Architect Rachen Intawong is a young man easily given to infectious laughter, but dead serious when it comes to his passion for Chiang Mai and his northern Thai heritage.
Born in Chiang Mai, Rachen moved to Bangkok to study at the university but realising he didn’t belong, he returned home. He recalled: “It didn’t feel right. I was so unhappy. My heart belonged in Chiang Mai.”
“Tam”, as Rachen is known, went on to secure a degree in Thai art, allowing him to study the Mekong area that was historically the Lanna Kingdom (1259-1558 AD), which stretched from northern Thailand, eastern Myanmar, Laos and southern Thailand. His quest to know more about that civilisation brought him to the countryside which provided a rich showcase of rural architectural styles. Like Florence during the Renaissance, Chiangmai was the centre of art, culture and architecture.
Then as karma would have it, he met businessman Suchet Suwanmongkol, who was looking to build some accommodation on an empty piece of land on the outskirts of Chiang Mai for his family and friends to make use of on weekends and holidays. What originally started out as a 20-villa plan on less than 8ha blossomed into what is today the 24-hectare Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, which soft opened in 2004 and helped add a fresh dimension to an already fascinating destination.
“It was like Lego,” said Rachen, who assembled a small and very young team to pursue the owner’s intentions. “There was no master plan and nothing (on the land) at first, just paddy fields. Then he bought more land. Just like the city of Chiang Mai, we built it up over a long time, a natural growth process.”
Suchet, a successful car dealer from southern Thailand, turned out to be a dream employer. He gave Rachen carte blanche on the project. This saw Rachen travelling non-stop for several months to stay and study a raft of design icons such as the Bengawan Giri and Four Seasons Resort Sayan in Bali, The Strand in Yangon, Raffles Hotel in Singapore and E&O Hotel in Penang among others. In each place, he tried to soak up the milieu as quickly as possible.
“I tried to recapture the feeling of how it was before being spoiled by mass tourism,” Rachen said. He was particularly drawn to the idea of marrying tradition and colonial heritage. Suchet was captivated by his protégé’s efforts.
“We learned the more we worked together, the more ideas we shared,” said Rachen. “We didn’t just want to build another resort. We really wanted to bring back the past and preserve the identity and culture of the Lanna period.”
Painstakingly and over many months, the team carved out the concept of an ancient city, consisting of distinctive structures such as the wooden rice barns, noblemen’s residences and stately colonial mansions set in intimate clusters housing guestrooms, restaurants and recreational areas. These buildings were generously imbued with details based on specific vernacular styles such as Thai Lue or Haw Luang.
As Chiang Mai was the capital of Lanna Thai, which means “Kingdom of One Million Rice Fields”, actual working paddy fields, apart from vegetable patches and lakes, were incorporated in the layout. Thanks to modern engineering and planting skills, the trees and foliage brought in – 90 percent of the greenery was imported – have thrived and added to the patina of age and authenticity.
The end result can only be appreciated by an actual visit, and even then words fail. For nothing quite prepares the guest for the scale and opulence of the resort. The Dhara Dhevi in the name is Sanskrit for “star goddess”.
Turning off from a busy highway and into a unremarkable back lane, the sense of arrival through a tree-shaded drive is stunningly heightened by first sight of a towering structure that is the reception/lobby area. Is it a palace? Well sort of, revealed Rachen, who said it resembles the ceremonial hall from where the Lanna rulers would greet their subjects and make proclamations.
Another stunner is the 3,100-square-metre Spa and Wellness Centre, embellished with ornate mouldings and sculptures depicting sacred animals or symbolic Buddhist motifs – the loving work of 150 local artisans – that took three and half years to complete. The template can be seen in Yangon, which Rachen brought 20 of his men to see.
Lucky also for the project was the fact that the owner, an incorrigible art and antique collector, was only too happy to exhibit choice pieces (over 300) in the resort. Even teakwood timbers he had stored through the years found use in many of the villas. Rachen also designed some of the furnishings such as the Thai figures in familiar yoga poses scattered around one of the pool decks.
The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, the Hongkong-based chain’s first resort of this nature, was not without controversy. At first, the local community was suspicious and resented, what Rachen said, they thought was intended to be “temples built to house foreigners”.
