For Whom the Bell Tolls
A favourite haunt of the city’s expat community, Hemingway’s Bangkok announced in September that it would close its doors once and for all on October 30th, 2016. Although the restaurant is due to come back in a new location during the first quarter of 2017, the 100-year mansion itself is due to disappear forever. When it does, another piece of heritage will vanish from the Sukhumvit Road corridor—like so many other restaurants filled with history that once had a home on this busy thoroughfare. Unfortunately, it seems impossible for property owners to resist the allure of Bangkok’s rising real estate prices and simply run away with whatever profits they can grab.
For those who never visited Hemingway’s—and now never will—it was the kind of serene, peaceful place that drew a loyal crowd, as it was centrally located (at No.1, Sukhumvit Soi 14) but seemed far away from the hustle and bustle of the manic metropolis.
“We were seduced by the location and the house itself,” confesses Damian Mackay, the restaurant’s General Manager. “It’s so rare in Bangkok to have a house surrounded by a terrace and balconies. Not to mention the trees giving the feeling that you’re far, far away from the buzz of Sukhumvit Road.”
Hemingway’s management took over the property five years ago and opened the restaurant after extensive renovations. “The idea was to give the feeling of being in one of Hemingway’s houses in Key West or in Cuba,” explains Mackay. “We took inspiration from the writer’s world and we created entirely the inside decoration. We reproduced paintings from Cuba, and added plants and flowers everywhere to recreate the tropical atmosphere of the Caribbean. We also added fishing gear and pictures linked to Hemingway’s life.”
The history of the house itself is just as storied as the life of its namesake writer. It is one of Bangkok’s last remaining buildings from a bygone era when the area was home to plantation owners. Built between 1910 to 1920, using very rare golden teakwood, the house was priced at that time at B200,000—a veritable fortune back then. This would put the value of the home today at around B35 million!
The house was originally built for a high ranking personality at the time—General Chao Phraya Pichayenyothin. The military man was named Regent of Siam, from 1934 to 1942, under King Rama VIII. In the 1930s, its house was given to his son who was then Ambassador of Siam in Laos and married to a Laotian member of the royal family, Princess Douangjit. In the 1940s the house then became the residence of ambassadors, including at one point one of the French ambassadors.
The intricate woodwork décor makes it a beautiful example of the European-influenced “gingerbread” mansions that were popular at the time. It also boasts large interior spaces, interior columns to support the structure, and huge windows. But above all, the balconies and a large terrace turn this two-storey building into a small slice of paradise.
In the 80s the house was an office for a Japanese company, and then served as a restaurant for the past 15 years. “It was first a Thai restaurant, and then it became a Mexican outlet before we took over the property and launched our business in 2012,” Mackay points out.
The new incarnation was a success from the start. According to Mackay, thousands of customers were regularly visiting the premises, with 60-70 percent being expats. “We didn’t really advertise. People came due to word-of-mouth. They enjoyed our simple fresh food, our large portions and, above all, the atmosphere and the garden.”
However, the bell recently tolled for this grand mansion. “We learned a year and a half ago that the owners wanted to sell the place. They gave us 14 months extra to run the place. But in September we received the injunction to leave the premises as our contract was terminated. It was a sad moment,” he admits.
Adding to the tragedy is the fact that the house is soon to be demolished. “The teakwood has already been put up for sale. We feel sad that local owners always put money over history or heritage. The house stood for a long time with two other similar villas in the street. It was the last trace of the old Sukhumvit,” Mackay says with regret.
While the golden teak mansion has been lost to history, Hemingway’s fans will probably not have to wait too long for a new location to be unveiled. “It will again be in a house with a garden,” Mackay hinted. “People can experience the atmosphere of Hemingway’s once more, as we will take all the decorations to the new premises. We expect to be ready to receive customers during the first months of 2017.”