Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Sampanthawong
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
Mobile: (66) 81-925-7187
E-mail:
jennifer@gampell.com
Web site:
www.gampell.com

 

 

 


September, 2006

HIGH THAI
Indulge your creative bent and explore the arts, shopping and dining of Thailand's Chiang Mai.
by Jennifer Gampell

Chiang Mai means "new city" in Thai, though this immensely popular northern destination is 500 years older than Bangkok. It was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, who conquered existing Mon settlements and organized disparate groups of Burmese, Chinese and Lao immigrants into the Lan Na (Thousand Rice Fields)-or Lanna-kingdom. Located in the Ping River valley, Chiang Mai was the capital and cultural centre of this powerful alliance of city-states until the Burmese conquered it in 1556.

The Siamese recaptured Chiang Mai in the mid-1770s but until the railway line was completed in 1921, the journey from Bangkok took a month via river or by elephant. Today it's a 55-minute flight. Those 150 years of relative isolation spurred a renaissance in the Lanna arts: woodworking, textile, silver, lacquerware. By the 1960s, a decade before the last stretch of road into town was finally paved, tourism and handicrafts had become Chiang Mai's biggest income generators.

Despite rapid development and limited city planning, Chiang Mai's old-world charm remains evident in its centuries-old chedis (pagodas), Buddhist wats (temples), the old town walls and gates, and the moat that encircled the original city. have obliterated much of the city's quaint charm.

Traffic clogs the narrow city roads and, despite a growing number of five-star hotel properties, transport can be a bit hit-and-miss unless you hire a driver and vehicle. Other options include hailing one of the few metered taxis (available mainly at the airport), bargaining for a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, or squeezing into the ubiquitous songthaews (red pickup trucks with bench seating in back).

But the myriad pluses of Chiang Mai far outweigh its limitations. Compared to Bangkok the climate is cooler and life proceeds less frenetically. Just a few kilometres beyond the city limits are rolling green hills dotted with vogue-ish resorts and luxury homes belonging to wealthy Thai and expatriate retirees and second-home owners. Architects, designers, potters, painters and writers settled in Chiang Mai in the mid-1990s. Their creative output expresses in a modern context the innovation that's been a Chiang Mai hallmark dating back to the 14th-century artisanal villages.

It may be premature to call Chiang Mai the Thai version of Byron Bay. Yet the country's focus on the contemporary has definitely elevated the pursuit of style-in shops, restaurants and hotels-to the top of many tourist's agendas.

EAT
The House
199 Moon Muang Road
(053) 419 011
.
Fusion cuisine has become as much a Chiang Mai staple as khao soi, the town's signature yellow wheat noodles in curry broth. Danish designer Hans Christensen was a trailblazer in 2003 when he recast a high-ceilinged 1930s house in the Old City into a soignée two-storey eatery he was a trailblazer. Three years on, it's still the preferred haunt for local designers and their international clients thanks to the consistently reliable Asian-esque cuisine and friendly serivce. Never content to sit still, Christensen has added a wine bar, a relaxing Moroccan-inspired outdoor tapas area and keeps reinventing Ginger, his flagship fashion/accessories extravaganza adjacent the restaurant (see SHOP).

Moxie
D2 Hotel
100 Chang Klan Road
(053) 999 999
.
Trend arbiters who hang at The House at night often lunch at this roomy open-plan eatery on the ground floor of the recently opened D2 (see STAY). Choose from a small but thoughtful selection of well-presented pastas, pizzas, salads and Thai dishes. Such ample portions for a mere 90-400 baht (about $3-15) are a steal, especially in a hotel. International-with-Asian-influenced dinner items are equally affordable and D2's bartenders make delicious passion fruit margaritas. Waitstaff-called "agents" in D2-speak-wear baggy black designer trousers and are encouraged to act as hip as their surroundings.

Dalaabaa
113 Bumrungraj Rd
(053) 242 491.
www.dalaabaa.com

This contemporary Thai eatery in an updated glass-sided 1970s house was the hottest star in the firmament of new Chiang Mai dining experiences when it opened in 2004 but went downhill after its former owner started up another design-focused eatery (Modiwa 32 Nimanhaemin Soi 1, 053 215 620). Popular once again, the romantic venue opposite the British Council features candlelit indoor and outdoor seating. Take care negotiating those stepping stones across the pond.


Giorgio's Italian Restaurant
2/6 Prachasamphan Road
(053) 818 236.

The antidote to the raft of stylish new restaurants, this long-running unpretentious Italian spot has a tiny online presence but a huge place in the hearts of longtime Chiang Mai residents who keep it packed during lunch and dinner. It's one of two restaurants listed by Jennifer Dyson on her company website www.livingspacedesigns.com. If the doyenne of lacquerware and the only person acknowledged three times in the Chiang Mai Luxe guide recommends you try the thin crust smoked salmon pizza, you should. You'll come to Giorgio's to enjoy great food, not to marvel at the décor or stylish ambiance.


