InterContinental Khao Yai Resort
Most people who come across a junk pile of old train carriages would consider turning them into scrap metal. Not so Bill Bensley, who had the bold vision of transforming the decommissioned carriages into unique accommodations for a luxury resort.
Bill Bensley has a reputation for his eccentric style and imaginative approach to design. In addition to having a playful and unexpected twist, a strong sense of environmental consciousness and sustainability also feature prominently in his designs. Prime examples are the Capella Hanoi, where Bensley incorporated traditional Vietnamese elements into the design, such as a courtyard garden and a pool designed to resemble a lotus flower. Equally noteworthy is the design of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa, also in Vietnam, which features numerous whimsical aspects, such as a giant birdcage bar and a vintage car converted into a DJ booth. Luxury tented camp Shinta Mani Wild located in the remote wilderness of Cambodia was inspired by the adventure and exploration of the early 20th century and made all the more colorful with safari-style furnishings and decor.
His latest venture, the InterContinental Khao Yai Resort which opened this month, is no exception to this design ethos. The project came about when a previous client and friend, Rena Udomkunnatum, the CEO of Elysian Development, asked Bensley to come aboard a resort she was working on in Khao Yai. As with all of their projects, it needed to have a unique story that would make this a destination in and of itself.
For the theme of the hotel, Bensley conceived the idea of upcycling train carriages to tell the story of an old station in Khao Yai called Pak Chong. He found the trains all over Thailand. A couple of them had been sitting in a field for perhaps 50 years and, like Angkor Wat, Ficus trees had taken root on the roof and almost completely enveloped some of the carriages. While he had to remove much of the trees to pry the trains out of the field, he kept some of the huge root systems, “as there is a certain beauty that comes with the idea of returning to Mother Earth.”
The inspiration for the original design concept of this resort struck Bensley some five years ago when he was driving towards the old airport, and noticed an old trainyard full of old rusting train carriages. He thought how wonderful it would be to give these carriages a second life. What he hadn’t contended with is how difficult it would prove to secure the train carriages.
“You would think that they're just sitting out there and rusting and so forth but no, within Thai society they are very much coveted and they cost a lot more than they are worth,” he says. Even though the trains are sold at public auction, it was a major hurdle to convince the authorities to sell the trains to him. “To get the few that we did was like pulling teeth and we overpaid for them,” he said, adding that “renovating the carriages was the easy part”.
Just two hours from Bangkok, Khao Yai National Park has always been a prized getaway for wealthy Thais, a hill station of sorts where many have large country estates. Thanks to its cool climate and forested mountains, it is a popular weekend retreat for urbanites looking to escape the city heat and the destination is increasingly on the radar of international travelers.
Speaking about the location of the project, a stunning piece of land on the edge of this national park, Bensley says “it is always a thrill to work on sites like this – and a responsibility to do as little damage as possible”. Great care was taken to avoid harming the natural, beautifully wooded site. They also brought in 100-year-old, colossal trees which were seeking homes and planted them there.
After the carriages were relocated to Khao Yai, next came the challenge of converting them into fully-functional luxury suites, especially as the carriages were only 2.5 meters wide meaning the resort’s best suites measure a mere 2.5 by 30 meters. The resort comprises 45 guestrooms in the main buildings and 19 repurposed heritage railcar suites and villas. The suites are all uniquely designed to reflect fictional train voyages to exotic places within Asia and transport guests back to the golden era of train travel. Some of the items used in the interiors were sourced in England at the Lincoln antiques fair, as well as in Bangkok, near Chatuchak market.
The presidential suites have private standalone pools, and even the guestrooms in the main hotel feel just like a train, complete with station signboards, luggage racks, bunk beds (for some), and private outdoor bathtubs (for others). The most spectacular room at the resort is undoubtedly the Presidential carriage. It consists of two carriages back to back and each one is 33 meters long, “so it is the strangest proportion suite anywhere in the world, it's 2.5 meters by 66! It is really weird – the ends are the bedrooms but everything else is a walkthrough space – along with the decks of course,” Bensley explained.
He reveals he utilized design 'tricks' to make the narrow spaces feel comfortable. The hallways leading to the rooms are very narrow, “but on purpose, as on trains, it is all about scale and proportion. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel – and carriage – in the form of a balcony or some cases a sitting area or gorgeous headboard: never a narrow, dead-ended space. The narrow spaces are all the charm of this hotel; in essence, that is what a train is all about.”