Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, silver ring

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MANDARIN ORIENTAL DHARA DHEVI

 
| HIDDEN GEMS
DHEVA SPA

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Ever wondered what it was like to live in an ancient Thai city? Bridget McNulty spent a few nights at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai, and discovered ancient city living is very much to her liking.


Text Bridget McNulty
Photography Mark Peddle and courtesy of Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi and photographer George Apostolidis
Once upon a time, the busy city of Chiang Mai was an ancient Lanna Kingdom, filled with traditional wooden houses, rice paddies stretching to the horizon, palace-like structures and colonial mansions. These days, there’s not too much of that left in Chiang Mai (only the crumbling city wall, in fact). But ten minutes out of it you’ll find an ancient city – beautifully restored, impeccably staffed and with all the luxury you could dream of – at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi.

Only, it’s not a restored ancient city, no matter what your eyes tell you. Rather, it’s a carefully designed chunk of history, recreated in the style of the ancient Lanna Kingdom on the outside, but with every modern amenity you could wish for on the inside.

From the moment you enter the city grounds – across a moat on a loose wooden bridge that announces your arrival – you’ll know you’re somewhere special. Pass through the city gates and you’ll see the library (the ‘school’ for the city) on your right, as a long driveway takes you past the Khuang Khong Khao ceremonial lawn and the Jum Thong Hall (the ‘city hall’). Then it’s over a second moat and a second bridge, and into the inner city, where you’ll be greeted by the palatial main lobby, small bells chiming on top of the spires any time the wind blows.

The ancient city theme continues, with great detail, throughout the resort – from the pathways that link various ‘villages’ of villas, to the amphitheatre for outdoor performances, the vegetable garden that supplies the restaurant with fresh herbs and vegetables and, of course, the two large working rice fields, complete with water buffalo. What is so interesting is that the design has been carried out with such precision and attention to detail that there’s never a moment when you think ‘Oh, that’s so cute, it looks just like an ancient city.’


'revel in the
fairytale nature
of it all'


This is no Disneyland amusement park trying to recreate the experience of a Thai city, it actually feels like the hotel transplanted itself into a city that was already there, complete with crumbling brick walls, old whitewashed buildings and a convincing sense of real life. There are always people out and about – working the fields, sweeping, riding bicycles up and down the roads, cooking, picking vegetables ... The ancient city legend is an easy story to believe.

So what does one do with oneself in an ancient city? Well, in this one, you keep more than busy with the range of complimentary activities on offer. There’s the usual fitness centre, and not one but two beautifully appointed swimming pools (the Loy Kham Pool is particularly stunning, looking out over the rice paddies). But there’s also an extremely well-stocked library, with over 5000 books, 2400 DVDs and 2000 CDs. Pick up a well-chosen novel (with Asian and contemporary authors featuring strongly) or one of many Asian-themed non-fiction tomes, or a travel book to decide where to go to next. Or choose a DVD to watch in the comfort of your room, or perhaps one of the latest international magazines – GQ, Vogue, Gourmet or Conde Nast Traveler. There’s also an excellent selection of kids books and DVDs to keep the little ones happy.

If you’re more interested in the active side of things, you can decide between four different health and wellness classes a day – everything from Pranayama Breathing to Vinyasa Yoga (held in a beautiful open-sided yoga pavilion with lovely views and a warm breeze to cool you down as you work up a sweat), Thai Boxing, Pilates or a Magical Thai Herbs Tour. Or there are the Handicraft Activities at the Craft Village to choose from, either a morning or afternoon session in crafts as diverse as umbrella painting, bamboo weaving and flower arrangement. At the Crafts Village you’ll also find the Lanna Kids Club, a space where kids can learn fun crafts at four sessions a day.

And then there are the Cultural Walking Tours, explaining the beauty of the Lanna Kingdom’s past by exploring various parts of the Dhara Dhevi, or understanding the circle of life of rice on the back of a water buffalo in the afternoon Rice Activity! You can also take a ride on the horse-drawn cart around the city, to experience it in a more authentic manner, or take a highly recommended cooking class at the Oriental Culinary Academy, where you’ll learn how to make delicious Thai dishes in a hands-on way.

