Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Ban Tawai -- Up in Smoke (but no Cheech and Chong)

The Oh-So-English pepperleaf vine-clad walls of Kao Mai Lanna are just the first of many wonderful surprises that unravel in this historic resort. You'll also stumble on old cane factory grinders along the corridors and, if you look carefully at the light fittings, you'll notice they're old wooden pounders. Ever been to an old gold mining town? Well, this place is like a small town industrial museum.

This is the rustic, bucolic and olde worlde feeling that emanates from the 70-year-old buildings. Not that it's always been a hotel. In fact the rooms -- odd vertical stacks in neat soldierly rows -- used to be tobacco curing barns when tobacco farming was a really big in this area. Or 'tabasco' as the manager repeatedly calls it.

With an amazing visionary leap, the Thai owner saw potential to turn these dilapidated brick barns into cute modern boutique high-ceilinged accommodations, decked out with wonderful teak wooden antiques. The owner loves anything to do with wood, indeed hordes it like gold. Out the back are hundreds of ox cart wheels, and dozens of old wooden ox carts from all over the world. Plus carved canoes. Piles and piles of wooden stuff. Much of it comes from the nearby woodcraft village of Ban Tawai -- one of the reasons one would stay here, about 45 minutes south of Chiang Mai on the way to Doi Inthanon -- and some of it from more distant Burma.

The 20-acre gardens, lush with buffalo grass, burgeon naturally in the fertile climate, and the centrepiece is a massive sprawling rain tree underneath which is a romantic love swing.

Beyond is the pool, yoga sala, and spa area. The yoga-mistress puts us through our paces in an open-sided pavilion, where I was willing the air to move enough to flutter the silken drapes. Her brand of yoga is particularly physical and I drip litres of sweat on the beautiful wooden floor. She smiles sweet sympathy but doesn't let up.

Thankfully, a massage is close at hand in a comfortable and airy building off to one side. The windows open to natural vistas of grass and trees; the room drenched in natural light. It is perfectly quiet, bar the faint hum of the air-conditioner.

The not-so-sprightly dear that tends to me has strength in her hands that Bruce Lee would envy, and over the next, well, it felt like hours,  rubbed and stroked oil over me to build up my complacency, then suddenly switched to Thai-style massage and had me in all manner of ungainly pretzel holds. 

At one point I had my right foot jammed in my left ear, my left arm wrapped around my neck, and my right arm reaching back under -- or over in this case as I was in a headstand at the time -- my groin and linking up with my other hand. Jing jing!

'That was a real Thai massage,' enthused my companion afterwards. Yeah, I'll say.

There is something utterly charming and authentic about Kao Mai Lanna. A down-to-earth northern-style hospitality that's not drilled to anodyne perfection, but it comes from within. (Or, in the case of some of our dishes at the restaurant, sometimes it doesn't come at all.)

But as you walk arm-in-arm back to your room, and see that love swing, and the beautifully spotlit barns beyond the pool, it's something of a cure-all.

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