“No one asked us what the truth was,” Rachen recalled. “No one understood our concept.” Despite the talk, the visionary designer and his equally ambitious boss doggedly went about their mission, completing the last phase of complex (at least for now) with the Colonial Suites in late 2006.
“Ultimately, we rebuilt the past so that some of those Lanna traditions could be kept alive for the future,” said a proud Rachen, who turned accommodation provider himself with the recent opening of his own boutique hotel At Niman (see Where to Stay, page 56).
Fortunately for discerning travellers, Chiang Mai remains stubbornly bucolic and laid-back despite sizeable developments such as the Dhara Dhevi. It is a testimony to the people of Chiangmai, who are fiercely proud of their place in Thai history and their contribution to the social landscape.
Over the years, the inevitable problems that accompany urbanisation have reared up – pollution, congestion, inadequate facilities – but generally are not yet at annoying levels as in other hubs around Thailand. And the residents remain the calm and friendly selves they have been down through the centuries.
To renowned landscape consultant and inveterate explorer Bill Benley, who has created his share of swish resorts around the region, including the Four Seasons Resort in Mae Rim, Chiang Mai is his “most favourite place in the whole world”. If and when he does intend to retire, “it will be in Chiang Mai,” he beams.
Yesteryears’ backpackers, who put Chiang Mai on the holiday map, and are now captains of industry, may be glad to know that a bevy of stylish hotels has sprung up, enhancing the destination’s boutique reputation. The Four Seasons Tented Camp, further up in the Golden Triangle’s Chiang Rai, has attracted the well heeled and finicky to experience the wilderness and local hospitality on their own terms.
One, however, doesn’t have to go great lengths to encounter the tribal aspect of northern Thailand. The Night Market in downtown Chiang Mai carries loads of native handicrafts, along with the familiar T-shirts and copy watches. But if the schedule permits, try to arrive on a weekend and visit the Walking Street Market, which is a Sunday-only feature, occupying Ratchadamnern and Prapokglao roads, starting from 1500 to 2200.
Since opening in 2006, the attraction has grown by leaps and bounds and currently not only showcases the produce and items of ethnic groups, but also those of local entrepreneurs like home-made ice-cream and other foodstuffs. Street performances, open-air concerts and parades have also become a staple of this riotous affair, and the hawker centres provide delicious delicacies prepared on the spot. Should shoppers tire, they can easily plop down on one of the leather chairs set up in roadside massage centres for a therapeutic foot and shoulder therapy.
The vibe is that of one big party. So welcoming. So Chiang Mai.
A PERFECT DAY IN CHANG MAI
Start your morning with a great cup of coffee at Wawee Coffee on Charoen Rat Road next to the Narawat Bridge. They have a great outdoor deck where you can watch the Mae Ping River flow by.
There’s nothing like experiencing any city than by bicycle, and there are plenty of places to rent one. I suggest you try my 25- kilometre loop that will take you along the Mae Ping River to the surrounding farmlands and back into the Old Town and central Chiangmai. It’s quite fascinating to zoom down the little side streets (soi) of the Old Town and snatch a glimpse of the locals going about their business. You’ll come away with loads of colourful impressions of the open-air markets, temples, teakwood houses, small cafés and samlors (rickshaw bicycles) that combine to give the place its unmistakable character. If you have time, join the Chiangmai Bicycle Club that meets every Sunday at 7am at the Tha Phae Gate. It’s a great networking opportunity.
Northern Thailand is well known for its tasty cuisine and one of the most popular local dishes is called khao soy (a creamy curry egg noodle dish). Smer Jai Khao Soy is good place to try it.
The afternoon calls for a relaxing spa experience. All the five-star hotels offer excellent services as do some of the local establishments such as the Aka Spa on Rattanakosin and Rarin Jinda Wellness Center on Charoen Rat. Even the Women’s Correctional Institute on Ratwithi is known for providing for good traditional Thai massages. Finally it’s dinner time, and there’s no place to go but Ban Rai Yarm Yen in Lang Ka near the Indian Consulate for authentic northern Thai dishes. Meals are enjoyed in an open-air setting with live music playing in the background.
Philip Dailey is general manager of the newly opened Shangri-La Chiangmai
WHERE TO STAY
This boutique hotel (only eight rooms) is the Moorish fantasy of designer Rachen Intawong, the creative spirit behind the sprawling Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. While no two properties could be so contrasting, both are tastefully and lovingly put together. If you have any complaints, Khun Rachen also stays in the building.
