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Dazzling, dizzying Chiang Mai

Textiles, crafts and hotels lead the way to a sleek new style for this ancient city.

March 11, 2007|By Susan Spano | Los Angeles Times

Chiang Mai, Thailand — ABOUT 30 years ago, the gods of style looked down from design heaven on a town in central New Mexico. It was dusty and small, but they thought it had potential, so they nodded and turned it into Santa Fe.

They worked the same magic in Art Deco South Beach, French-Moroccan Marrakech and Midcentury Modern Palm Springs, transforming unlikely places into global centers for cool contemporary architecture and design.

They're at it again in Chiang Mai, the old northern capital of Thailand, founded at 4 a.m. on the eighth day of the waxing moon in the month of Visakha and the Year of the Monkey, or 1296, a date dictated by Indian cosmology. More than 700 years later, a construction boom has given Chiang Mai some of the most stylish hotels and restaurants in Southeast Asia. Galleries and design stores have opened, showcasing a trove of textiles, ceramics, furniture, antiques and architectural salvage. Builders have sought inspiration from the gilded temples and traditional teakwood houses. Designers and buyers come for the arts and crafts, which add an elegant Asian echo to contemporary minimalism.

A decade ago, there was nothing cutting-edge about Chiang Mai, 400 miles north of Bangkok. The backpacker crowd chilled out in budget digs, trekked to ethnic tribal villages in the countryside, bought fake objets d'art and feasted on dollar-a-plate pad Thai.

But then Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister of Thailand, started to lavish funds on the city of his birth, giving it new superhighways, an airport expansion and growth incentives.

Almost overnight, locals say, things went from quite dull to dynamic.

The implications are obvious for travelers like me who like to shop. But beyond that, I wanted to experience Chiang Mai's stylistic swirl, to see whether it made visiting the city, eating in its restaurants and staying in its hotels even more attractive.

I came here in November, the cool season — which was, nevertheless, sultry. It was my first trip to Thailand, and I immediately realized how wrong I had been to think of this country as a developing nation. Leaving the Chiang Mai airport, I saw the evidence of Western-style modernization: fast-food restaurants, gas stations, condo complexes and shopping malls. Only when we crossed the moat into the old city did I feel I was leaving the familiar behind.

A contemporary look

TO find the city's best contemporary design, I relied on the lushly illustrated "Chiang Mai Style" and "Lanna Renaissance" by Joe Cummings, a longtime Chiang Mai resident. His books ultimately led me to the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai and the new Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. Both are the stuff of luxury-hotel fantasies, and they have rates to match.

I settled instead into a $50 double at the amiable River View Lodge, which has a small swimming pool, waterfront garden and idiosyncratic collection of Thai tchotchkes, and took the shuttle to the village of Mae Rim, about 20 miles north of town.

It let me out at the Four Seasons entrance, so low-key that it belies the wonders inside.

It's set in a veritable botanic park, where a small lake is surrounded by rice paddies, streams, waterfalls and flowering plants.

Designer Ajarn Chulathat Kitibutr evoked a traditional hill country village by incorporating the style known as Lanna, and its signatures are everywhere: wood-plank walkways and bridges with slated railings, buildings raised by stilts, L-shaped verandas shaded by deep eaves, high-pitched, shingled roofs and ornamented gables.

Abacus Design of Bangkok filled the resort with Lanna painting, tapestry, ceramics, geometric-shaped paper lanterns, gold stenciling and narrative murals. The guest rooms are in pavilions on stilts. They have spacious verandas and are scattered over the 20-acre grounds. The beds are canopied in gauzy white cotton, and the rooms have upholstered rattan furniture, and teak cupboards and chests. The result is dreamy but understated, in harmony with the Lanna style, born when Chiang Mai was the capital of the La Na Thai, the land of a million rice fields, almost 700 years ago.

I took it all in on a tour with a staff member, at lunch on a terrace above the infinity pool and during a 60-minute aromatic massage at the resort's award-winning spa, where every artfully carved window panel, lacquered tea tray, exotic flower arrangement and Thai cotton throw is a visual bliss treatment. I chose nutmeg oil for the massage, which started with a foot bath. When I turned on my stomach, I discovered that a pale green bowl with red roses floating in it had been placed below the doughnut-shaped pillow where my face rested, just in case I opened my eyes.

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