I may have turned down Howard Feldman’s first suggestion – $15m was beyond my budget for a holiday home – but I did take up his second offer, an invitation to come for a weekend break at his Thai-Balinese dream house in the Himalayan foothills of Mae Rim, outside Chiang Mai (first picture).
The Bostonian made his fortune selling farm animal-shaped oven mitts to Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City, then hired Bill Bensley, the “starchitect” behind several trophy hotel properties across Asia, to build an ode to northern Thailand’s ancient Lanna Kingdom. Along with Jerri, his Thai wife, he subsequently filled each room of the multi-pavilion, winged-roof compound with a small museum’s worth of local artifacts and valuable antiques.
In order to attract buyers for an irresistible test-drive, in 2011 Feldman decided to open his mother-in-law’s favourite suite (second picture, bedroom; third picture, living room) as a more personable alternative to the Four Seasons Resort across the road. The name – Howie’s HomeStay – riffs on Thailand’s abundance of slightly seedy backpacker accommodation, but the one-bedroom Teak Pavilion is a world away, with its vaulted 8m-high gilded ceiling, 500-thread count sheets and elongated windows on three sides. Each morning, I woke up surrounded by the lush greenery, fish ponds and water fountains of Bensley’s signature gardens, then stepped into the outdoor bathroom for a plunge in the gargantuan sunken bath. At night, hand-sewn linen blackout curtains cosseted the room in blanketing darkness, while crickets and frogs performed their nocturnal opera.
Howie barely masked his disappointment when I failed to find fun in his most recent business venture – a high-tech, wood-encased mechanised television lift – or be thrilled by operating the master panel controlling my pavilion’s electronics. I redeemed myself, however, by paying special attention to an ornately carved Burmese monk’s bowl, which I spotted after enjoying a juicy papaya and mango breakfast. Excited by my enthusiasm for the piece, Howie offered to escort me to local dealers around Chiang Mai, even though as a guest I had access to both car and driver so could easily have gone on my own. On the journey back, we stopped in front of a rickety roadside shack for a quick soup – the spiciest I have ever tasted – and mountains of noodles smothered in luscious Thai curry sauce.
Total privacy is the HomeStay’s mantra, but I was happy when the Feldmans warmly suggested a home-cooked dinner with them by the inky black pool, where I had spent afternoons watching the mist gather around the mountain peaks. My all-inclusive package also extended to daily massages, delivered by a nimble little Thai lady who is the Feldmans’ own masseuse, daily laundry, an impressively stocked mini-bar and my pick of what were surely Thailand’s tastiest chocolate-chip cookies – those made by Howie himself.
Howie’s might not be a standard homestay – but many could surely learn a thing or two from the Feldmans about quirky, heartfelt hospitality.