One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Chiang Mai is an area extending from the east bank of the Ping River around Wat Ketkaram (known as ‘Wat Ket’ or ‘Wat Gate’ for short). Originally the only structure of significance on this side of the river was a tall stupa called Phra That Ketkaew Chulamani, erected in 1428 to house a Buddha hair relic. As the Lanna kingdom’s walled and moated city of Chiang Mai to the west flourished, the residents eventually established a monastery around the stupa in 1578-81 and today it’s considered one of the 10 holiest stupas in northern Thailand, particularly for worshippers born in the Year of the Dog on the Chinese calendar.
Directly opposite the temple, on the Ping River, a boat pier called Tha Sathan Luang (Royal Landing) once received reua maeng pong – scorpion boats, so named for the resemblance of their upturned sterns to a raised scorpion’s tail. The long wooden watercraft were poled upriver from Bangkok to deliver merchandise to Chiang Mai, and to pick up goods to sell on the return trip.
The Chinese merchants who thrived on the boat trade began building two-storey homes and shophouses along the river near the boat landing and Wat Ket. Several examples of these buildings, still standing in the Wat Ket neighbourhood, have been nicely restored in recent years. The shophouses tend to have a ground floor built of thick, stucco-plastered brick walls, while the upper floor is constructed of once-abundant teak.
By the 19th century northern Thailand’s teak trade had expanded considerably. British-owned Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd., arrived in 1892, soon becoming Chiang Mai’s richest and most powerful teak company, with holdings in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae and Nan.
In 1899 British-owned Borneo Company (directed by Louis T. Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens, the infamous governess from The King & I, a book banned in Thailand for its unflattering depiction of the Thai monarchy) obtained a 100-year lease from the Chiang Mai king for a huge plot of land near the east bank of the Ping River near Wat Ket.
The architecture in the district was then further enhanced by the villas of the ‘teak wallahs’, station managers who oversaw the vast teak forests just outside the city at that time. The merchants’ residences were more elaborate than the riverside shophouses, with hipped roofs and much carved wood. Some of the larger, older homes boast ingenious sliding wall panels which can be slid open to allow air to pass through vertical openings and ventilate the room.
The presence of the teak wallahs served as a magnet for other foreigners coming to make their mark in the Lanna capital, including American missionaries, and Sikh and Muslim traders. Soon churches, mosques and a Sikh temple were constructed in the Wat Ket district to serve the religious needs of the diverse population.
The 1921 arrival of the state railway from Bangkok, coupled with the 1955 nationalisation of Thailand’s teak trade, marked an end to an era of post-colonial economics in northern Thailand. Much of Wat Ket district’s impressive 19th- and early 20th= century architecture remains in private hands, and fortunately some of it has been preserved for the admiration of future generations.
The most impressive legacy of the Borneo Company is the Bain House, also known as 137 Pillars House for the impressive number of solid teak logs installed to support the house well above ground in traditional Lanna style. The Lanna elements are combined with tropical colonial design features, including the aforementioned sliding, louvered wall panels. Originally built in 1887 on the west bank, the house was moved across the river and eventually became the residence of Borneo Company director William Bain.
Bain’s descendants recently renovated and re-purposed the elegant home as the centerpiece of a boutique hotel that is now the best place to stay anywhere east of the river, especially for those who wish to explore the Wat Ket district. Sixty villas designed in the classic Chiang Mai post-colonial style have been added to the property, while the original 137 Pillars House itself houses dining rooms, lounges and a library. Of the 60 villas and suites offered, we recommend one of the 20 William Bain Terrace Suites, which overlook the historic pillars house, infinity pool and garden wall. Each features a large bedroom, a generous living room, an airy veranda with cane shades for privacy, and an en-suite bathroom with a vast walk-in closet and sunken bath facing tropical foliage.
William Bain passed away in 1958, but his son Jarin ‘Jack’ Bain lived on to open a rustic museum in 1999 in nearby Wat Ket. Housed in the former abbot’s residence, the display of quirky memorabilia includes ancient farm tools, local ceramics, ornate Lanna royal court clothing and an extensive collection of historic black-and-white photos.
There is much more to explore in the neighbourhood of Wat Ket and 137 Pillars House, including a number of art and design shops. Color Factory displays whimsically painted elephant sculptures designed by such names as Mark Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi. Twenty percent of the profit from sales here go to support Asian elephants in need.
When one talks of the vanguards of contemporary Chiang Mai design, Sop Moei Arts often tops the list. Named for a district in the Salween River basin in the far west of northern Thailand, the company was set up as a cooperative to help Pwo Karen villagers market their traditional handicrafts in novel ways. Traditional Pwo Karen basket shapes, for example, have been transformed into fruit bowls, handbags, wine-bottle holders and other items of daily use in modern urban households. Wall hangings that weave pieces of bamboo and wood together with colourful fabrics are another Sop Moei Arts speciality.
Head to Oriental Style to view quality Thai home wares elegantly displayed in a historic six-pillar teak wood house. Just up the road, Suvannabhumi Art Gallery exhibits contemporary art from neighbouring Myanmar.
The Wat Ket area has quite a few interesting dining options. Inside the original 137 Pillars House, The Dining Room showcases inspired modern Thai cuisine, while Palette focuses on innovative European cuisine paired with fine wines.
A direct descendant of William Bain serves authentic Thai, Burmese and Indian curries on a shaded patio looking out into palms and tropical flowers at Hinlay Curry House, not far from 137 Pillars House.
Another semi-hidden spot in the neighbourhood is homey Kitchen Hush, where Japanese chef Kenji Fujita slices delectable slabs of sashimi and rolls perfect sushi inside an old two-story Thai wooden house.
137 Pillars House
2 Soi 1, Na Wat Ket Rd, tel 0 5324 7788
154-156 Charoen Rat Rd, tel 0 5324 6448
Sop Moei Arts
150/10 Charoen Rat Rd, tel 0 5330 6123
36 Charoen Rat Rd, tel 0 5324 5724
8/1 Na Wat Ket Rd, tel 0 5332 4621
4 Soi, Kaew Nawarat Rd, tel 0 5324 7731