Prolific Bangkok-based architect and interior designer Bill Bensley is going full steam ahead with a railway- themed resort that will see abandoned train carriages upcycled into luxury suites. We talk to the mastermind behind the unique project currently under construction in Thailand.
With more than 200 hotels in his portfolio – including The Siam on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and the recently opened, opera-themed Capella Hanoi – Bill Bensley has earned a reputation for his unconventional style, with generous doses of extravagance, eclecticism and storytelling always deeply entwined in his design narrative. He’s also reputed to be very sensitive towards local communities, and maintains a profound commitment to minimising the environmental footprint of the projects he works on.
Just over two hours from Bangkok and slated for opening towards the end of the year, InterContinental Khao Yai National Park, Thailand is set on an arboreal, 40-hectare site with views over seven lakes. Among the resort’s 61-unit inventory will be 16 suites repurposed from salvaged railway carriages, the first time in Asia that an international hospitality brand has been involved in an upcycling undertaking such as this. For Bensley, it’s a dream project, especially as the owner, Rena Udomkunnatum, is a previous client and close friend, the pair having worked together on her Rosewood Luang Prabang resort.
How did this project come about?
My client was working on a project in Khao Yai, and asked me to come aboard. It’s a beautiful part of the country with mountains and cooler weather – a novelty for Thais who travel there, many from Bangkok, hoping to get their annual dose of greenery, a chance to wear a sweater, and be transported elsewhere for a while. As with all of our projects, this needed to have a really unique story that would make this a destination in and of itself.
Why the railway carriages, and how did you find them?
I’ve always been a fan of upcycling and recycling, so repurposing train carriages was a dream come true. We found them 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 roofs and almost completely enveloped the carriages. While we had to remove much of the trees to pry the trains out of the fields, I’m keeping some of the huge root systems as there’s a certain beauty that comes with the idea of returning to Mother Earth.
What were some of the biggest challenges you were faced with converting these carriages into fully functional luxury suites?
Well, fully functional luxury suites are about space for the most part, and these carriages are only 2.5 metres wide. So, our best suites are 2.5 x 30 metres. That’s a challenge!
What’s your favourite aspect of this project?
The fact that we’re breathing new life into garbage to create magic.
What came first: the location in Khao Yai, or the train carriages?
The location – a stunning piece of land on the edge of Thailand’s most important forested national park. As a nature lover and a conservationist, it’s always a thrill to work on sites like this, and a responsibility to do as little damage as possible. We’d actually designed a complete hotel after I was inspired by the architecture of an early-20th-century railway station nearby. I scrapped what we had and redesigned the whole thing, bringing in the idea of upcycling railway carriages to really tell the story of an old station in Khao Yai.
What makes this particular location so ideal for the project?
Khao Yai has always been a prized getaway for wealthy Thais, a hill station of sorts where many have large country estates. It’s just two hours away from Bangkok, and the cool climate and forested mountains make it an idyllic escape from the heat of the city. There are buckets of things to do there – activities, cultural experiences and nature – so it’s very special. And with a name like InterContinental behind us, we can reveal this destination to the larger world of travellers. Khao Yai has always been overlooked by international luxury travellers, who instead headed to Chiang Mai. As the latter has grown into Thailand’s second largest city, with traffic jams and some high rises, Khao Yai has a chance to become the next great nature destination in Thailand.
Did it take some work to convince the owner, or was she on board from the outset?
She and I had previously worked together to create Rosewood Luang Prabang, which melded storytelling with restoration and building in a way that preserves nature. She understands Bensley Design and we have a wonderful friendship. As soon as I showed her the new plans for a railway-inspired hotel, she was truly on board! It’s great to work with clients that are also friends, as we have a lot of fun dreaming up ideas, visiting the mock-up trains, and collecting rare items for this special project.
Tell us about the design theme and inspiration.
The railway-carriage suites, and every room, tell the tale of a train conductor called Somsak who grew up near Khao Yai. Since childhood his passion was trains; he was a ticket collector, a conductor, a station master – all the time collecting railway memorabilia. One day he found out there were plans to build an extension of the line going through to Khao Yai. He gathered his savings, bought a plot of land and commissioned a local architect to design a station and ticket office in the style of the old architecture he’d come to love, and a small dwelling that he filled with his railway collection.
While working, Somsak saved every penny to experience the most incredible train journeys on Earth. They took him to Sri Lanka and India, and then closer to home: Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Yangon, Luang Prabang, Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen, Song Kla, Sukhothai or and even Chanthaburi. These journeys, which he could have taken the train to from Khao Yai, became the inspiration for the railway carriages. They’re all uniquely designed to reflect each journey and will transport guests to the glamorous golden age of rail travel, complete with boarding passes and special luggage tags. The presidential suites will have private, standalone pools, and even guests in the main hotel guestrooms have rooms which feel just like a train, complete with station signboards, luggage racks, bunk beds for some and private outdoor bathtubs for others.
Bensley Design projects are typically characterised by elements of nature, conservation, sustainability, storytelling and unique destination experiences. How does this new project tick these boxes?
This is a unique destination, as Khao Yai is just coming into itself and beginning to attract people from beyond our borders. In terms of storytelling, we loved coming up with the tale of Somsak the train conductor and developing his story through every part of the hotel. As always, it’s the DNA of our project and guides all of our design choices, so that guests are transported to a world of our own creation, while still being rooted in reality. As for sustainability and conservation, we always build using the sustainable principles outlined in my published white paper, and also consider how best to build so that we wouldn’t do harm to this natural, beautifully wooded site. We also brought in colossal 100-year-old trees which were seeking homes, and planted them here. Another aspect of sustainability is the railway carriages themselves – the truest form of recycling and upcycling.
Is this kind of upcycling a trend we’re going to see in hospitality design, especially with regard to big brands?
I hope so. This is the first time a big hotel brand backs upcycling on such a big scale. I hope more will follow suit – follow the less-treaded path of major upcycling and recycling, as it brings huge appeal to any project and so much character. I’d love to see an upcycled plane hotel, a grounded ship, or – and this is something I’ve been pitching for years – a 100 percent recycled hotel.
Safari on Wheels
Known as “the train on the bridge”, Kruger Shalati opened in September last year, offering a one-of-a-kind South African safari experience. Positioned on a bridge above the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park and ideal for wildlife viewing, this boutique hotel resides in repurposed railway carriages that have been exquisitely fitted out. Offering 31 rooms, consisting of 24 carriage rooms and 7 Bridge House rooms, all of which provide a deeply visceral experience and tailored for immersive comfort, the style of the train is a celebration of African design in collaboration with local art and crafting skills. High above the riverbanks, aligned with the floor level of the train, lies a pool deck, offering a swimming experience unlike any other — with crocodiles, hippos, buffaloes and elephants greeting guests just metres below.