Irma Gu and her husband, Art Thepsobarn, were on a boat trip along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok in 2015 when they spotted three dilapidated wooden houses floating on stilts in the water.
“The beauty of the old shingle caught my eye immediately,” Joe, a former teacher, told Insider. What piqued her most interest was the “For Sale” sign on the property.
“I pointed to the house and told Art that we should buy it,” Gu said. “But he said: Are you crazy, that she is not even on earth!”
As soon as they returned to their home in the business district of Bangkok, they called the number on the sign, but received a dead signal.
A year later, Go’s girlfriend mentioned that she saw a sturdy house for sale online. Go arranged to meet the owners of the house. They led her past into the thick growth to the riverbank, where she found three villas, each on stilts, flanking a courtyard.
“Each building was raised above the water in an elaborate array of broken shingles,” Joe said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Wooden chests and copper scales were lined up inside each villa. Ceramic jars were scattered throughout the property to collect rainwater.
“We walked to the edge of the property where it met the canal, and my body felt the realization that this was the same house I had seen the year before,” Gu said.
The owners of the house were initially hesitant to sell the house, as it had sentimental value to them. Joe said the owner’s predecessor, a former palace tax collector, bought the land and built the first villa in 1910. The second villa was added after the owner’s marriage. The third villa was built at the back of her property when she created her own family. The owner told Go that when she was a child, she would put her books on her head and swim across the river to go to school.
Gu was shocked by the desire to preserve this piece of history.
“I’ve been living in Thailand for 15 years, and in just that short time I’ve seen many homes disappear and replaced by skyscrapers, hotels and attractive shopping malls,” Gu said.
The following Saturday, Go brought her husband, who owns a research firm, to visit the property. “Someone has already made a higher bid, but I vowed to be a good custodian of this storied land,” Gu said.
The couple set up a company with the sole purpose of buying property. The company took out a mortgage, and the couple injected capital into the company to cover the renovation project. Two months later, in May 2016, they received the keys to the property. He refused to go to share the price of the property.
Preserving historical elements – but making them livable in the modern world
At first, the couple tried to leave the house – called Siri Sala – as it was, but they soon realized that modern life does not fit into some traditional architectural elements. The single-skin teak walls kept the house hot during the day, and the bathroom was separate from the main house.
Go and Thepsoparn decided to work with a Thai-born architect named Piram Banpabutr, who founded 4b Architects in Bangkok. Banpabutr worked for Caroe & Partners in London, which specializes in restoring castles and churches.
“At first, I wanted to leave it as it was and add a new bathroom,” Joe said. “But the architects took me out of it because it was a death trap waiting to happen.”
Gu said she still had some concerns about renovating such a traditional property.
“Since I’m from the Philippines, I thought I might look at Thai culture from a foreign perspective,” Gu said. “And while Art was born in Thailand, he is of Chinese descent. We sewed very lightly because we were afraid of making the wrong decisions.”
For inspiration, travel to the heritage town of Ayutthaya and the riverside town of Ratchaburi to see the work of Thai artisans.
Keeping the original design spirit
Go and Thepsoparn set out to find great hotels for inspiration, but eventually scrapped plans for Western-style fountains, a wine cellar, and an underground spa.
“The project was going too grandiose, so we had to keep adjusting and reminding ourselves that we’re building a house, not a hotel,” Gu said.
“We have struggled to find a balance,” Gu added. “Two years went into debating and editing in order to come up with the correct interpretations.”
They decided to keep the spirit of the original design: three Thai buildings share an elevated courtyard and river views. In the end, they moved the houses to dry land.
“We tried very hard to discipline ourselves in the decisions we made,” Gu said. “We asked an architect to draw accurate pictures of the houses before they were demolished; we hired craftsmen from Ayutthaya to mark each slab before it was dismantled, so that the house could be reassembled properly; we even hired a camera crew to interview mother and son about their memories growing up in these homes aquatic”.
Over the next five months, the builders dismantled the villas, built a flood wall, and filled it with soil. They also reconstructed houses built on stilts farther from the river to have an elevated view of the river.
The oldest solid house also showed signs of wear from being in the water for 100 years, so the couple removed it from its stilts and repurposed it into a bar, which now stands in the garden.
Go and Thepsoparn also ensured that no part of the original building was wasted. They converted old floorboards into dining tables, stairs, and benches.
Gu said of the original owners, “When they came out, I asked them to leave anything they no longer wanted behind. Ancient water pots became our treasures.”
Despite recycling everything they could, they went over budget: Go said the five-year renovation cost them three times the amount they paid for the property.
Go now rents out the seafront villa from $3600 per night
Today’s waterfront villa includes five bedrooms, a library, a game room, a 65-foot saltwater pool, and a Thai herbal garden. The private villa is available for rent from $3600 per night at Siri Sala Official Website.
Lucrecia Rodríguez de Acuña of Bangkok, who owns a party decoration company, has rented the villa for her family of three to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 2021.
“Siri Sala is in the middle of the city, but it is very private,” Acuña said.
As Siri Sala is spread across the three previous homes, it has given her family the option to mingle or have their own space. “It’s a luxury hotel like a hotel, but it has a homey vibe,” she added.
Go, for her part, said she enjoys welcoming a guest into her home and showing a piece of history to a new generation of people: “When I look at the river, I often think of the adventurers, the royals, and the merchants who made their way.”