PRICE: Rooms from US$160.
CONTACT: 37 Nimanhemin Road, T Suthep, Muang, Chiangmai, Thailand, tel 66 53 224 949, www.aaitaam.com
In the renowned Chedi chain style, the feel is minimalistic yet cosy due to well-placed lighting. The best time to arrive is at dusk as the place starts to take on a glow. There are 32 Chedi Club Suites and 52 Deluxe Rooms. Despite being along a major thoroughfare, clever architectural details help to shut outside disturbances creating an exquisite cocoon. Facilities are generically named, including The Restaurant, The Spa and The Terrace Bar & Cigar Lounge.
PRICE: Rooms from US$358.
CONTACT: 123 Charoen Prathet Road, T Changklan, A Muang, Chiangmai 50100, Thailand, tel 66 53 253 333, www.ghmhotels.com
The template of the venerable Dusit’s latest brand (Royal Princess is another), dusitD2 shouts trendy, using colours of orange and yellow to light up its public spaces. In the heart of downtown Chiangmai, it’s never far from anything like the night market across the street, which shopaholics will certainly rejoice at. For spa junkies, the Devarana Spa, also found in all Dusit hotels, is on the premises promising (temporary) paradise.
PRICE: Rooms from US$132.
CONTACT: 100 Chang Klan Road, T Chang Klan, Amphur Muang, Chiangmai 50100, Thailand, tel 66 53 999 999, www.d2hotels.com
FOUR SEASONS CHIANG MAI
“Intimate” comes to mind when trying to capture the essence of this multi-awarded hospitality gem. And if the community feel permeates, that’s because head architect Ajarn Chulathat Kitibutr, a specialist in preserving the Lanna style of design, modelled the complex on a traditional village endemic to these parts. With help from renowned landscaper Bill Bensley, he incorporated the pavilions and villas into lush hills and terrain, creating an environmentally sensitive resort that has served as a template for many others that have since come into being.
PRICE: Rooms from US$571.
CONTACT: Mae Rim-Samoeng, Old Road, Mae Rim, Chiangmai, Thailand, tel 66 53 298 181, www.fourseasons.com
MANDARIN ORIENTAL DHARA DHEVI
Spacious and exclusive, the 123 villas, colonial suites and signature residences are in keeping with traditional Lanna architectural styles. All feature museum-quality artifacts and sumptuous Thai furnishings. Facilities include the Dheva Spa, seven restaurants and cooking school.
PRICE: Rooms from US$490.
CONTACT: 51/4 Chiangmai – Sankampaeng Road, Moo 1, T Tasala A Muang, Chiangmai 50000, Thailand, tel 66 53 888 888, www.mandarinoriental.com
The work of well-known architect Ong-art Sattraphan, who is credited with reviving an interest in Lanna culture. Strongly exudes the feel of an old temple – in fact, it was modelled after the Phra That Lampang Luang temple in Lampang. Dotted with valuable antique Thai and Chinese artefacts. The restaurant offers not only Northern Thai cuisine but also Burmese and Shan.
PRICE: Rooms from US$200.
CONTACT: 6 Rachamankha 9, T Phra Singh, Chiangmai 50200, Thailand, tel 66 53 904 111, www.rachamankha.com
SHANGRI-LA CHIANG MAI
This newly minted 281-room property is poised to attract new business to Chiangmai with its 3,500sqm of meeting and event space and ability to accommodate up to 1,700. It also boasts a mini theatre, CHI Spa and five F&B outlets. Located in the city centre, it’s only 10 minutes from the airport.
PRICE: Rooms from US$275.
CONTACT: 89/8 Chang Klan Road, Muang, Chiangmai 50100, Thailand, tel 66 53 253 888, www.shangri-la.com
Opening next month, this 384-room hotel in downtown Chiangmai offers high-tech comfort in a setting that brings together European and northern Thai influences in a stylish whole. Le Royal Club floors promise extra pampering with an exclusive lounge as well as complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cocktails, WI-Fi access and laundry. Four quality restaurants and 1,200sqm of function space add to its appeal.
PRICE: To be confirmed.
CONTACT: 108 Chang Klan Road, Chang Klan District, Amphur Muang, Chiangmai 50100, www.starwoodhotels.com