When you are taking a lazy weekend long-tail boat trip on the waterways of Bangkok, you really should be careful of what you wish for. Away from the glitzy high-rises with balconies offering sweeping views of the city and down at water level with people living lives just as their ancestors used to, things have a way of looking kind of glamorous and very authentic. And if you see a rickety old hand-written ‘for sale’ sign on a 2-rai plot with six dilapidated traditional waterside wooden houses on it then maybe, just maybe, pass right on by and keep dreaming.
But that is not the way Filipino Irma Go thinks. Five years back she was out with husband Art and friends, pottering around on the khlongs of Bangkok Noi, when she spotted a waterside property for sale and decided to phone the number listed. As Art recalls, fortunately the owners—an elderly mother and her only son—had changed their minds and didn’t answer the call. Fate, however, had different plans. Irma didn’t let go of her vision, formed back in the Philippines when her close family would congregate at the Go compound every weekend for food, fun and family life, and kept a lookout for something that could replicate that experience in Bangkok.
Then two years later she saw another property advertised. Back in the boat with a friend in tow and directions courtesy of Google maps, she set off in search, only to be disappointed when Google (being Google) couldn’t find it in the myriad back canals. When she called the number to ask for directions, it turned out that it was the same family home she had seen previously... and this time nothing was going to deter her from a purchase. Art knew better than to try to influence her, particularly when Irma pointed out that she had already given up everything to live with him in Thailand. The least he could do to agree with the purchase.
Next step was to decide what to do with the property. The original concept was to restore and upgrade but this quickly became impractical given the extent of the decay and erosion over the past 100 years and the dangers posed by flooding. Architectural firm 4b, along with various structural engineers and heritage experts, were brought in to consult and the consensus was to remodel and rebuild but retain as much of the original look and feel as possible, keeping with the surroundings.
The previous owner had her wedding ceremony at the house and the ruen hor, or honeymoon suite, has been restored with pride of place at the front left of the five-bedroomed property. Irma and Art recall their wedding at the original Jim Thompson house in Bangkok and they hoped that by reproducing a traditional newly-wed suite that future guests can capture some of the traditions of the Thai wedding ceremony.
The room is beautifully enhanced by a ceiling mural painted by local art students, depicting the aquatic life of the surrounding waterways. The original wedding bed has been repurposed with extra width added to accommodate more modern couples and as a homage to the river lifestyle, the ensuite bathroom area contains a large water jar for pre- and post-shower splashing. A sixth bedroom is planned as a wellness and spa relaxation area complete with a small meditation garden that Irma stresses will be canine-friendly for those with chilled-out small dogs.
The first floor is designed in such a way that you can throw open all of the doors and allow the breeze to circulate. Much of the wood from the original houses has been retained and converted into eye-catching pieces by wood crafters Chotiwat Factory—like the 6.3-metre-long dining table that seats 20 guests with ease. The inspiration came from a trip back to the Philippines when Irma and Art’s first child was just two years old. Staying at a guesthouse owned by a leading Manila doctor, at dinner, they were a little surprised to be seated at a long communal table.
Concerns that other guests might not want to be disturbed by a boisterous youngster were quickly brushed aside and what followed was a magical evening in which 20 or so mainly strangers shared such life experiences as a Broadway star, a regional financier, a surgeon, a dancer, a university dean and a host of other professions and pastimes. Art says that he has always wanted to recreate this experience at home in Bangkok and is working on plans for “immersion camp” weekends where people with a common interest—but as yet unacquainted—can come together to share experiences and ideas and, most important of all, make new friendships that will flourish.
The oldest of the original houses on the property has been restored using perhaps 75 per cent of the original teak. This area features a heritage bar where Irma and Art envision story-telling and background jazz can be enhanced by the slow imbibing of age-crafted whiskies. This is an adult area for guests to relax and unwind, while children and younger guests can utilise the adjacent games room.
There’s a library too, Art’s “happiest” room, where a mixture of pieces from his father and other relatives and friends hark back to a less technology-dominated era. Pride of place goes to a large, old, handmade wooden truck that earlier generations of youngsters doubtless entertained themselves with for hours. Art has a view that like-minded people want to travel with children— and parents too—and don’t want to feel that anyone in the group is a nuisance or is unwelcome. So, he has created an environment where there is space for all generations to interact and feel welcome.
After two years of painstaking reconstruction work, and with guidance from noted interior designer Nicoletta Romei, the Siri Sala Private Thai Villa on the river is now getting ready to welcome guests. Consultations with hospitality marketing experts have led to countless suggestions. But deep down Irma dreams that the property will be used by friends and families coming together as a group for a few days of escape in a redefinition of what luxury travel might look like in a post-Covid world. A place where slow travel meets privacy, where curated experiences immerse in the local community and where meaningful relationships are made. As Irma says, “It’s a home positioned to welcome guests in a world where people travel to meet other people, rather than just to see new places.”
It is Irma’s view that while luxury hotels with all the trimmings will continue to appeal to first-time visitors to a new city and those on a business schedule, there will be many that having first visited, will want to learn more on future trips. She is therefore preparing a full schedule of original experiences that will take in what it means to be a Bangkokian and how the past has helped shape the now. This is nothing new for Irma because she has long been treating her friends from overseas to unique experiences that explore the various aspects of what makes Bangkok and its people unique.
There are a myriad of special temples, museums, workshops, cafés, restaurants and bars situated along the maze of backwater canals to provide the perfect antidote to shopping mall sameness. Opportunities will open up to meet the young and old who bring vibrancy to the city’s waterway of life, as well as to engage first-hand in the stories that most visitors simply never get the chance to hear.
While the property is situated in a tucked-away part of the canal eco-system, it is just a diagonal stone’s throw from the amazing Wat Suwannaram Temple, which dates back to the Ayutthaya period. During the establishment of the Thonburi district it was used as the place of execution of prisoners of war and later became the site of royal cremations and other important ceremonies. It also houses one of the most beautiful fresco murals of the Rattanakosin period.
The story goes that a competition was held by the king to see who could paint the most beautiful piece. A Chinese immigrant artist (with a fabled liking for drink) and his Thai counterpart were veiled as they painted in isolation, neither being able to see the work of the other. The results are what you see today, a Bangkok Sistine Chapel of sorts, along with other murals dating back to the 1700’s. As Art says, “This is the real Chao Phraya River, as in the old days before the large canals were added to shorten trips, every boat to and from Ayutthaya would pass this way.”
Food will naturally be an important part of the vacation agenda. Evenings around the giant teak communal dining table will allow the opportunity to interact with the very best of Thai chefs cooking mostly local ingredients sourced from the many nearby family farms and markets. Art has worked on producing attractive garden spaces with herbs and edible plants, although he claims not to have realised that gardens in the European sense were not prevalent in Bangkok because space was mostly given over to the practicalities of growing vegetables and herbs for cooking.
Siri Sala Private Thai Villa is clearly a work of passion and Irma and Art understand they are at the start of a journey made less certain by current circumstances in the travel industry. They have assembled a small team of top professionals dedicated to creating a unique short-term vacation stay with a chance to learn more about what is truly at the heart of Bangkok life. In offering unique glimpses into the adaption of old to new, they are hoping guests can make new friends and learn from each other as those friendships grow. The couple’s role perhaps is to be the conduit for people looking for a different way to enjoy city travel.
Learn more at sirisala.com.
[This story first appeared in Koktail Magazine Issue 1.]