Changing Thailand

Rural beauty and urban artifice make for an uneasy blend in the northern province of Chiang Mai.

July 24, 2005|By Matt Gross | Matt Gross,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

After two rounds of sunset cocktails at a quiet bar outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, my friends and I were eager to explore the placid rural vista we'd been gazing upon all evening:

Below us was a rice paddy that led down to a sprawling pond, beyond which lay a stand of tall, red-flowering trees through which we could see the twinkling lights of traditional northern Thai houses. But as we got up and made for the little wooden walkway that led across the water, a waitress deftly blocked us. It might be better if we came back tomorrow, she suggested. We asked why.

After conferring with a colleague, the waitress returned with a simple answer: "Snakes."

We decided it might be better to wait for daylight.

Had this been a bar deep in the mountains of northern Thailand, we might not have been so unnerved, but this was no jungle watering hole. We were at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, a $100 million resort just 15 minutes from the center of Chiang Mai, a city of 265,000 that is Thailand's second largest, after Bangkok.

At the Dhara Dhevi's front gate, we had boarded electric golf carts and been whisked through a 60-acre fantasy of a northern Thai, or Lanna, royal city - complete with a down-to-the-scrollwork re-creation of Myanmar's Mandalay Palace (it houses the spa) - to the Champagne Bar, where we were the only patrons on this low-season Tuesday.

At a hotel where the cheapest of the 144 guest rooms and villas goes for $295 (an opening rate through September), we had not expected snakes.

But perhaps we should have, for if the Dhara Dhevi is intended to be a microcosm of northern Thailand, then it should surely share the same virtues and faults - proximity to the natural world, dependence on urban artifice - of its model, the city and province of Chiang Mai.

Founded in 1296 as the seat of the Lanna empire, which stretched into Thailand from southern China through Burma and Laos, Chiang Mai has for the last few decades been a hippie hideaway, a place where those who couldn't take the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or the sex-soaked southern beach scene came to chill out, study Buddhism in the local temples, or wats, and head into the surrounding wilderness in search of elephant camps, hill tribes and a more "authentic" Thai experience.

Ten years ago, however, the Four Seasons opened just north of Chiang Mai, offering five-star comfort in the realm of the $5-a-night guesthouse. And in 2001, after Thaksin Shinawatra, a Chiang Mai native, became Thai prime minister, the region began to receive increased development funds and outside investment.

Today, the old walled, wat-dotted, moat-bordered city of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a modern sprawl of shopping centers, highways, high-rise hotels and Starbucks, and the Four Seasons is no longer the only luxury game in town: there's the new Rachamankha, designed by architect Rooj Changtrakul; the Chedi Chiang Mai, in the former British Consulate, set to open this month; and the D2, a boutique offering from the Dusit Thani chain.

But as tourists at both the high and low ends have poured into Chiang Mai, traffic has worsened, international chains like Haagen-Dazs have set up shop, and the once-quaint attractions have become institutionalized.

"Everyone, they all flock to Chiang Mai; you can't get a quiet moment here," said Adi Monribot, 22, a furniture and textiles exporter who grew up in Chiang Mai and was on a recent night sporting a New Jersey Nets jersey and a diamond stud in his left ear. "To me, it's all, like, commercialized. Back in the day, there was never no pollution up in Chiang Mai."

You can still find beautiful centuries-old wats on every block (the city boasts more than 300), but many have their share of postcard vendors and booths offering Thai massage, a traditional temple practice that nonetheless can come off as a bit tacky.

At perhaps the most famous of the wats, the mountaintop Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city, German tourists and Thai families alike pour out of tour buses, file past vendors of strawberries and brass bells, ride a $1.25 cable car to the peak, trek the fuzzy plastic carpet past the enormous golden chedi, or spired stupa, and visit the wat's museum, whose glass cases display nearly as many donated foreign bank notes as they do Buddha images.

The view of Chiang Mai itself can be less than spectacular, with the most notable sights the airport - currently undergoing a $52.5 million expansion - and the ring road that encircles the city.

Yet Doi Suthep remains a functioning wat, a gorgeous Buddhist aerie where novice monks light candles each morning and whose chedi contains a relic of the Buddha, and where visitors like Chatchawan Somprasertsuk, a TV-commercial producer from Bangkok who's buying land outside Chiang Mai, will proclaim, "Every time I go there, I feel proud."

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