Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi: Chiang Mai’s poshest ode to Lanna living
It’s 5 p.m., the sun is sitting low in the Chiang Mai sky as a gentle breeze flows by. I am bent over, knee deep in muddy water, jamming an entire row of rice seedlings into the mucky depths of the field as a buffalo munches on fresh grass nearby.
And I’m not even getting paid. In fact, I’m the one shelling out the bucks to do this backbreaking work. I can almost hear the echoes of Thailand’s rice farmers laughing hysterically as they shout the word “sucker” in unison.
But this is no run-of-the-rice-mill rice farm. It’s a fully operational slice of Thailand’s largest export right on the grounds of Chiang Mai’s Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi.
This resort goes far beyond your usual "traditional" six-star abode with Thai décor, giving the competition a muay Thai elbow right where it hurts. (Yes, Dhara Dhevi offers Thai kickboxing lessons too, as well as umbrella painting in the kids club, yoga and Thai cooking classes.)
Looking more like a magnificently restored ancient Thai city than a resort, Dhara Dhevi is better described as a high-end living museum devoted to northern Thai Lanna culture filled with ancient artifacts, painfully accurate architectural recreations, lotus-filled moats, a high-priced market, skilled artisans, fine dining, a massive spa and staff so ready-to-please you wonder if they’re actually robots.
Converted teak villas and beer-fueled surveyances
There are two sides to this 60-acre Lanna story. One half of the resort features colonial-style architecture and 54 colonial decorated suites. The other side is filled with 64 private villas, as well as five super-opulent residences for private parties of up to 12, all designed with the influences of the ancient Lanna region in mind.
Sticking with the rice theme I opted for the authentic rice barn converted into a teak wood villa with an open living and dining space and my very own private pool overlooking a rice field and the fitness center's gorgeous infinity pool in the distance.
Surely the rice barns of yore weren't equipped with luxurious king-size beds, sitting rooms and outdoor whirlpool tubs. But hey, 100-percent historical accuracy isn’t among my personal dictates, particularly while I'm pretending to survey the state of my rice fields while sipping a beer next to my private pool.
My only criticism is that the villa lighting is incredibly dim, even in the bathroom, which meant I probably showed up to a few buffet breakfasts looking like I put my eyeliner on with a paint brush. Whatever though. The staff were kind enough not to stare.
Your chariot ... er, golf cart, awaits
When you're staying in the villa section of the resort, you can't just take a quick stroll to the lobby. The most enjoyable way to get around is to sign out a free bicycle from the fitness center for your entire stay and peddle around the stunning grounds.
You can also call the lobby and have someone pick you up in one of their golf carts.
I recommend passing the time on the ride grilling the staff on their knowledge of the history and authenticity of the resort as they’re not easily tripped up. Most of them are quick to share interesting anecdotes too, whether they're recalling the time a member of Middle Eastern royalty and his multiple wives came to stay or how they handle the rare discovery of a snake on the grounds.
And while we're on the topic of stories, for the first time in my writing career I am actually going to mention a hotel library. Stocked full with DVDs, CDs and thousands of books and magazines, the Jum Sri Hall Library is the kind of place you want to settle in for an afternoon. Guests can check out whatever they'd like and return it at the end of their stay.
The hotel has four main restaurants, Farang Ses (French), Fujian (Chinese), Le Grand Lanna (Thai) and Akaligo (Mediterranean), as well as two poolside bars for lunch and drinks.
The best thing about the Le Grand Lanna, which features a nightly traditional Thai show, is that the food isn't dulled down to accomodate your typical tourist's palate. The dishes retain the strong Thai flavors northern cuisine is known for, minus a bit of the spice.
Contrived. But in a good way
The concept for the hotel, construction of which began in 2001, was dreamed up by Chiang Mai designer Rachen Intawong. He envisioned a working museum highlighting both traditional Lanna culture and Asian colonial splendor, meshed together in harmony.
According to Dhara Dhevi's outline of its history, there was no master plan, it was more like one big jigsaw puzzle. "Just like the city of Chiang Mai, we built it up over a long time, a natural growth process," said Rachen.
The hotel didn't open till 2005, which means it took nearly five years for the team to build these traditional structures, erected in small clusters borrowing from specific vernacular styles such as Thai Lue or Haw Luang while following the fundamental template for an ancient royal city -- a series of moats and fortified walls, a central ceremonial lawn, a replica of an ancient Buddhist prayer hall, a palace, a market and farming villages on its outskirts.
When I first pulled through the magnificent Dhara Dhevi gates I thought it all seemed a little too contrived, a little too picture perfect.
But as I lay in the 3,100 square meter seven-tier teakwood Dheva Spa, with its Burmese and Shan influences, getting oiled up as part of my centuries-old holistic massage, I didn’t care one bit.
The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi was designed to be an experience to remember, right down to the big hairy buffalo, so who really gives a damn if it's contrived. It works.
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi