'Uh oh'. These are not the words you want to hear in your head as you're checking into a hotel. Yin, fronting reception at 137 Pillars House, has just invited us to cocktails and a modern dance production in the courtyard that evening. Mrs Smith's eyes are bright with excitement. I, on the other hand, am wincing. Contemporary dance is my personal anathema. The last time my other half dragged me to a performance I sank into a coma-like sleep and awoke thinking I'd lost control of my bladder. In fact, I'd just emptied half a glass of Chablis into my lap. Could the sunburn on my forehead possibly allow me to feign sunstroke? At least I have a few hours to plan my excuses.
Formalities finalised, Yin leads us across a pool and past an epic green wall alive with hanging money plants. Propped on teak stilts – 137 in total, hence the hotel’s name – the main communal space houses the lounge, bar and restaurant. Inside, it’s like walking into an Agatha Christie novel, with an opulence harking back to an exotic bygone era. Delicately carved oriental lotus lattices cover the ceiling. Chrome wall-lights cast an inviting glow. A backgammon board sits beside a superbly stocked single malt whiskey cabinet. One wall is consumed by a well-chosen library. The rooms seduce me and I yearn to seek out a cosy teak-lined corner, palm a G&T and turn the pages of the tome I’ve lugged around for the past three holidays yet failed to read. Before I indulge the urge, Yin guides us towards the two buildings that house the 30 suites.
As the door opens to our Louis Leonowens Pool Suite, scarlet accents contrast with rich teak and rattan furniture, cream cushions and draped textiles. The bathroom, with its freestanding Victorian tub, combines turtle-egg-blue etched tiles with dappled marbles – the fiery red motif continues with pillows placed on seating that encourages company while bathing. ‘We should redesign our bathroom like this!’ exclaims Mrs Smith as she stares at the two outdoor showers. ‘But then it wouldn’t be special,’ I say, with my oft-used get-out clause. I don’t bother pointing out that we’d have to knock through both bedrooms to match its size.
The space is sophisticated but also comfortable. Modernity is never on show – the state-of-the-art flatscreen TV, for instance, is covered discreetly by sliding wooden panels – ensuring comfort without sacrificing aesthetics. The tastefully chosen music playing on the iPod is programmed to shift from daytime to evening – yes, they have thought of everything. This intelligent mix of luxury and tradition is what defines 137 Pillars House and attracts a clientele looking for refinement and serenity amid the organised chaos of Chiang Mai.
Forgetting my impending affectation of sunstroke, I crack open the complimentary bottle of red wine. As the light dims we sit on our spacious veranda – one of two private outdoor spaces – and listen to the tinkling of a piano being carried from the Parlor Lounge on the evening’s warm thermals. As I drain the last of the wine, Mrs Smith gears up for the performance. Although reticent to leave our fabulous boudoir, I follow her towards the seating that overlooks a softly illuminated stage in the shadow of a grand Banyan tree dotted with fairy lights.
‘It’s so dramatic,’ I announce, surprising myself. Mrs Smith hands me information on the dance production, which is choreographed by Jitti Chompee and called Muet. The show commences and, perhaps caught off guard by the effects of the wine, I am spellbound by the whirl of martial arts-inspired movement artfully woven into a complex tale of friendship and betrayal. The use of light and the energy in these stunning surroundings are thrilling. My sudden conversion even seems to have earned the respect of my other half. No one is more shocked than me at how well the evening has turned out.
Post-performance, we venture into the Dining Room and confront a menu with far too many tantalising options for a couple so challenged when it comes to decision-making. Highlights of our three courses include a perfectly grilled starter of chilli squid and a deliciously lime-tart Thai beef curry inspired by neighbouring Burma. The produce, our waiter informs us, comes mainly from the hotel’s organic garden, but having already witnessed the gigantic local markets, fresh ingredients are never going to be a problem in these parts. Back at the suite, we peruse the library of films on offer on an iPad and Yin delivers one to our room.
Despite the evening feast, the following morning I have generated a gut-trembling appetite. Starting abstemiously with fruits and house-made muesli, I swiftly dispense of the health-conscious options and progress to a sweet and hot Thai soup. I consider the term ‘holiday’ to be one of life’s great get-out clauses. However, having increased my daily intake of food and Singha lager to beyond even vacation acceptability, I ask Mrs Smith a question that generates an open-mouthed gawk: ‘Could I join you for your workout?’
Chiang Mai’s grid layout makes jogging unsatisfying, so we venture to the wellbeing centre nestled under the stilts of the main building. The tedious task of running on a treadmill is elevated by a view of a small museum of the site’s history showcasing artefacts found during the restoration of 137 Pillars. Ten minutes later, contemplating a rewarding swim, I’m asked by the hotel’s personal trainer if I’d be interested in a free muay Thai session.
My partner’s derisive ‘I don’t think so!’ propagates pure machismo and I follow the trainer to a small, privately owned Thai boxing gym around the corner. Not for the first time on this trip the words ‘Uh oh’ enter my mind, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much fun I have training with boxer ‘Chooky Jim’. After an intense(ish) bout I return to my suite, where Mrs Smith looks genuinely impressed.
Buzzy Chiang Mai will continue developing apace, with its multi-culti mix of markets, temples, boutiques and backpacker haunts, but staying at 137 Pillars makes you feel like you can arrest the speed of change and step back in time. It’s an intoxicating place – casting a spell of tranquillity unaffected by the distractions of modern life.
It’s easy to describe the design and functionality of 137 Pillars House. Tasteful. Elegant. Sophisticated. Romantic. What is harder is communicating how you feel having spent a few days enveloped in its calm. Blissed out is the best I can offer.