Although the adventures in the King and I are largely exaggerated and inaccurate, the historical figures continue to tell their story in Thailand through art, monuments and now a hotel.
When you’re visiting Thailand, don’t miss the 137 Pillar House. Its rich history and connection to His Majesty, King Rama IV, and the English teacher He hired, Anna Leonowens, makes it worth a trip.
As told in the fictionalized literature, Anna stayed at the Royal Palace but asked the King for her own place outside of the court. After granting Anna permission to live outside the court, she resided in the house shown in the above picture. While Anna and her son, Louis, lived in the quarters, many royal court workers stayed underneath the house when bad weather prevented them from returning home.
Even after Anna’s departure, the house has experienced many historical events. As 137 Pillars House writes on their website: King Chulalongkorn, best known to foreigners as the royal student of Anna, signed Treaty of Chiang Mai in 1883 at the house. This royal decree permitted foreigners like the British men of East Borneo Company to cut trees across the vast teak forests of northern Thailand for commercial purposes.
For those first Europeans to settle here, Chiang Mai in the 1880s offered glory and hardship in equal measure. During Louis Leonowens’ (Anna’s son) tenure as Superintendent for the Company in Chiang Mai, he opened the Company’s office along the Ping River on January 24, 1896. Three sprawling teak houses, each with more than 100 teak pillars were built on this site and a fourth, 137 Pillars House as we now know it, was moved over from the west side of the river to the Company’s land in the foreigner’s enclave. Louis briefly lived in the 137 Pillars House. The house served as residence of the Company manager until 1927, though it remained part of Company headquarters until World War II. The Japanese invaded Thailand in December 1941 and commandeered all the Company’s Chiang Mai assets including the house. Most of the Company’s Chiang Mai staff escaped to freedom by walking to Burma.
In the post WWII years, the Company returned to North Thailand but sold its Chiang Mai headquarters to William Bain. Bain, a Scotsman educated at Harrow, fled his family’s expectations at 23 for Chiang Mai, where he joined the Company. William married a local Mon girl, and together they raised a family of two daughters and two sons. Bain’s son, Jack, followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Company, and raising his own family in Chiang Mai.
The latest chapter in the long and fabled history of this unique house began in 2002, when Bangkok born Panida Wongphanlert came on holiday to Chiang Mai and fell in love with the house known to locals as Baan Dam, or “black house.”
Beneath the main lounge where workers once stayed for shelter from storms during Anna’s residency, local artists exhibit their work. The management team has great relationships with jewelry designers, painters and sculptors, and they often host art exhibits where guest and travelers can attend.
A lot may have changed since Anna’s time, but one thing remains – the property’s undeniable beauty.
– Romey Louangvilay