country and throughout my time I not only learned more about this dynamic company, but I also came to appreciate the unique brand of travel in which they specialize.
Who They Are
In 2005, Bangkok-native Panida Wongphanler began her search for a country house away from the hustle and bustle of the Thai capital. Her search would take her to northern Thailand and the city of Chiang Mai where she chanced upon a true diamond in the rough. There she found a teak wood home blackened by age and neglect, but which had an incredible story to tell.
The first resident of the home was Louis Leonowens, son to Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame. He established the Chiang Mai headquarters of the Borneo Trading Company in 1886 and soon his home served as a gathering place for many of the expats in town. It’s this history upon which not only the 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai but the entire company is built, a legacy found throughout the hotels today. 137 Pillars currently has two locations, the original in Chiang Mai and a brand new, more modern, hotel in Bangkok with plans to open an island retreat on Phuket in 2019. But it’s the Chiang Mai house that forms the emotional heart of the brand.
Not Your Average Luxury Hotel
The original house stands on 137 pillars to protect from seasonal flooding and its painstaking refurbishment by Wongphanier led to the creation of the luxury resort masterpiece we see today. Originally opened to the public in 2011, the 137 Pillars House and its 30 suites quickly gained a reputation for outstanding service and luxury quietly tucked away in a nondescript Chiang Mai neighborhood. In a country and region famous for its luxury hotels and resorts, 137 Pillars still offers something different, something unusual and something undeniably special.
I will write individual assessments of both 137 Pillars properties, but I first wanted to introduce the brand because they are so very different from their competitors. Also, having stayed at their two properties in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I have a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the two hotels while also gaining a broader appreciation for what 137 Pillars is trying to accomplish in Thailand and, eventually, throughout the entire region. Both properties are also part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection. Small Luxury Hotels is one of the first places I look when it comes time to discover those one of a kind hotels that offer not just fantastic accommodations, but experiences I know I’ll never forget. And, sure enough, their inclusion of 137 Pillars is well earned.
I have long believed that the true essence of luxury travel isn’t found in its trappings. Anyone can offer a nice pillow or fine champagne, all that requires is money. No, true luxury, at least in the 21st century, is all about service and hospitality. These are corporate character traits that can’t be bought, they must be inherent and they are also traits that form the proverbial backbone of 137 Pillars. From my own experience, hotels that offer butler service almost always use it just as another way to promote their hotel. Rarely has the service been special or useful, until I visited Chiang Mai. There, immediately upon checking into the 137 Pillars House, I was introduced to my butler for the duration, but even then I didn’t fully understand how she would transform my experience not just at the resort, but in Chiang Mai. She added herself to my phone’s contact list, sent me a test text message and let me know she would be available 24/7 for whatever I needed. And you know what, she meant it. I only saw her a couple of times, but we texted constantly, whether it was me asking for restaurant recommendations or her offering to clean our shoes after a day of volunteer work at a nearby elephant sanctuary. By the end of my stay in Chiang Mai, I realized that she didn’t only make my experience almost impossibly better than it otherwise would have been, she had become a friendly acquaintance I would miss. She personalized the travel experience and that, that is at the heart of modern luxury travel.
No one wants to feel like a number or a walking ATM when they travel. And yet, even at the best hotels in the world, that is how we as guests are too many times made to feel. No matter one’s level of affluence, it’s not a comfortable feeling and the experts at 137 Pillars fully realize that. It’s at the core of who they are as a company, but I think it arose out of necessity. Thailand is no stranger to luxury travel and some of the top rated properties call the country home. In Bangkok, new hotels open almost daily it seems, and with reasonable rates luxury accommodations in the city have never been more accessible. It’s hard to stand out, to separate oneself from the pack, but what the 137 Pillars offers to so extraordinary and so unique, there simply is no comparison with other properties. It’s all about creating outstanding and memorable experiences for guests. I know, every hotel says that, but that’s the problem. Yes, everyone says they’ll create these memories but almost none actually manage it. Instead they offer overpriced food, stuffy rooms and nothing new or original. They are all variations on a theme, but the 137 Pillars didn’t just add a new instrument to an already crowded orchestra. No, they are writing their own overture, designing their own themes and having a lot of fun along the way.
I can’t wait to further introduce everyone to the individual traits and qualities that make both 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai and the newly opened 137 Pillars Suites and Residences in Bangkok so very special. More than just a nice place to spend the night, they in large part defined my most recent trip to Thailand, making it the most enjoyable sojourn to the Land of a Thousand Smiles I’ve ever enjoyed. Plus, I got to stare at Richard Quest for a while too, so that doesn’t hurt.