Or indulge yourself at the Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre. An extraordinarily intricate structure modeled on a 19th century Mandalay palace, and with seven tiers of ornate mouldings and carvings depicting sacred animals or symbolic motifs ... You might just want to stand and stare at it. But then you’d be missing out on the best part - eighteen tranquil treatment rooms offer everything from Ayurvedic consultations and massage to Thai, Swedish and ancient Indian massages, and a range of specialized treatments only available at the Dhara Dhevi.

With all this to choose from, it’s no wonder you won’t be in a rush to leave the sanctuary of the Dhara Dhevi. Lucky, then, that there are a number of restaurants to choose from come dinner-time – the famous ‘Le Grand Lanna’ Thai restaurant, ‘Fujian’, a Chinese restaurant, and ‘Akaligo’, serving Mediterranean fare. ‘Le Grand Lanna’ is the obvious choice for dinner, not only for its superb classic Thai and Northern Thai cuisine, but for the location – raised wooden pavilions filled with precious Lanna artifacts – where it seems perfectly natural that musicians and dancers dressed in lavish period costumes fill the evening air with Thai classical music and traditional dance (a must-see performance, between 8pm and 9pm each night).

We chose the Thai Degustation set menu and were presented with a feast of Thai delicacies: a platter of tasty hors d’oeuvres (spring rolls, satay and spicy pomelo salad among them), tom yam goong (spicy river prawn soup), two kinds of curry (Northern Thai pork curry and yellow prawn curry), stir-fried chayote and shiitake mushrooms, and deep-fried sea bass. This was followed by mango with sweet sticky rice (a simply delicious Thai dessert), and a stunning platter of carved tropical fruits, with chilled lemongrass juice to end the meal on a refreshing note.





Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, performance Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Mandalay Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Farang Ses
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Honeynoon Suite Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Mandalay Pool
After dinner, make your way back to your villa for a soak in the generous bathtub with Jacuzzi jets (and various colours of underwater lights depending on your mood), and then sink into your king-size bed, turned down to include floor-length mosquito nets, top quality linen, and a bedtime story of one of the Lanna legends – left on your pillow with a fragrant fresh flower. Of course, if you’re more of a night owl you might want to spend some time downstairs (the teak staircase is outside the villa, as is traditional) in front of the large flatscreen TV with 26 channels to choose from, or in the indoor steam room or outdoor plunge pool with Jacuzzi jets. There’s also a fully-equipped kitchen if you’re in the mood for a midnight snack, and a small office if you need to burn the midnight oil.

When you wake up, there’s the incredible buffet breakfast at Akaligo to look forward to, where you can choose from the classic fruits, homemade yoghurt, pastries and cereals on offer, as well as bacon, hashbrowns, baked beans and eggs, or be a little more adventurous and go for traditional Chinese, Japanese or Thai cooked breakfasts. You’ll be treated to freshly squeezed fruit juices (squeezed in front of you) to accompany your meal, and some of the most delicious exotic fruits in Thailand.

And then it’s time for another day in the ancient city of Dhara Dhevi, filled with as many activities as you’d like, or perhaps none at all and some quality relaxation time by the pool, or an excursion into the city of Chiang Mai, or some time wandering around the many pathways linking the various areas of the resort. This is one ancient city where it’s impossible to get bored, impossible to hope for any more luxury, impossible to be treated any better by the superb staff. In short, it’s the kind of ancient city that would be wonderful to live in.


Why not take a stroll?


You really won’t want to leave the hotel, as there’s so much to explore within the grounds. That said, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s major centre for quality handicrafts, and the centre for hill tribe trekking expeditions into the surrounding mountains. There are also numerous historical and religious sites to see in Chiang Mai itself, including the Chiang Mai National Museum and several famous temples.



