From underrated gateway city to flourishing creative hub, Chiang Mai has quickly evolved to become one of Thailand’s hottest destinations.
It’s just before 9pm on a Friday night and Chiang Mai’s one kilometre Nimmanhaemin Road – “Nimman” to locals – is buzzing. The chain fashion stores have closed for the evening, but locals and visitors are flocking to the stalls of vendors that have planted their flags on what’s considered Chiang Mai’s coolest precinct. Hipsters sip mojitos as they wander the market and caffeine addicts are getting their late-night fix at Nimman’s renowned cafes, including Ristr8to, the cult roastery known for its latte art and strong single-origin espressos.
This isn’t your standard Southeast Asian night market. I’m yet to see any of the ubiquitous elephant pants, counterfeit designer handbags or paper sky lanterns. Rather, the market exudes the stylish vibe you’d find in parts of Brooklyn or East London. The market happens to be part of the city’s annual Design Week, which celebrates the country’s design scene with exhibitions, workshops and symposia.
Here, the Thai artists, fashion designers and makers I speak with emphasise the festival’s focus, which brings together traditional Thai craftsmanship with innovation and ideas. There’s chic fashion separates in silk, edgy one-of-a-kind handmade pottery and eco beauty products. (It bears mentioning that Thailand’s creative industry is now responsible for more than 13 per cent of the country’s GDP.)
Much like the products being offered, the city of Chiang Mai has become a city defined by the convergence of old and new. Thailand’s second largest city – more of a town, really, when you compare it to traffic-snarled Bangkok – was once an afterthought; a sleepy gateway to the country’s northern jungle country and neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. Yet that’s no longer the case. In a handful of years, humble Chiang Mai has joined the big leagues, evolving into one of the most enticing cities in the world; a special place that operates on its own singular vibration.
The more time I spend in Chiang Mai, the more I realise that this hybrid spirit – avantgarde meets tradition, old-school meets new – is the secret sauce that’s central to its allure. The city – the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558 – has become a priority for many global hotel brands, including Anantara, Shangri-La and the lush Four Seasons. While each property possesses its own charms, I think the city’s most enigmatic and prestigious hotel is 137 Pillars House. The hotel’s 30 guest suites surround an original colonial teak homestead, constructed in 1889 (the hotel takes its name from the number of teak stilts that support the Indo-Portuguese structure).
137 Pillars is known as the erstwhile residence of the son of Anna Leonowens, the iconic Governess of the court of Siam (immortalised in the films The King and I and Anna and The King). Later, the property became the headquarters for the English Borneo Trading Company, which accounts for much of the old-world nostalgia-inducing décor. Dinner at the main restaurant, with its gentle spins on Northern Thai classics, should not be missed. Nor should sundowners in the lounge, redolent of the building’s ancient wood walls and dusty ancient books and photographs. Exuding a colonial glamour, the main house is the social heart of the property with resplendent décor that includes overhead timber latticework, 19th-century artifacts and dreamy art. When will Rudyard Kipling walk in?
Its colonial splendour notwithstanding, 137 Pillars is very much a hotel of the times. In my lavish guest room every conceivable mod con is subtly integrated within the hotel’s aesthetic. The large suites – mine decorated in red and white – boast all the essentials: enormous bathtubs, outdoor rain showers and butlers on call. Once my luggage is delivered, a masseuse is promptly dispatched for a one-hour foot massage (particularly well received after a gruelling early morning hike). At all times the hotel’s grandeur is offset by its incredibly charming staff, whose liveried garb adds to the time-warp ambience. And unlike other boutique hotels, the layout feels village-like and unpretentious even though there’s enough social frisson to keep things interesting (I’m told the cocktail bar is the best place to meet the local movers and shakers).
Life here always feels a little slower, gentler and far more glamorous. This is the kind of place where it feels rude not to kick back with a gin and tonic in the old teak house and read a classic book. I’m also rather taken with the hotel’s magnificent swimming pool. Bordered by a wall of flowering ivy vines, it feels like the ultimate sanctuary – it’s hard to believe the city is buzzing just a few hundred metres away.
