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.