On the banks of the Ping River, the historic city of Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand’s largest city – dates back to the 13th century and was the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558. Today, Chiang Mai strikes a fine balance between the traditional and the contemporary, the old heart of the city still retains its historic walls and moats, and the city’s long and leafy boulevards offer an alluring alternative to the Thai capital, Bangkok. Instead of traffic-choked urban sprawl, travellers find a picturesque downtown easily navigated on foot, where the air is clean and the climate mercifully cool. Amid the multitude of temple spires in the old town, barefoot monks in flame-coloured robes collect alms in the morning and street vendors hawk their wares by night. In complete contrast, a short bike or scooter ride out of the city soon leads to densely rainforested countryside interspersed with natural waterfalls.
On the road to the historic Wat Umong temple, the original seat of the Sri Lankan tradition of Buddhism in Lanna, lies Villa Mahabhirom, a new luxury bijou resort which opened last year. Conceptualised as a sophisticated yet comfortable boutique hotel, that threads history, culture, community, arts and craft with a sense of peace and wellbeing, Villa Mahabhirom comprises only 14 spacious traditional 14th century stilted teak Thai houses. Each of these historic dwellings was rescued from dereliction, meticulously and lovingly restored, and filled with objets d’art and bespoke furnishings. The owners, who have been friends since their childhood in Bangkok, have eclectic yet interesting tastes, and hence some of the accents and detailing ranges from French settees to gold enamel pieces from the Ayutthaya period. Each house features a private, open-air balcony overlooking the resort’s lush tropical gardens, and the intimacy and privacy of this stunning property genuinely lends itself to relaxation and calming reflection.
Though there are plenty of dining options in town, and chic Nimmanhaemin neighbourhood with its plentiful bars, cafés and restaurants is just 10 minutes away by car, be sure to stay at Villa Mahabhirom for dinner at least once.