Paying homage to local culture, art, design and history was top priority for The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai 10 years ago and Zara Horner discovers that ethos continues to serve the luxury resort and its guests well

In 2006 the opening of The Dhara Dhevi in Thailand’s north marked the end of a long-held dream of one man, Suchet Suwanmongkol and the beginning of a long journey of luxury in the province of Chiang Mai. A decade on and though much has changed, much has stayed the same and guest feedback would indicate the resort, which prides itself on providing “incomparable luxury, heritage and well- being,” is getting a lot right. Unique in concept and design and built on an unprecedented scale, the hotel pays homage to Lanna’s rich melting pot culture and showcases the beauty of its art, architecture, craftsmanship and design traditions. Spread over 60 acres of paddy fields and tropical landscapes The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai is “a virtual kingdom in its own right.” Laid out according to the plans of ancient Thai cities of the past, a series of moats, fortified walls, gateways and thoroughfares provide the backdrop for an assortment of handcrafted buildings that draw their inspiration from the architecture of the Greater Lanna region. Suwanmongkol, a Thai businessman hailing from the country’s far south, moved to Chiang Mai in 1999, and was immediately taken with the beauty of the north and dreamed of building a hotel that would capture the essence of Lanna’s unique cultural heritage. He set about recruiting “a team of passionate, young Thai architects and designers and together they travelled through Thailand, Southeast Asia and beyond, visiting little known sites in and out of the way places in search of ideas and inspiration,” explains Andrew Quinlan, general manager at the hotel. In 2001, he purchased 60 acres of land in Muang Chiang Mai district and construction on the hotel began. Over a five-year period, thousands were involved with the project, which became a 123 villa and suite resort. The main ethos behind the project was “to preserve the beauty of Lanna culture and to create a space that nourishes the traditions, craftsmanship and intangible charms of its people,” says Quinlan.

Got it all covered

Facilities of the hotel include a 3,100 square metre Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre, amphitheatre for cultural events, two swimming pools, seven restaurants and bars, a cooking school, health club, library, Lanna Kids Club, craft village, grand ballroom and private meeting areas, a traditional shopping village and a bakery and delicatessen with home-made cakes, sandwiches and pastries. The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai has not only fostered a heightened awareness of northern Thailand’s past but has started to alter the appearance of Chiang Mai’s cityscape itself, for example, the recent refurbishment of The Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre. A palatial 3,100 square metre sanctuary embellished with ornate mouldings and sculptures depicting sacred animals or symbollic Buddhist motifs, loyally recreated by 150 Chiang Mai artisans from the original Burmese template in Mandalay, Myanmar. The whole structure originally took over three and a half years to complete. Dhara Dhevi – which became a Preferred Hotels & Resorts Legend property last year – “didn’t use any particular” design, architectural or building firms, but rather “a team conformed by independent local architects and designers who separated after the resort was finished. “With the aim to help revive Lanna’s faded arts tradition, the city’s finest builders and craftspeople including painters, woodcarvers, weavers, glasscutters, metalworkers and stucco artisans were called upon to work on this project. They used traditional materials and methods wherever possible to enhance the authenticity and character of the resort’s building,” Quinlan explains.

Passion and drive

The resort’s basic aesthetic “begins with the love of Chiang Mai city, driven by a passion for the Lanna history and art of the region’s villages as well as the lost rural architectural styles.” It’s not an overstatement when Quinlan calls the resort “a working museum where traditional Lanna culture and Asian colonial splendour have been carefully brought together in harmony.” The design aesthetic is founded upon the concept of an ancient city, around which, traditional structures – wooden rice barns, Royal Lanna houses and magnificent colonial mansions – have been built in small clusters providing luxury accommodation, restaurants and recreational areas. While there have been changes in colour schemes and building upgrades throughout the 60-acre property over the years, Quinlan says, “The design concepts will remain as they are into the future. However, there is a plan to expand the room inventory and upgrade some room facilities which will start soon.” The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai presents spacious upscale villas and residences, all of which feature traditional Lanna architecture, authentic artifacts, luxurious silks and bed linens, complemented by the very latest modern amenities. Many of the suites, villas, and residences offer private terraces with sun loungers and some with plunge and swimming pools. Often resort guests today have chosen their destination in order to fully immerse themselves in that property; wanting nothing more than not to step foot out of the hotel. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for daily entertainment.

What to do?

The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai is the only hotel in Chiang Mai that offers guests a regular daily programme – they can either watch or participate – for arts and crafts demonstrations such as basket making, bamboo weaving, rice pounding, paper cutting and flower arranging in northern Thai style, as well as a Thai cooking school, and even the chance to ride a buffalo. With more variety of dining options than any other hotel in the area, many of the ingredients used at all of the restaurants come from local nurseries and the hotel’s own organic vegetable garden. Throughout the resort attention to detail is obvious with no opportunity missed to introduce guests to local culture and arts. For example, the Horn Bar features masks from different regions of Myanmar, depicting a variety of mythological characters. “Atmospherically lit, the bar takes centre stage in the middle of the room surrounded by a choice of comfortable leather sofas and high backed chairs,” Quinlan enthuses. “With cool club sounds, stylish seating and excellent mixologists on duty it’s the perfect spot for a pre or post-dinner drinks.” Which seems to perfectly sum up the way the resort presents itself: modern comfort meets historical lineage, and blends perfectly.