Saturday, February 10, 2007

Steeped in a way of life

Thai Takes


ACROSS the Chao Phraya River, the sun was setting against the backdrop of Bangkok’s famed Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn.

“Arun with a view”, I thought as I watched the fabulous sunset from a quaint boutique guesthouse called Arun Residence as E.M. Forster's novel, A Room With a View, flashed in my mind.

“That is the same view I saw two years ago,” related Dr Piyanuj Ruckpanich.

Around late 2004, Dr Piyanuj received a phone call from her 54-year-old friend, Dr Sant Chaiyodsilp, telling her to drive towards the Grand Palace, park her car at Wat Po (Emerald Temple), cross the street and walk into a soi (Thai for lane) until she reached the end.

There, Dr Piyanuj saw the sun setting above Wat Arun. She immediately called Dr Sant, telling him, “get the place”.

The place was a dilapidated 80-year-old corner shop lot on the riverfront. “The building itself is nothing,” explained the 40-year-old doctor of her decision.

“Bangkokians like me usually don't feel anything about the Chao Phraya as we have seen it our whole life. But Wat Arun was so beautiful with the sunset,” she added.

Previously, the lease owner of the neglected building refused to rent it out to others who saw its potential. However, Dr Sant, who has written travel books in Thai, “clicked” with the owner who then relented.

Dr Piyanuj and her partners were puzzled as to what to do with a property that Dr Sant described as possessing the best view in Bangkok. Initially, they planned to turn it into an organic restaurant.

But the lease owner wanted them to rent the whole building and not just the ground floor. And the partners found their building could accommodate something bigger than a restaurant.

Inspiration came from across the river. Dr Piyanuj's best friend suggested a visit to Ibrik Resort by The River, a three-room inn that pioneered Bangkok's boutique hotel scene.

At Ibrik, the partners got the brainwave to restore the building into a five-room guesthouse and a restaurant. Their concept was a place where guests were treated as if they were staying in a friend's home.

About a year later and after spending over 15 million baht (RM1.5mil), Arun Residence debuted, becoming a part of the recent emergence of fashionable boutique hotels in the Thai capital.

The trend, according to Dr Piyanuj, started when guests grew “tired of big hotels where they can expect to see the same thing”.

Using her guesthouse as an example, she explained that her clientele wanted to stay in a place where they could soak in the Thai way of life.

“Just look around this neighbourhood,” she said, as barges transporting rice, floating restaurants and river taxis plied the river. “It is not touristy. The people are living the same way as those who lived here 80 years ago.”

The old lady living close by, for example, still takes her bath outside her house, she added as laughter from the children living next door competed with the sound of the splashing waves.

It's not only the guests who take delight in the neighbourhood. The neighbours are also delighted with some of the guests, noted Dr Piyanuj.

The members of the Thai and Luxembourg royal families have strolled through the pedestrian Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong – which is off Maharaj Road in Ratanakosin Island, the heart of Thailand’s historic and architectural heritage – to dine at Arun Residence.

So did Nicholas Cage when he was in the city to shoot the movie, Bangkok Dangerous, late last year. The management turned the private roof garden of Arun Suite, which is its best room, into a dining area for the actor and his company.

“We don't have any proof that Nicholas Cage was here, said Dr Piyanuj, laughing. “We didn't get his photograph and his autograph he signed on a shiny surface got wiped off.

The guesthouse has also become the place in Bangkok to sweep a woman off her feet. Two weeks ago, a Singaporean rented a section of the restaurant for a private dinner with his Thai girlfriend. As a violinist played, he proposed to her.

Did the woman accept?

“I don't know. She should because it was so romantic,” said Dr Piyanuj as the lit Wat Arun beamed mystically across the river.

(Published in The Star on Feb 10, 2007)