Tuesday, 26 January 2010
I awake to the sound of crowing roosters. Huh? Where am I? Looking through the sun-drenched floor-to-ceiling drapes offers no clues ... all I see is lush beautiful tropical shrubbery. Then it all comes back to me: I am in the very heart of Bangkok. Tucked away at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 1, to be precise. You can barely be more central than this.
Ariyasomvilla lives up to its name, meaning 'Sanctuary of the Enlightened' according to genial proprietor, Englishman-turned-Thai citizen, David Lees. The property has been in the hands of his wife Pariya's family ever since her grandfather built the house in 1942. Being the first dean of engineering at Chulalongkorn University, you can bet it was built to proper specifications.
Indeed, that house still stands in '100% original' condition, the centrepiece of the expanded hotel which opened in 2008 'just 10 days before Lehmann Brothers collapsed'. David, dressed for all the world like a mahout from Surin, affords himself a sly grin. 'It was Pariya's vision, her dream, to do this ... she was determined to do something with it to ensure the house would survive.'
The lush tropical surrounds, and the solid feeling of the rooms and the decor lends a wonderful established authenticity to the hotel. No wonder: it turns out that David spent many a year working for the Shangri-La group in Hong Kong, overseeing their landscaping and interior design operations. Pariya was a landscaper. That's how they met. The level of understated taste here all makes sense now.
'We're not trying to compete with the Shangri-Las and the Orientals,' he says, ' but if you're looking for something more sincere, more genuine ...'. The staff have a similarly affable approach to service. Switched on, but not overly yes sir-no sir.
David is hands on. He mixes with the guests at breakfast, makes sure that your coffee is on its way. He plays mein host to the cosmopolitan mix with ease and excellence. How hands on? Well, he even had the hotel's 12 toast racks designed and made to order. 'The essence of living in Thailand is you can still get people to do one-offs and short runs for you without blinking,' he enthuses. 'And they bring a lot to the product themselves, whether its ceramics, fabrics, brass or wood.'
This can best be felt in the 24 rooms themselves: beds, headboards, wardrobes were all made by David and his team. Solid wooden stuff, no corners cut. He's also a big fan of Jim Thompson's fabrics, used extensively throughout, most notably with the curtains which reach all the way to the 3.2m ceilings (four metres in the case of their 8-9000 baht a night prime suite).
'I also discovered we already had a lot of things: I'd buy things to sell but hated to part with them -- carvings, paintings, etc, tucked away.' The reception areas feel like a casual browse through an Asian antique store.
The generous bathrooms exude a soothing tropical spa ambience with pebbles and tiles and greenery.
They do have a fully-fledged spa on site, as well as a pool, a library and even a meditation hall. And a restaurant that does '70% vegetarian and 30% percent seafood,' the full-figured vegetarian tells me.
His passionate attention to the tiniest details is inspiring. 'I buy our jams and marmalades and whole-meal breads from a little bakery in Chiang Mai.'
I might not have made time for meditation or a spa here (given I am just too busy typing this up around the peaceful pool), but I walk away feeling very, very enlightened ...
They certainly have created something here worth crowing about.