Thursday, 23 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- Origins of the Star Goddess

This story really should start with 'Once upon a time ...', because I am entranced by the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi's magical fairy tale feel. More than that, I am amazed that this timeless and transcendental architectural extravaganza has been operating for less than four years.

I spend some time with Khun Niramol (or Bee as she's known casually) who has worked here since the opening in late 2006. She grew up in this area, and shares the history of the property with me.

Near the imposing front gate is an old wooden Lanna-style house. 'That used to be the house of Ajarn Julatata,' she says, 'a famous architect who started a restaurant.' That house was all that stood on this land, about 15 minutes outside the city walls of the ancient town of Chiang Mai, on the winding road leading to the renowned craft villages of Borsang and Sam Kampaeng where umbrellas, silver and Celadon pottery are produced.

'The monsoon trees, they are original, but otherwise it was just old rice fields here. I heard that there was going to be a project here and I said No way! I really doubt it. Then came big trucks, workers ...,' she reminsces as we walk down big wooded lanes lined with cotton trees.

'It was really amazing ... they transplanted these trees before there were any buildings. Big trees, big cranes, mud everywhere.' The lushly landscaped gardens look like they've been here since the beginning of time.

A pony harnessed to a carriage waits patiently by the side of the lane, lending a classic air to the scene. 'The horse knows it's working hours,' laughs Bee. 'He's supposed to finish at four but sometimes the kids want to ride him to their room later and he complains!' Jing jing!

To the left are ancient-looking Khmer stone ruins, like the remnants of something related to Angkor Wat. All built or brought in.  Detail, detail, detail. Like the massive decorative naga serpents that top some of the low walls. And the ornate frontispieces that decorate the main building's soaring wood-and-gold rooftops.

I ask who the designer was. 'It's interesting. The owner Khun Suchet is a finance person,' Bee says of the man behind this project whose family is a big name in the automotive business. 'But he loves culture and he's a big antique collector. So it's really what he wants. He found a team of young local architects and brought them to Burma, Laos, provinces in Thailand to experience it.'

The result really is a Magic Kingdom of sorts. Or a Lost Kingdom to be more precise, based on the Lanna idyll which flourished in this part of what is now Northern Thailand from the 13th century till the 16th century.

The inspiring Dhara Spa building was based on a palace in Mandalay. The Craft Centre is three village houses brought in from nearby Lamphun. The Fitness Centre is accessed via a tunnel, modelled on Wat Umong, one of Chiang Mai's more picturesque and intriguing temples.

'It's all based on Burma, Lanna, local here, and a bit of Chinese, Laos ...,' says Bee with pride at this instant -- but not kitsch, no way -- masterpiece. Asia's colonial period in the 19th century is also represented by the creamy and dreamy grandeur of the Colonial Suites, redolent of the Raffles, the E&O in Penang, or the former Railway Hotel (now Sofitel Centara) in Hua Hin.

It's magical alright. I ask Bee the meaning of Dhara Dhevi. 'It's old Thai language,' she says, thinking for a while. 'It means Star Goddess.' Perfect!

As the sun glints off a gilt spire above us, it creates a feeling of spiritual connectedness. Like this has always been here. Like it was meant to be here. 

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