CHIANG MAI, THAILAND – The rumbling of some loose boards over a makeshift moat trumpeted our taxi’s arrival at the entrance of a regal-looking compound guarded by a large gate, a stone wall and a watch tower.
A young woman decked out in a long silk gown scurried from her open-air office and, with her hands in the prayer position, bowed and welcomed us with the traditional Thai greeting.
As we dusted ourselves off, an army of porters swarmed the taxi and transferred our belongings to a golf-cart which would eventually take us beyond the gate and into the 13th century world of the Lanna Kingdom.
“I trust you had a good journey?”
The woman’s silky voice interrupted the wonderment I was absorbing – golden-roofed temples gleaming against a sun-drenched sky … beautifully crafted statues almost life-like in design … smiling faces of old women sweeping spotless streets. It appeared not much had changed here since the 13th century.
“This is the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi – the most modern hotel in Thailand, right?” My bewildered question brought a smile to the young woman’s lovely face.
“Oh, yes sir,” she answered. “It was made to look like an old village on purpose – as a tribute to the Lanna people, who ruled northern Thailand for 300 years.”
The young woman then explained the entrance in more detail. Pointing to the dry moat, she told me back in Lanna times, the boards were left loose so the noise would alert the watch tower that an intruder had entered the compound. A group of teakwood buildings off to one side, where local crafts are now sold to tourists and guests, represented the village that would have sat outside a Lanna fortress of this type.
“Please come. We will take you to the lobby to register,” said the woman as we boarded the golf cart for the short drive past old temples, new temples that were made to look old, and a collection of huge banyan trees that, I remarked, appeared to have been there since the beginning of time.
“Oh no sir. There was nothing here when the hotel’s owner (a southern Thai businessman named Suchet Suwanna-mongkol) began building the Dhara Dhevi. All the trees you see and the old temples were brought here from other places.”
Then, almost in a whisper, the young woman informed me: “You know sir, the owner has spent over $140 million making this hotel come to life.”
The cool northern Thai breeze brushing against our faces was a welcome relief from the stifling heat we had experienced on arrival in overcrowded, polluted, but oh so exciting Bangkok a few days earlier at the start of an eight-day visit to Asia’s most captivating country. A few days in Chiang Mai was recommended because this city is considered the cultural capital of Thailand and the temple ruins here are among the best in Asia.
Above: Culture runs deep in Chiang Mai and tourists love to learn a lot about Thailand in this city.
As the golf cart rumbled along cobbled streets, a massive temple-like building covered in scaffolding came into view.
“That will is our new lobby – the biggest in the world,” said the woman of a structure that was scheduled to open a month after our visit.
The “makeshift” lobby where we were headed turned out to be a masterpiece in its own right. The elevated open-air structure overlooked the hotel’s two beautiful infinity pools that in turn seemed to drain into a large rice field that sat in the middle of the 60 acre hotel complex.
A Western woman wrapped in Thai silk named Claudine Nicole Triolo welcomed us with some cool towels and a cup of Thai tea.
Triolo, an American who fell in love with Thailand seven years earlier while traveling and decided to stay, acts now as the hotel’s cultural attaché and conducts guided tours of the complex daily, explaining what the temples, statues and intricate wall carvings all mean. The hotel even has replicas of some old Thai houses where elderly locals now sit and craft beautiful objects using the tools of their ancestors.
The first thing I wanted Triolo to explain was: “Why is there a rice paddy sitting in the middle of a modern hotel?”
Triolo told me the word Lanna meant “land of a million rice fields” and the hotel’s owner felt it only right to include it in the property. A group of local people work the field every day and the rice harvested here is donated to local food banks. In the mornings, from an open-air terrace overlooking the rice paddies, guests are entertained by a man sitting atop an ox playing a Thai flute who, in turn, entertains workers cooking sticky rice on an open fire. The sticky rice, made of coconut milk and cooked in a bamboo cylinder, is then offered to guests at breakfast. It’s a yummy way to start your day.
Finally, we were introduced to our accommodation – a two-tier Colonial Suite made to resemble a traditional high-gabled Thai-style home. The main floor of the palatial suite came stuffed with museum-quality artifacts like original artwork, silk rugs, overstuffed furniture lined with Thai silk, a large living room, a small kitchen and a balcony with our own private Jacuzzi. The main sleeping area up an open air staircase was no less appealing. The bedroom’s curved teak wood roof truly amazed and the bathroom came with an oversized soaking tub and enough amenities to make a high-end spa blush.
Most of the hotel’s 123 villas, pavilions and suites sit perched around the rice paddies and that creates one drawback – mosquitoes. The paddies’ standing water invites the lethal insects – usually of the 747 variety - to dive-bomb the guests. But not to worry. Each night an attendant arrives and plugs something into an outlet that keeps the mosquitoes at bay.
“After you relax a while, you might like to try our spa,” said Triolo.
Now going to Thailand and not experiencing a spa is like going to France and not tasting the wine. Spas are very much a part of the Thai culture and they come in many varieties, including the “corner store” type in cities like Bangkok where you lay on a bed fully clothed and have an attendant sooth away the aches and pains usually accumulated on the long flight getting here.
But few spas in Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter, can match Dhara Dhevi’s. The 9,000-square-foot temple-like facility is the property’s centerpiece. It offers every treatment imaginable and the therapists are some of the best this aging body has ever encountered.
Chiang Mai has often been called a hedonist haven and Dhara Dhevi’s spa reflects that approach to well being. The interior of the spa is decorated with ornate mouldings and sculptures depicting sacred animals or symbolic Buddhist motifs recreated by 150 Chiang Mai artisans from original Burmese designs. Burma, of Myanmar as it has become known, sits just 250 miles to the north and a lot of northern Thailand has been influenced by ancient Burmese culture and design.
After a day of rest, it was time to venture out and see the sights of Chiang Mai. There are too many to cram into two days so Triolo suggested a visit to the city’s famous Sunday street market would yield us some local treasures at bargain basement prices.
Indeed it did. Two silk embroidered tapestries, a couple of teak wood candle holders, a necklace made of local stones and the obligatory set of wooden elephants, were purchased for well under $100. The smiles offered by the local villagers playfully bartering with tourists for their wares came free.
Chiang Mai, on offshoot of the old Silk Road that connected Asia with Europe, has been a gathering spot for centuries. Even today, it’s a favorite with backpackers and high-end tourists who stay at luxury accommodation like the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi or the Canadian-run Four Seasons property not far away.
The Dhara Dhevi can arrange other excursions as well. The highlight of any trip here is a visit to the elephant conservation centre, located in nearby Lampang. The elephant still plays a major role in the harvesting of forests in Thailand and tourists get a chance to ride the mighty beasts at the conservation centre, where the animals are treated like royalty.
Other tours featured by the hotel include visits to ancient Buddhist temples, which are abundant in this area. One of the most popular is a half-day tour offered by Dhara Dhevi which starts with a dawn balloon flight, champagne breakfast, a river raft and an elephant ride.
But you can see much of the culture northern Thailand has to offer without ever leaving this amazing property that, it says here, will be named the best hotel in the world within the coming year.