The sun is descending over the paddies, casting shadows across the old wooden rice barn and dripping banyan trees. A straw-hatted villager in an indigo smock guides two water buffalo down a muddy path, trailed by three clucking roosters. As daylight fades, torches spark to life, fireflies flicker, and the farmer and his team turn in for the night, leaving the fields to the scarecrows and crickets. Right about this time, your waitress arrives with a chilled glass of Sancerre, and the pianist launches into a florid version of "We Are the Champions."
It's evening at Thailand's newest luxury resort, the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, near the northern city of Chiang Mai. Four years in the making—and still not finished—the 60-acre property quietly opened its doors last December, with 40 guest rooms. The remaining 124 villas and suites will be added between now and December 2005, in time for a proper grand premiere.
The Mandarin Oriental name assures Dhara Dhevi plenty of attention, but that's not the reason hotel junkies have been buzzing. This is simply one of the most ambitious resorts Asia has ever seen: a teakwood fantasia modeled on a northern Thai village, with vegetable gardens, lotus ponds, moats and fortified walls, towering palaces, a marketplace, a town green, even a temple, all of it occupied by a veritable army of merchants, servants, farmers, weavers, cooks, woodcarvers, and massage therapists. The scale is roughly on par with Colonial Williamsburg, or a Las Vegas mega-resort; the effect is a mix of both. Guests are taken to their villas in glittering horse-drawn carriages or antique samlors, saluted en route by uniformed, heel-clicking guards. From the infinity pool you can gaze upon farmers harvesting rice and imagine you're a 15th-century nobleman in his own private fiefdom.
Suchet Suwanmongkol owns several Ferraris but turns up for meetings in sandals and a windbreaker. He's been on the premises almost every day since the groundbreaking, supervising construction from a golf cart adorned with a Rolls-Royce grille. Dhara Dhevi's staff refer to Suchet as "the owner" (in fact, his daughter is the primary shareholder), and say little else. There's something Howard Hughesian about the man, not least his unbridled vision.
When Suchet conceived of Dhara Dhevi four years ago, it was on a much smaller scale. He began it, by most accounts, as a vanity project, until the realities of running a hotel set in. In 2004 a management deal was struck with Mandarin Oriental. But Dhara Dhevi remains Suchet's obsession, and he's spared no expense. Witness the gems embedded in the most unassuming bas-reliefs, and the 3,600 trees—some 80 feet tall—that were transplanted to the property intact. Officials put the current price tag at $80 million, though the final tally is rumored to be twice that—either way, an astronomical cost for an Asian resort.
It was the simplicity of northern life that lured Suchet to Chiang Mai after a lifetime down south. "You can travel in any direction from the city center, and within fifteen minutes you're in a tiny village, with rice fields, buffalo, people living in traditional homes," he says. "In Bangkok, Ratchaburi, Pattaya, you never see this. Only here."
Suchet rarely describes Dhara Dhevi as a hotel; rather, he sees it as a living museum of northern Thai culture. "Everywhere you go in Asia, resorts look the same," he says. "The only giveaway is the statues by the pool. In Java they'll have a garuda [Indonesia's half-man, half-eagle icon]. In Koh Lanta they'll have a turtle. In Chiang Rai they'll have an elephant. Otherwise you'd never know where you are." At Dhara Dhevi, Suchet wanted to create a property specific to the locale. To do this, he hired a budding architect named Rachen Intawong.
Rachen was raised in Chiang Mai and attended architecture school in Bangkok. On his first week in the capital he took a bus to Siam Square. "Everything was too new, too big, too impersonal," he recalls. "I thought, If this is what I'm supposed to build, I want no part of it." After two months he quit Bangkok and returned to his hometown. Later, studying traditional architecture at Chiang Mai University, he rekindled his passion for design. Rachen was only 29 when Suchet recruited him for Dhara Dhevi.
The young architect set out on his Vespa to explore the northern countryside, studying temples, barns, door frames, prayer offerings, farming tools. Many of these details he would later echo at Dhara Dhevi. On Suchet's dime, Rachen also traveled to Singapore, Penang, India, and Nepal; he brought his entire crew of woodcarvers to Mandalay and his team of glass-cutters to Luang Prabang so each could see firsthand "how the sunlight reflected off temple walls. You can't get that from a blueprint."
Rachen returned full of ideas, and had no trouble—financially or practically—putting them to use. The architecture at Dhara Dhevi is literally all over the map. Strolling the grounds, you pass continually from era to era, region to region—from colonial Burma to rural Laos to medieval Chiang Mai. The pathway itself morphs from brick to flagstones to tiles and back. Along one side might run a primitive mud wall, opposite might be a fence of polished teak. Some villas are sided with clapboards, others with red brick, still others with primrose plaster. Interiors are equally eclectic. My villa, No. 11, is spare and rustic, with varnished plank floors and dark walls; other rooms fairly glitter with rococo touches. The Colonial Suites, opening later this year, are to be outfitted with plush divans and sumptuous fabrics that will recall Raffles in Singapore.
Rachen defends this mishmash of styles by explaining that the resort is essentially a small city—and a city is, by nature, composed of varying, even clashing, aesthetics. To his credit, this is precisely what sets Dhara Dhevi apart: it is the furthest thing from anodyne. Most Asian resorts seem blandly familiar once you've seen a few; their design is intended to soothe the eye, not provoke it. Dhara Dhevi is a whole different animal, as challenging and dynamic as an actual city. Some guests will love it straightaway, some will require a few days to process it, and some may just feel a bit dizzy.
If the property has a focal point, it must be the Dheva Spa, a magnificent re-creation of a 19th-century Burmese palace, fashioned entirely from burnished teak and capped by a 64-foot, seven-tier roof. The spa unfolds over 33,000 square feet, with no fewer than 35 treatment rooms. Developers plan to construct a separate "ayurvedic village" in a far corner of the property, where guests will be encouraged to stay for several weeks.