Boutique-style rooms provide an alternative to Chiang Mai's current big-hotel boom, writes Oliver Benjamin
Published on December 15, 2007
Set in an enclosed garden area with whitewashed, wood-accented rooms, Tamarind Village feels worlds away from the city outside.
A few years back a friend of mine in Chiang Mai was invited to give Mick Jagger a tour of our quaint little town. Sir Mick was lucky - the Four Seasons resort had only just appeared on the scene. Had he shown up a few years earlier, he might have had to make do with sterile three-star digs or perhaps even a place where threadbare young travellers sprawl about, rucksacks and all. In that case, the man who famously sang "Gimme shelter" might have opted to eschew it altogether and sleep in his private plane. Things are different today, of course - a cavalcade of high-class hotels adorn the city like jewels. Now if you're after the five-star experience, you can get your satisfaction.
However, with all the attention being paid to the big posh developments in Chiang Mai (Shangri La opens this month and Le Meriden will do so in April) it's easy to overlook what is arguably the town's strongest suit: its surfeit of small, personalised and unselfconsciously cool boutique hotels. Reflecting the intimately hospitable and homespun artistic aspects the city is famous for, this category of accommodation has really taken off lately, replacing many of the lower-end backpacker spots which used to make up the lion's share of the market.
The approach of these places is almost always some mix of retro-vibe and Lanna revival. Whereas hip hotels in Bangkok tend to embrace ultra-modernism (Dream and Luxx are two examples), Chiang Mai tends to go in the other direction, opting for a nostalgic, rough-around-the-edges, even quasi-bohemian touch. This owes a lot to the recent "Lanna Revival", where what was once considered backwater and blundering now pours forth in a proud rechampioning of Northern Thai style.
Furthermore, natural elements generally abound, paying service to the fact that for all its rapid development, Chiang Mai is still full of, and surrounded by, a great deal of bucolic beauty. After all, anyone looking to get away from big-city blues should make sure to lounge amid plenty of small-town greenery.
It's certainly fortunate for both locals and visitors that Northern Thailand's greatest assets - its natural splendour, artisanal orientations and old-world charm - haven't been bulldozed, but rather are being brought back to prominence by sensitive local architects and entrepreneurs. Of course, for all the hubbub surrounding mega-projects and multinational hotels, Chiang Mai tends to remain proudly provincial at heart.
Mr Jagger once famously asserted in song that you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. In applying the personal touch while providing plenty of comfort for a wide range of prices, Chiang Mai's boutique hotels make it possible to have both.
Arguably the first truly unique small hotel in town, the calm, monastic appeal of Tamarind Village was an epiphany of well-known architect Ong-art Sattaraphan. The Lanna revival which followed has been largely credited to him and his creations. Set in an enclosed garden area with whitewashed, wood-accented rooms, it feels worlds away from the city outside. Though others have tried to imitate aspects of the place, few have equalled its authentic feel.
A Lanna room, with breakfast, starts at Bt4,943 a night. Call (053) 418 896-9 or visit TamarindVillage.com.
Ong-art's follow-up effort to Tamarind Village is even more ambitious and has been widely hailed as the finest intimate-sized place in town. Modelled after Phra That Lampang Luang temple in Lampang, it's difficult to believe the place is not actually a painstakingly restored old temple. Several valuable antique artefacts from various Thai and Chinese sources contribute an air of authenticity to the impossibly beautiful establishment. The restaurant here is also worth noting as it offers traditional cuisine not only from Northern Thailand, but Burmese and Shan traditions as well. Though pricier than the others here, this place is truly top-notch.
A Superior (single) room with breakfast starts at Bt6,300 a night. Call (053) 904 111 or visit Rachamankha.com.
Yesterday the Village
Located in the heart of Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai's current epicentre of hip, this sweetly smartened-up old mansion features an elegant retro style and an emphasis on homey comforts. Four-poster beds and antique furniture bring you back to days of yore, and are a welcome respite from bustling Chiang Mai town.
A Superior room costs Bt1,800 per night. Enjoy breakfasts and free Internet connectivity. Call (053) 213 809 or visit yesterday.co.th.
Another charmingly fixed-up old place, here all of the fancifully designed rooms are uniquely decorated, except for two identical and adjoining villa-style rooms in a separate structure behind the main building. Located right in the heart of the city walls, this is a great spot if you'd prefer to stroll around the densely templed old city than hide away from it.
Superior with breakfast from Bt2,350 a night. Expect a Bt500 hike in price over New Year. Call (053) 327 198-9 or visit VillaDuangChampa.com.
River Ping Palace
This lovely 130-year-old structure right on the river offers one of the few really nice waterside stays available in town. Its lovingly decorated premises and friendly staff make it feel more like a finer take on guesthouse-style accommodation. A real slice of old Lanna but with convenient modern amenities. Ask for a room on the second floor, if available.
Deluxe Rooms with breakfast start at Bt1,650 per night. Call (053) 274 932 or (081) 595 9340 or visit RiverPingPalace.tripod.com.
Hip Guest House
Owned by Somchai Khan-asa, well-known publisher of a local magazine also called Hip, this comfy and inexpensive little establishment is as hip as its name implies. Plus, it boasts the added benefit of being right next to Khun Somchai's Khan Asa bar, where lots of happy young hipsters hang out, chat over cocktails and enjoy monthly live performances and music-listening parties.
A room is Bt650 with breakfast on your own. Call (086) 914 8251 or (081) 681 0037, or e-mail email@example.com.
On a gallery-lined road by the Ping River, this unique spot plays fast and free with the motif of tea. Each room is uniquely designed to play on some idea of tea. Opt for the florally decorated Tea Flowers room, or the Chinese-inspired White Tea room, or the elegant Deluxe High Tea room. As expected, they also offer an inexpensive and satisfying daily high tea, not to mention beautifully presented spa and fusion cuisine at their T Bar restaurant.
Superior Rooms from Bt3,300 per night. Call (053) 302 805 or visit Tea-vana.com.
Though 36 kilometres north of the city centre, this place deserves special mention for offering what few others can - utter serenity and personalised luxury amid the hills. Nearby are several nature-oriented activities such as elephant camps, horseback riding and trekking. This is the place to be if you want to temporarily forget civilisation ever existed. Its health-conscious restaurant serves up scrumptious and innovative meals, and the staff are gentle and accommodating. Book a few days here and enjoy a relaxing vacation from your relaxing Chiang Mai vacation.
A Standard Room is Bt4,000, while a Private Villa costs Bt4,800. Call (053) 879 389 or visit ProudPhufah.com.
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