CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- While Bangkok has been busy drumming up an inordinate amount of press for its desired role as a fashion hub in Southeast Asia, its soft-spoken northern Thai counterpart has started a whole new vibe of its own.
Still pitched as a destination for traditional Lanna culture, resplendent nature, and of late, a spiffy new pair of pandas, Chiang Mai is becoming an urban force of its own -- at least in the lifestyle sense. The wooden temples are still there, of course, but even they are being outdrawn by modern takes on the traditional.
The Rachamanka hotel, for example, captures the spirit of temple architecture with a touch of Chinese influence in its furniture. The soon-to-open Chedi Chiang Mai Hotel, built by Kerry Hill (of Amanresorts fame), pairs a modern L-shaped building with a teak shell with a two-story structure that once housed the British Consulate and dates to 1913.
It's this combination of things old and new that is fueling Chiang Mai's renaissance and it's happening in nearly every sense.
An annual design festival held on Nimmanhaemin Road is worth planning a trip around. Young artists, ceramists, and enterprising store owners have turned the entire town into an up-country version of the capital's Weekend Market, a bargain-priced destination for world-class design and that inimitable Thai style. Perhaps the surest sign of just how much this place has changed is that the very reason tourists used to come here, the night bazaar, is now a skeleton of its former self, empty and old-fashioned looking. It couldn't have been outdone by a better rival: the Chiang Mai citizens themselves.
Chiang Mai has always had a vibrant art community, rooted in the rich cultural history of the area and heavily influenced by the local bounty of fine temple murals and traditional architecture. In the last few years, the very designers, painters, and enterprising shop owners who once left for Bangkok have started to stay. Shopping here rivals that of the capital as a result and is especially fine in home design.
The owners of the contemporary French-Asian restaurant, The House, have done themselves one better by opening Ginger. It's a lifestyle store, to be sure, with a fondness for things vintage, modern Chinese, and ethnic Indian. There's an interior section with antique Ming reproduction furniture and Asian poster art, but it's the fashion boutique, where an ultra-stylish young Thai named Ken presides over free-flowing cotton and linen separates and colorful costume jewelry.
Much of the newfound consumer heat in Chiang Mai can be sourced back to a bevy of shops on Nimmanhaemin Road Soi 1. They include the contemporary lacquer of the venerable Gong Dee Gallery; traditional but very well-crafted hand-knit Thai duds by the professor-like tailor Khun Noi at Fai Ngam; modern teak furniture at Design One; and a playful selection of everything from place mats to pillows wrought from water hyacinth, bamboo, and other natural materials at Ayodhya.
New shopping developments obviously taking a cue from Nimmanhaemin have been springing up of late with an emphasis on modern Thai living. Nimmanhaemin Promenade is an indoor-outdoor destination with a dozen or so shops worth a browse for everything from Mae Fah Luang textiles to scented candles.
Still, the best bits are to be found at P2 and Ars-D-Sine, two pint-sized gems. The former makes wildly shaped silk lanterns that are akin to modern silk lamp sculpture. The latter sells all shapes and sizes of leather-bound card holders, diaries, and calendars that are as useful as they are attractive.
The latest entry into the design sweepstakes, JJ Market, is a five-minute tuk-tuk ride away. (JJ stands for jing jay, which in Thai means sincere and is a reference to the popular weekend market in Bangkok called JJ, or Chatuchak.)
Split into an upscale promenade on one side and a more frenzied series of stalls on the other -- the fabulous Wawee Coffee shop is in between for creamy latte and kiwi juice -- JJ Market is where interesting designers continue to roost by day. For now, worth seeking out are the retro-fueled shop Reflections; the contemporary Oriental gowns at Sangboon; and the silk robes, a touch Vietnamese in style, at Silk Road. Best of all, though, is an open-air shop called Gantra by Focus'd. Here, the designer-owner crafts furniture made of mosaic-style teak, coconut, and mango woods that feels modern without losing touch with its up-country roots.
Hungry? The dining scene in Chiang Mai still suffers from that most Asian of problems: the bitter-hot northern food and an embarrassment of great noodle dishes make it tough for restaurants to compete. Slowly, though, a movement is taking shape. Set in an Anglo-Thai-style wooden villa, The House has elegance and style to burn whether in the tempura-style shiitake mushrooms with sweet chili dip on the bar menu, a moody upstairs lounge with Indian floor cushions, or the graceful service. It is this city's first bona fide independent restaurant success story in the urban Western mold.
While service is lacking, The Rachamanka has a dining room that matches its intelligent, subtle Thai-Chinese architecture. Though the too-quiet dining room means sitting in the courtyard is a better bet, of most interest is a menu that lists rare dishes like Burmese-style korma curry, turmeric-spiked Lanna soups, and chili dips from minor ethnic groups including Tai Yai.
Indeed, the luxurious draw of hotels is still hard to compete against, especially in cases like Terraces at the Four Seasons Resort, where a new Italian chef is doing wonderful things with modern Mediterranean fare like Chiang Mai-sausage-topped pizza and bacon-wrapped bacalao, or the Versailles-like opulence (with a touch of Lanna Thai architecure in the wooden ceilings) and lush Gallic dishes of frog's legs, trout tartar, and tournedos being turned out at Farang Ses at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. Blessed with a colonial-style courtyard, Siam Celadon hides an adorable tea house, garden, and cafe behind the pottery store.
Want to know where locals go most often when not at a noodle stand? It's a breezy trattoria and pizza-specialist called Il Forno where the chef-owner makes mozzarella daily. Or, if the locals are part of the fast-growing, trendy party set, they frequent a converted 1970s bungalow called Dalabaa with lip-nipping Thai stir-fries, very well-executed yam (spicy salads), and a colorful red-walled atmosphere that funnels the moody feel of Old Shanghai through playful Thai design with lots of bamboo and teak furniture, silk pillows, and colorful lanterns.
This being up-country Thailand, whiskey-drinking sessions in the garden, on the street, or in the many open-air beer bars that litter the town are one tradition that will never die. A cluster of live music pubs -- from teflons like Good View to the throwback-to-the-1970s haunt of guitarist Tuk called Brasserie on the River Ping -- are still packed almost nightly.
There are, however, many signs of budding adulthood in the party sense. The House has become as much a destination for well-shaken martinis (the gin and lychee-infused Dream on Baby is particularly fine) and its outdoor patio as it has for food and fashion. The Bangkok-owned Song Saleung pub has applied its slightly-more-urban take on a roadhouse music bar to an enormous space by the Super Highway that draws a very chic and beautiful crowd for floor-shaking Thai rock, plenty of booze, and late nights. Monkey Club occupies an old bungalow with a lovely, leafy garden that has everything from a tile-clad sushi bar to live acoustic music. It reels in a throbbing crowd mixing lithe students and a sprinkle of local artists who dance the night away to Thai pop and hip-hop and clearly love their Chivas.
In the wee hours, nearly everyone tends to end up at an enormous dance-hall force known as Mandalay. Though new, it's a discotheque in the mold of what used to be a minor tradition in Asia: neon-swathed, cavernous, beat-booming halls where pretty much anything can happen. On weekends, it is a veritable bacchanal.
If you like it neither loud nor involving liquor, the area in which northern Thailand has few rivals is coffeehouses. Partly a result of the vigorous artist culture, partly because the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge in 1927) helped start the arabica industry in the area several decades ago, this is one of the few places in Asia where
Contact Rob Mckeown, a freelance writer in Asia, at email@example.com.