Chiang Mai's Newly Renovated Mandarin Oriental

Chiang Mai's Newly Renovated Mandarin Oriental

Jim Franco
Jim Franco
At the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, in northern Thailand, luxury and learning live side by side. It's cultural immersion in high style: the $80 million resort makes sure that for every 33,000-square-foot spa, there is a 5,000-volume library.

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.

Edification, not mere indulgence, is Dhara Dhevi's mission. Suchet hopes to provide guests with a full-scale cultural immersion. "Any hotel can put you in a good mood, but it lasts only as long as the trip," he says. "We want to give an education." Guests will have access to a 5,000-volume library, lectures from visiting academics, and a 250-seat amphitheater for dramatic, musical, and dance performances. In-depth, guided excursions to temples, historic sites, and artisans'villages will be on offer. But since not all guests are inclined to leave the premises, Dhara Dhevi also brings the countryside to them. Three weather-beaten stilt houses were carted in and resurrected near the tennis courts; they now function as a working crafts center, where wizened ladies from nearby villages are invited to drop by and practice basketry, weaving, and woodcarving in public view.

Instructional programs abound. Honeymooners can plant rice alongside farmers in the field, executives on corporate retreats can prepare duck curry at the cooking school, and kids can learn to play takraw (the Thai version of volleyball). Suchet says he envisions "a billionaire weaving a key chain for his Bentley or making his own letterhead from mulberry leaves. Yes! I think he'll do it, just so he can say, 'I made this. It may not look good' "—Suchet laughs—"'but I did it myself.'"

Northern Thailand has long defined itself against the dominant culture of Bangkok and the south. During the 20th century, as Thailand modernized, northern customs, dress, language, and art fell by the wayside. But over the past decade, Chiang Mai has witnessed a resurgence of state-endorsed regional pride. The northern dialect has made a pronounced return. Men, women, and children often dress in traditional clothes on Fridays (Culture Day). Classical dances and folk songs are performed in schools. Architects and interior designers are using northern motifs in new buildings.

So energized is this reclamation of northern culture that observers now speak of a "Lanna revival." The reference is to the Lanna kingdom, which in its heyday, between the 13th and 16th centuries, encompassed all of northern Thailand and parts of present-day Laos and Burma (Myanmar). Lanna—the name means "one million rice fields"—was really an amalgam of disparate cultures, its ethnic base ranging from Chinese to Indian to tribal Burmese, with spiritual roots in Theravada Buddhism, animism, and Islam. The Lanna alphabet differs from that of modern Thai, just as Lanna cuisine, with its sticky rice and pork sausages, remains distinct from southern Thai cooking. The Chiang Mai staple khao sawy, a blend of Indian-style curry broth and crisp Chinese noodles, testifies to Lanna's hybrid origins.

Yet it was in art and architecture—particularly temple design—that Lanna made its greatest mark. Temples in the north are more modest than those in Bangkok, though many boast intricately carved fretwork, mirror-glass mosaics, and gold leaf. Wood is the dominant material; gold is less common here than in the wealthier south. A hallmark of Lanna construction is the cho fa, the V-shaped finial that crowns the apex of a temple's pitched roof. Builders often left ceiling beams exposed to highlight the temple's "honest architecture." Many of the buildings at Dhara Dheviare representative of Lanna style, as are incidental details such as the terra-cotta pots of "drinking water" placed as an offering outside villa gates.

This is explained by Claudine Triolo, Dhara Dhevi's director of art and culture. Triolo's fluency in Thai causes even locals to mistake her for a native, but she is actually an Italian-American from Long Island, with a master's in art history. For six years she has made her home in Chiang Mai, leading tours and researching northern Thai art.

Triolo speaks of Dhara Dhevi playing a role in preserving Lanna traditions and being "connected to the local people"; she and her colleagues hope they will see the resort as a sort of Lanna community center. If this sounds like a tall order for a luxury hotel, the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi is probably the only hotel with the resources and ambition to pull it off.

Triolo, for one, is a great asset, genuine in her enthusiasm while sensitive to the pitfalls of such a project. There is, after all, a fine line between a living museum and a theme park; the inevitable Epcot comparisons will pose an obstacle. A friend in Chiang Mai has taken to calling the resort ThaiLand™, while other residents I spoke to worry that it may come off as a cultural petting zoo, complete with its own artisans, livestock, and peasantry.

But then, is a theme park necessarily a bad thing?Joe Cummings, author of the definitive Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, is working on a book about Dhara Dhevi and the Lanna revival. "This is really a chance to effect a broader understanding of Lanna culture and history," he says. "Whether it's a tasteful representation is in the eye of the beholder, but I recognize Suchet's sincerity and passion."

In one case, the resort's design has proved too authentic for some Chiang Mai residents, who object to the construction of a Buddhist prayer hall on the property—a replica of the famed Wat Lai Hin in nearby Lampang. Resort officials emphasize that staff use the unconsecrated "temple" for worship. Yet one local scholar decried it as an example of "the systematic commercialization of Buddhism." The debate drew national coverage—an overreaction, arguably, since Dhara Dhevi is hardly the first Asian resort to borrow Buddhist imagery. "Temple design is the only art form that Thais have deemed worth preserving, since they've let virtually all their vernacular architecture be destroyed," notes Cummings. "So it's really the sole reservoir to draw from when designers try to incorporate 'Thai-ness' into modern buildings."

