Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bangkok's Best Kept Secret

Nestled in tropical gardens on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, just a step from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, is Bangkok’s most surprising hotel – Chakrabongse Villas. Comprising seven individual suites set around a central swimming pool, the villas form part of a grand estate, built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse.

Chakrabongse House. Pic: Julie Miller
Dominating the grounds is Chakrabongse House, a magnificent Italianate mansion originally used by the prince when he attended formal ceremonies at the Grand Palace, as well as for picnics and river excursions. It later became the home for writer and historian, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, before being handed down to its current owner, his daughter Narisa.

Well, that’s the boring story. The back-story is far more intriguing, a forbidden romance fit for a Mills & Boon novel. Apparently Prince Chakrabongse was a thoroughly modern man, travelling to Russia in his teens to study under Tsar Nicholas. There he fell in love; but with cross-cultural liaisons forbidden, the prince and Ekaterina Desnitsky scandalously eloped to Constantinople, a marriage kept secret from both the Tsar and the Thai king at the time.

After the honeymoon, Prince Chakrabongse returned to Bangkok sans wife, carrying on as if nothing had happened. But eventually the King discovered his secret, and Katya was allowed into Bangkok, albeit at a respectful distance from the royal family. Apparently she never did get to meet the king, despite bearing a child to her prince.

The couple’s son, the handsome and dapper Prince Chula, was brought up in Paruskawan Palace, and only came to live at Chakrabongse House when he returned to Thailand in the 1930s after finishing his degree at Cambridge. In 1938 he too married a foreigner, the English Lisba Hunter; but World War II prevented the couple from ever really making the house a home.

The drawing room with portraits of the owner's
father and grandmother. Pic: Julie Miller
When Narisa - who looks and sounds so very English, but is a quarter Thai - finally inherited the mansion, her dream was to bring it back to it to its former glory, as well as making it a real home. It’s subsequently been beautifully restored, a sympathetic fusion of Thai and European style bedecked with magnificent family heirlooms.

“It’s a home, not a museum,” Narisa says. And now she has opened her home to the public, building seven villas in the grounds and opening the main building for special events and corporate functions.

The villas themselves are tranquil retreats, peaceful riverside and garden views belying their killer location in the tourist heart of the city. Each suite has its own individual ambience, from a Lanna-style wooden house on stilts to the glitzy Chinese Suite, comprising two double bedrooms, living room and two private terraces. While the larger suites are priced up to 25,000 baht a night, there are smaller rooms available from 5,000 baht a night.

With such full access to the incredible grounds and facilities – including a longtail boat exclusively for use of guests – visitors to Chakrabongse Villas are guaranteed a unique Bangkok experience, one where Thailand’s history is literally at their fingertips.

View of the Chao Phraya River. Pic: Julie Miller

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