MANDARIN ORIENTAL DHARA DHEVI, CHIANG MAI, THAILAND



Style Like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The owner wanted to go for something totally different and completely unique – and he succeeded. The 60 acres of land the hotel occupies have been transformed into a working ancient city, modelled on the old Chiang Mai – the historic Lanna Kingdom. It’s all crumbling brick amphitheatres, working rice paddies and traditional Thai wooden houses, with a few colonial mansions and a palace or two thrown in for good measure.

Setting The ‘city’ of Dhara Dhevi is actually only 10 minutes from the city centre of Chiang Mai, and an easy 15 minutes drive from the airport, but you’d never know it. As soon as you drive into the city gates it feels as if you’re in the middle of an ancient city… One that is impeccably well-run.

Why you'll love it It’s fun! Really fun. There are so many activities to choose from, or you can just wander around the city (by foot, buggy, or bicycle) and revel in the fairytale nature of it all.

Good to know If you don’t feel like walking, you can call a buggy (any time from 7am to midnight), or borrow a bicycle for the day from the fitness centre. Wireless internet is charged at 600 Baht an hour in the rooms, but there’s free high-speed internet in the library, and it’s a good excuse to spend some time there. There are free transfers to and from the Chiang Mai Night Market three times a day (for about 3 or 4 hours) – the Sunday Night Walking Market is famous, but you won’t want to leave the Dhara Dhevi for any other reason!

Wow factor The attention to detail. Although the resort has only been officially open two years, it feels and looks as if it’s always been there. The architecture, the antiques and the extraordinarily convincing ancient touches make it a hotel unlike any other.

Best rooms or suites to book That depends entirely on your taste. The hotel has two main types of accommodation – suites and villas. The suites are close to everything (the pool, the shops, the lobby, the restaurants) part of a building and decked out in lavish colonial décor. The villas are far more secluded, set apart in their own space and further from the action, and decorated in Thai style – lots of heavy wood, textiles and silks. However, all villas are one-bedroom, so families usually prefer the suites, unless you don’t mind being in a separate villa next-door. For the most authentic experience, choose an entry-level vegetable garden villa, built in real Northern Thai style with an open air lower floor. For more space and comfort, opt for the Grand Deluxe Villa, either with plunge pool, pool, or outdoor Jacuzzi. And if you’re really trying to impress, choose the Royal Residence, a private compound of six villas and three swimming pools.

The hallway carpets on most of the floors are also in dire need of replacing – they seem to be stained or have been water-damaged from the outside in. And the shower drain in our bathroom was extremely noisy – gurgling for a good ten minutes after we finished showering. I’m confident these problems will be dealt with swiftly and with great style, however.

Room for improvement The villas provide the ultimate in luxury, but I still had to ask for fresh milk for tea and coffee – they only provided non-dairy creamer, despite the ample kitchen space and large fridge. The doorbell is also completely out of place, it plays jarring tinny tunes (like Jingle Bells!) when everything else in the villa is muted tones, soft lighting and peaceful. Easily replaced, and it would make a big difference.

Rates Suites start at 17000 Thai Baht per night (about US$500) and go up to 90 000 Thai Baht (about US$2650) for the Grand Deluxe 2-Bedroom Duplex Suite. Villas range between 19000 (about US$560) and 75000 Thai Baht (about US$2210), with the Grand Deluxe Villa with Plunge Pool at 38 000 Thai Baht (about US$1120), and the Royal Residence at 280 000 Thai Baht (about US$8250).

Address 51/4 Chiang Mai – Sankampaeng Road, Moo 1 T. Tasala A. Muang Chiang Mai 50000 Thailand.

Tel +66 53 888 888
Fax +66 53 888 999

How to Get There The Dhara Dhevi has a pick-up service from the airport (15 minutes away) or Chiang Mai city centre (10 minutes away). Fly into Chiang Mai International Airport from most major cities in Asia.

   
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, exterior across pool
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, Rice Terrace