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Charming Chiang Mai: Taking it easy in northern Thailand

By: Katie Roberts

Pillars House Exterior Evening View
Pillars House Exterior Evening View

 

The first storm of the season closes in: the sky is almost black, the wind howls, shutters slam and curtains flap madly, but the 120-year-old teak house is a haven of safety. Having no doubt weathered plenty of storms over the years, the house was the inspiration and is now the centrepiece for new boutique hotel 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

The storm lasts a good hour and the parlour is an excellent place to wait it out – ensconced in plush armchairs, with a stack of fat cushions and magazines and staff keen to ply us with drinks.

 

Famed for its rich culture and royal connections – a  princess from the royal family attended the hotel’s grand opening in March – Chiang Mai’s charm lies in the friendly, relaxed locals; the gleaming, golden wats (temples) dotted throughout the city; the great food; and the plethora of activities available.

You’ll need at least three full days and nights in Chiang Mai to make it worth the trip. And don’t feel guilty if it’s all about rest and relaxation at 137 Pillars House instead of sightseeing and activity. From the punctual pick-up at the airport to the seamless, swift check-in, the ever-smiling, attentive staff make a stay here an absolute pleasure.

Guest Quarters

Rajah Brooke Suite - Blue Room
Rajah Brooke Suite – Blue Room

Take your pick from four different suites, all beautifully decorated in colonial-style comfort, with a nod, of course, to elephants. The smallest, at 70 square metres, is the Raja Brooke Suite, which houses a four-poster king-size bed, a large and private verandah, a rocking chair and a plush day bed for afternoon snoozes. Beyond the large walk-in closet is an en suite bathroom with dual washbasins, a freestanding Victorian-style bath and indoor and outdoor showers.

A Nespresso machine, Wi-Fi and a pre-programmed iPod system playing a soothing mix of jazz tunes complete the package. Interconnecting suites are available for families. Opt for the upstairs suites and be kind to those below by removing your shoes, as noise from the solid wood floors can resonate. Thoughtful touches like a daily newspaper and fruit platter complete the room.

Architectural historians and conservationists worked meticulously to restore the original 1889 teak house that now sits in stunning landscaped grounds. For good measure, they added a 25-metre pool, a gym and 30 new hotel suites.

Reception Sala
Reception Sala

Relaxation
A visit to Chiang Mai is not complete without a Thai massage. While signs from street corners scream of treats for under $10, the experience at 137 Pillar House, which comes at a higher price, is not to be missed. The long hours I spend in front of the computer are not good for the body, so the 60-minute intensive muscle release aromatherapy massagebeckoned. Wicked is the only way to describe it; in a positive way of course, but I admit there was some pain too. Going deep, the masseuse released knots, cricks and tension with skill and finesse.

night ride2
night ride2 

Clever Cycling
Trees brought down in the aforementioned wild storm called a halt to my plans for an off-road cycle in the hills. An easy alternative was a 20-kilometre night ride around the city, taking in the bustling 24-hour produce market, the beautifully lit wats, and several stops at some of the numerous food stalls.

Waiting for the lights to change at intersections, it was a little disconcerting to see entire families on motorbikes with no helmets, but everyone was friendly and courteous. Hats off, too, to the drivers who pay heed to cyclists, making even the busiest roads negotiable. We were well-equipped with helmets, fluorescent vests and flashing lights, and easily followed our knowledgeable guide on well-maintained Trek bikes.

Exploring Chiang Mai and its surrounds on bicycle makes for a unique experience. Spice Roads is one of the companies in the city that offer cycling tours ranging from three hours to overnight and longer trips.

Shopping
Just three minutes around the corner from the hotel are a couple of cute boutiques and galleries where souvenir shopping is a breeze. Try Oriental Style for knickknacks and, right next door, Vila Cini for all things silk, including gorgeous slippers and cushions. Across the road, The Gallery proudly boasts that it was visited in 1996 by former US President Bill Clinton; but its riverside location makes it a good spot for a shopping bite to eat and shopping. In nearby Nussara you’ll find beautiful Thai cotton fabric, handicrafts and garments.

If you have the stamina, head to the daily Night Bazaar, or the Weekend Bazaar on Saturdays and Sundays. On any day, head to the riverside Flower Market, Warorot Market and, in-between the two, another little market where fresh strawberries, curry pastes, hill-tribe dolls and all manner of souvenirs are easily bought without aggressive haggling.

Cooking Class
Attending a cooking class when you’re in Chiang Mai is as essential as seeing the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and there are dozens of cookery schools offering classes, from half-day sessions to a full week. At the Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre, I spent a worthwhile three hours learning new recipes and absorbing tips from local cooks.

137 Pillar House hosts cooking demonstrations from visiting chefs and guests are welcome to join in. Chiang Mai noodles (khao soi) is a popular regional dish. It’s reminiscent of laksa but with a stronger, spicier, curry flavour, and is garnished with delicious deep-fried egg noodles. 137 Pillar House does a fabulous version in either seafood or chicken.

The restaurant menu features a mix of Thai and Western favourites. You can dine in air-conditioning, or outside on the terrace where the sounds of the piano in the drawing room carry on the night air. For private dining, room service is a wonderful option; you can eat on the wide verandah outside your room, overlooking the gardens.

Make it Happen
Suites at 137 Pillar House start from a low-season rate of 6,300 Thai baht (about S$280) per night. Both the spa and restaurant are open to non-hotel guests. The Spice Roads night ride around Chiang Mai starts from 1,000 baht. Both Air Asia and SilkAir fly to Chiang Mai direct. The three-hour Air Asia flight departs conveniently at 9.30pm, landing at 11.30pm local time. The return flight departs at 4.50pm arriving in Singapore at 8.55pm. Chiang Mai time is one hour behind Singapore.

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