“Bottoms up!” frowns Rooj Changtrakul, who then giggles gleefully as I empty my glass of champagne, bubbles tickling my nose as the liquid dances down my throat.
Rooj, is a bon vivant. A big hearted and extremely generous man who loves the good things in life. He is a collector of fine arts, priceless antiques and interesting friends, all three of which he surrounds himself with. He is also the owner of Rachamankha Hotel, a boutique hotel before they coined the word, and an elegant, intimate sanctuary in the heart of the old moated city.
Rachamankha has garnered just about every award it can possibly gather in the industry, for its elegant architecture and unique décor, its fine dining of Thai, Shan and regional, as well as international, cuisine, and it’s impeccable service.
While the staff and management run a tight and extremely slick and successful ship, it is Rooj who is the personality and heart of the hotel.
“My parents were both in property development in Bangkok and as an only child I leant the trade, I even went to the United States to study management,” Rooj explained his path toward Rachamankha. “But my passion has always been antiques. I simply love history. As a little boy of ten I used to go to Sanam Luang in Bangkok, a precursor to Jatujak Market, and buy old things, cheap stuff, but stuff with history. I read about and was fascinated by old civilisations, Egyptian, Khmer, you name it. And once I became fascinated, I wanted to own something from it. Living in Thailand, I started with Ban Chiang, a bronze age civilisation in the north east. My parents divorced when I was younger and my mother married a celebrated architect, Ong-ard Satrabhandhu, he inspired me and helped shape my passion.”
So when Rooj was in the US, he continued his hobby of collecting; often visiting auctions and bidding on art and antiques. Today he has a Picasso, Miro, Kadinsky, Henry Moore among many other originals as well as signed and limited edition prints. “I knew I wanted to do a special city hotel,” he continued. “Initially I wanted to do something in Bangkok, but I just couldn’t find the perfect land. Some relatives of ours were about to open a backpack hotel in Chiang Mai, but at the last minute they elevated it, and now it is Tamarind Village”. Tamarind is considered by the industry to have been Chiang Mai’s first boutique hotel. Having visited Chiang Mai so often over the years, Rooj decided to follow in his cousins’ footsteps and used the same architect — his stepfather, naturally — and contractor to build Rachamankha after he was lucky enough to have purchased the land.
Rachamankha oozes Rooj. From its Lanna architecture, drawing inspiration from, if not directly replicating, some of his favourite pieces of Lanna architecture. “You see the base of that building?” he pointed, “that is exactly the same as the base of the Hor Trai in Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Not many people know this but aesthetics is all about proportion. Some of the greatest architecture in the world — Greek, Roman, Egyptian — have comparable proportions to the Hor Trai in Lampang. While Thai people like to add and adorn, I wanted simplicity. So while I borrowed many ideas and concepts, I stripped them of all but the essential shapes and forms, adding the rare accent when warranted.”
Lanna architecture is about stand-alone buildings, Rooj explained. He was looking for a more fluid concept which connected buildings to one another, creating interesting shapes and spaces within. “For that, I had to look at China,” he said. “Lanna spaces aren’t created to work together, so we used the Chinese courtyard plan. We haven’t been faithful to any particular style or design, as most of what you see in this part of the world comes from Indian and Chinese roots anyway. Egyptian, Roman and Chinese architecture all have buildings surrounding a courtyard, in the old days it was for safety reasons, in today’s hotel parlance, it creates a feel of exclusivity.”
“Then came the fun part,” Rooj giggles.
“There was a market in China’s Zhuhai which sold, amazing, relatively inexpensive antiques! I went there so many times I can’t count. I wanted Rachamankha to have an Asian flavour. So our doors are old carved wooden doors, some of our suite beds are antique four posters, our duo of stone lions and horses which greet our guests are Ming Dynasty. And let’s not forget that Thai people have never traditionally used furniture; a mat was our furniture! So we had to look further and beyond for inspiration.”
Everywhere you look there is a unique piece of art or antique. In fact, there is a museum right above the dining room where all guests can peruse an excellent collection of Kalong ceramics, Burmese laquerware, Sawankaloke pots, ancient swords, silverware and other important pieces of history. Like most true collectors, Rooj doesn’t believe in simply hiding away his collectables, what is usable is used and he regularly rotates pieces of art in the hotel bar.
“From the first day we opened we were inundated by people interested in our ideas and inspiration,” Rooj said, a surprised look still on his face, after all these years. “We have had students of architecture from the United States and China come to study our property. We have designers coming in to visit all the time. It is constant.”
Rooj lives on-premises, a perfect lifestyle for a man who enjoys entertaining! His opulent set of rooms contains a priceless Steinway grand piano, rare books, including many first editions, as well as numerous museum-quality pieces of art. “I like to be surrounded by beauty and art and I like to share it with my friends. I also like hiring inexperienced people, as long as they have drive and the right attitude. We hire an English teacher for our staff, and train them up from scratch, they even get a certificate afterwards. I don’t think people come to Rachamankha and expect some slick perfect English service; they want someone who may speak broken English, but who is authentic, eager to help and to learn and who has real character and personality.”
Meanwhile, if you are fortunate enough to attend one of his many fabulous parties, make sure you avoid eye contact as he makes his way around the room whispering, “bottoms up”. On the other hand, if you can’t beat them, join them. Making people feel welcome and giving them a jolly good time is just another one of this generous man’s passions.