Chiang Mai’s incredibly accommodating hotels, in particular 137 Pillars House, are a great antidote to a syndrome I’ve dubbed TF – Temple Fatigue – a common fate that befalls anyone who has spent significant time in Southeast Asia, but it’s important to remember that Chiang Mai also packs a serious cultural punch. After a few hours dozing by the magnificent swimming pool I come to my senses and remember there’s a city to explore. There’s nothing like a misty morning hike, just 309 stairs up the Naga Serpent Staircase, to the sacred Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most popular temple, which offers a 360-degree panorama of the city. A working monastery, which extends back to the 14th century, the holy site offers an immersion into Northern Thailand’s particular brand of Buddhism. Monks are on hand to offer blessings and consultations for those in need of guidance.
Nourished in both a spiritual and physical sense – the latter on account of an early lunch of Khao Soi noodle soup, the spicy coconut noodle soup omnipresent in Northern Thailand – the afternoon is spent at Baanchang Elephant’s Paradise, an ethically minded refuge that allows visitors to feed and bathe with the animals. Guided by a kind mahout (elephant keeper), we experience washing a baby elephant in the river as a light rain falls among the lush green valley. It’s a transcendent moment that will never be forgotten.
But a hot shower and some serious pampering are calling. Back in town, Chiang Mai’s newest boutique hotel is the magnificent Villa Mahabhirom, which offers a complete departure from Lanna architecture. Upon approach, the whitewashed compound appears stealthily slick and a little fortress-like. But what lies beyond its ramparts is truly magical – a 14-guest-room oasis made up of 23 historical Thai ruean thai (family houses) salvaged from villages in central Thailand.
Opened in late 2016 and designed and co-owned by young entrepreneur Pitsanu Sawangnetra, the hotel is an exercise in impeccable style. Each of the hotel’s guest quarters consists of antique houses raised on stilts with an inside-out living room below. Upstairs, there is a cloistered bedroom, private study and enormous Italian-marble tiled bathroom. The villa’s gabled roofs and lush private garden give one the feeling of being put up in an extremely recherché ancient village.
In a handful of years, humble Chiang Mai has joined the big leagues, evolving into one of the most enticing cities in the world; a special place that operates on its own singular vibration.
Considering the owners are self-confessed Aman hotel junkies, the property exudes a good deal of glamour and restraint. Making my way past the pool to the hotel’s covered Noppadol Veranda bar, an aperitivo paradise, I can’t help but be enchanted by the designer’s art collection, which is scattered throughout. There are centuries-old Catholic statuary, Buddhist artifacts and work from local artist and sculptor Chamnian Thongma. “It took almost 10 years to collect all the art pieces and antiques, buy up all the traditional Thai houses and restore and build the resort,” one of the owners tells me. “To make the marriage of Thai traditional houses and the rather curious European furniture pieces and antiques possible, we have chosen the simple white walls and the black framings to bind everything together.”
One could spend days wandering the hotel’s curios – and its excellent boutique, which stocks local hill tribe fabrics and jewellery from cult labels Yen and Kitty’s – but the city calls once again. A short stroll away are cafes and yoga studios inhabited by the green juice set, an international crowd that has collectively turned the city into an increasingly world-renowned hotspot.
While being holed up in fabulous hotels is always an option, I have to force myself to combine luxury stays with interaction with the city itself. Chiang Mai is now rightly considered a bona fide cosmopolitan hotspot. Given its relative affordability, the Northern Thai city has emerged as something of a global hub, bringing entrepreneurs, makers and so-called “digital nomads”. With a stroll around the old town you’ll discover plenty of co-working spaces and wellness oriented studios and restaurants. Throw in juice bars, independent galleries and exceptional coffee and you have Asia’s coolest small city. But don’t think of Chiang Mai as a city per se – it’s simply a special universe just waiting to be discovered.