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."