Guidebooks have long described Chiang Mai as Thailand's cultural capital, an outsized village where old-time street life, craftmaking, and folk rituals are on vivid display. As such, it has traditionally attracted a more respectful and curious traveler. That's changed as Chiang Mai has grown into a minor metropolis, with the attendant go-go bars and party crowds. But it is still culture—or the promise of it—that keeps visitors coming.Last year saw a 30 percent increase in passenger arrivals over 2003. Foreign airlines are adding direct flights to Chiang Mai, bypassing Bangkok. The demographic of visitors has changed, as well, since the 1995 opening of the Regent resort (now the Four Seasons), which enthralled guests with its own rice paddies and water buffalo, a decade before Dhara Dhevi—though its scale and demeanor were and remain far more intimate. The Regent exposed Chiang Mai to a new, well-heeled audience. Now luxury properties are opening all over. The Chedi, an Aman offshoot, arrives this spring. A Shangri-La will land in 2006, and a Banyan Tree resort is in the planning stages. The Rachamankha, a stylish new boutique hotel in the Old City, has won deserved praise. With the luxe lodgings has come a wave of shops, restaurants, and bars catering to the upmarket visitor.

All politics is local, and nowhere more so than in Thailand. The prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, hails from Chiang Mai province, and has spent millions to boost tourism, improve transportation, and lure industry to the region. The city is now a boomtown: cranes crowd the horizon, and 7-Elevens and superhighways proliferate at a Bangkokian pace. "Thaksin has given the city a blank check for development," says Cummings. "Unfortunately, the kind of infrastructure Chiang Mai needs most—like real mass transit—is being ignored. There are no zoning laws, no statutes to preserve disappearing landmarks, no control on vehicle access to the historic center." It does seem absurd that a city of 250,000—Thailand's second largest—has no public buses, and only 13 metered taxicabs. Residents and tourists make do with the fume-spewing motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, or bone-rattling songthaews—red pickup trucks with passengers jammed onto wooden benches in back.

One evening, head spinning from traffic and tuk-tuk horns, I retreat to the tranquil confines of the Mandarin Oriental. A horse-drawn buggy carries me to the lobby (I tried to walk, but the coachman insisted). Here the night falls back 500 years, as the ping-pang of xylophonemusic blends with the chatter of frogs in the rice fields. As if on cue (and I wouldn't put it past Suchet and his crew) a pale moon emerges to silhouette the gabled palace—er, spa. The tableau recalls a set from a Zhang Yimou film. Is any of it real?The frogs, certainly, and probably the horses. The rest is anyone's guess. But I don't hear anybody complaining.

PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.

High season in northern Thailand runs from October through February, when days are cool and dry and nights can be chilly; summer is humid and hot, with more rain. From North America, a good time-saving option is to fly to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (nonstop from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Vancouver), then take a three-hour flight to Chiang Mai. On May 1, Thai Airways begins nonstop service between New York and Bangkok; from the capital it's a one-hour flight to Chiang Mai.

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai
DOUBLES FROM $450. 51/4 MOO 1, CHIANG MAI-SANKAMPAENG RD.; 800/526-6566 OR 66-53/888-888;

Four Seasons Chiang Mai
DOUBLES FROM $375. MAE RIM-SAMOENG OLD RD.; 800/332-3442 OR 66-53/298-181;

Rachamankha Hotel
DOUBLES FROM $337. 6 RACHAMANKHA 9; 66-53/904-111;

Le Grand Lanna
Chiang Mai's best and poshest, unfolding over a series of candlelit dining rooms and teakwood terraces at Dhara Dhevi and offering inventive takes on Lanna cuisine. DINNER FOR TWO $31. 66-53/888-888

Food for You
A family home open on weekends only, for shockingly good—and inexpensive—Thai dinners. The seafood is extraordinary; the vibe is exclusive, yet informal. Reservations essential. DINNER FOR TWO $20. 28 MOO 5, CHIANG MAI-DOISAKET RD., SANSAI; 66-53/491-604

The House
Danish designer Hans Christensen runs the city's most fashionable gathering spot, in an impeccable Indochine setting. Skip the fusion food upstairs and come for drinks and tapas at the wine bar. 199 MOONMUANG RD.; 66-53/419-011

This well-designed bar and restaurant outside the city center rivals the House for the beau monde's devotion. 113 BUMRUNGRAJ RD.; 66-53/242-491

Living Space
Jennifer Dyson's well-curated shop, in a teakwood house, has a superior collection of Thai and imported lacquer pieces, celadon ware, textiles, and tabletop items, in traditional and cutting-edge designs. 276-278 THAPHAE RD.; 66-53/874-156;

Women's clothes, Asian antiques, costume jewelry, embroidered handbags. 199 MOONMUANG RD.; 66-53/419-014

La Luna Gallery
Sommai Lumdual's eclectic gallery opened last year along the Ping River, and shows a wide range of painters and photographers from northern Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and the Philippines. 190 CHAROENRAT RD.; 66-53/306-678;

Wit's Collection
Parisian artist Fabienne Jouvin sells her fresh, delightfully whimsical ceramics and tableware at this terrific boutique; her work graces many a stylish expat's home. APT. F, 1 NIMMANHAEMIN RD.; 66-53/217-544

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