STAY
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi
51/4 Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road
(053) 888 888.
www.mandarinoriental.com

Resurrecting bygone Lanna architecture and life is a big task for a 24ha resort complex with 123 private villas and suites. Since partially opening in late 2004 (it fully opened a few months ago), some guests have referred to its amusement park aspects, while architectural purists have criticized the ornately carved structures as pastiches of Burmese, Shan and Thai influences. Ironically, given rapidly dwindling stock of authentic Lanna structures in northern Thailand, Dhara Dhevi could end up an important cultural monument. The library's in-depth collection of 5,000 books and journals on Asian art, culture, history, religion and cuisine is the best of any Thai hotel-and better than most libraries. From $466 a night.

D2 Hotel
100 Chang Klan Road
(053) 999 999
www.d2hotels.com

Located in deepest downtown, stylish new D2 dallies with diverse D-based designations-Desk (reception), Décor (housekeeping), Detect (security)-and definitely differs from its staid Thai parent company, Dusit Group. While the other new properties evoke Lanna, Chinese and Balinese styles, D2's minimalism with attitude says "W Hotels." Smallish but very functional, the 131 off-white (with orange accents) rooms boast some amenities their pricier competitors lack like great bathroom/ bedside lighting plus wacky turndown and welcome treats. To mark the 2 pm shift change, eight "agents" dance to Cole Porter's It's De-lovely in the lobby. From $159 a night.


The Chedi Chiang Mai
123 Charoen Prathet Road
(053) 253 333.
www.ghmhotels.com

Set on the Ping River on grounds once occupied by the British Consulate, this low-rise and highly sophisticated 84-room property opened to international adulation on 1st July 2005. Six weeks later, major flooding forced the closure of downtown Chiang Mai's first five-star property until February this year. Minimalist elegance is the byword in the pristine teak and white stucco buildings and the uncluttered landscaping. Each room faces riverward with a private glass-enclosed balcony. The renovated 93 year-old former consulate is now The Restaurant and features indoor or riverside dining with impeccable international cuisine. From $367 a night

BANNTAZALA
55/5 Moo 1 Chiangmai-Sankampaeng Rd
(053) 850 111
www.banntazala.com

The cozy and recently remodeled Tamarind Village (50/1 Rajdamnoen Road, 053 418 896; www.tamarindvillage.com), launched Chiang Mai' boutique trend in 2002, followed by the gracious antique-filled Rachamanka (6 Rachamankha 9, 053 904 111; www.rachamankha.com).The trend is now a full-on craze but few new entrants get it as right as this eight-room gem located on small rectangular sliver of land across the street from Dhara Dhevi (and conceived by one of DD's original partners). Every room, though smallish, is individually painted and decorated with Chinese antiques and figurines. The scrumptious French food served in the intimate 12-seat burgundy dining room is prepared by a former Dhara Dhevi chef. From $282 night.


SHOP
Studio Kachama
10-12 Nimanhaemin Soi 1
(053) 219 499.

Design-focused stores crowd this arty street, but the innovative 5- 15m handwoven silks hanging in this gallery with two-storey ceilings are impressive. Textile designer Kachama Perez studied and worked in Japan where she learned the technique of reworking strips of old and new hilltribe textiles into her ultra-modern yet timeless interpretations of Hmong weavings. She alternates colorful swathes with plain sections of woven organza, incorporates beadwork and sometimes re-creates ancient motifs in metallic threads.

La Luna Gallery
190 Charoenraj Road
(053) 306 678.
www.lalunagallery.com

Why isn't there a contemporary art gallery this good in Bangkok-or anywhere else in Thailand? Perhaps Chiang Mai's longstanding affinity for all things art-related is responsible. Located across the Ping River from Warorot Market, the large space showcases contemporary art (painting, pottery, photography). Somehow the triumvirate of Thai, New Zealand and Danish owners maintains that delicate balance between commercialism and creativity.

Ginger @ Living Space
276-278 Thapae Rd
(053) 874 156
www.livingspacedesigns.com

The latest branch of this popular mix-and-match accessories, décor and girly clothing shop opened recently in a pistachio-green upstairs space at Living Space. To complement the ultra soignée lacquer- and homewares displayed downstairs, Hans Christensen (see EAT) designed a new clothing line targeting the "mature" set. From India and Bali come earth-toned linen kaftans, handbags, Pashmina shawls and slippers, all decorated with Swarovski crystal. The profusion of pinks, reds, blues and violets in the stylish chandeliers, cushions and votive holders should tantalize customers of all ages.


Sachiko Studio
43 Soi 8, Chotana Road
(053) 215 857.
sachikoq@hotmail.com

This serene oasis of Japanese culture is the studio and showroom of fashion designer Sachiko Kobayashi. The petite former ballet dancer and curator of Edo-period exhibitions in Tokyo discovered Lao weavers and this Thai teak house 14 years ago, and now winters here. Not everyone can carry off her drapy natural-dyed silk shawl-like coats with their calligraphy-ink motifs, but anyone can appreciate the tea ceremony she holds on her porch overlooking a peaceful Zen garden. By appointment only.

Copyright 2006 Jennifer Gampell