My lucky number is four. This is according to the elderly Chinese lady kneeling opposite me, who has asked me on which day I was born, consulted a well-thumbed book of horoscopes and scribbled a sudoko-like formula on a scrap of paper. Quite an audience has gathered for my fortune-telling debut: several rows of Buddhas, large and small, as well as several ashen-faced Chinese goddesses, all of whom watch me with benign smiles.
Impulse has brought me here, as it can lead many a man astray in Thailand: a small, handwritten sign sent me down a quiet, flower-scented Chiang Mai street to find Madam Pavinee’s cluttered family home. After some shuffling of tarot cards and a brief feng shui lesson I return to the Puripunn, slightly uncertain about my future but clutching a consolation bag, full of fat-fingered bananas and leaf-wraps of sticky rice, that Madam has thrust upon me.
The Puripunn is a hotel you might be lucky enough to stumble upon by chance, but you will find it more easily if you arrange for a car to collect you from the airport. Although the room number lacks a number ‘four’, our suite feels like an auspicious place; old-fashioned with its dark antique furniture, olive green walls, silk lampshades and Impressionist oils. The ticking of a grandmother clock further transports us to another era. It’s as if we’ve strayed into the chambers of a colonial dowager, albeit one with a flatscreen and DVD player and packets of peanuts concealed in ornate wooden boxes. There are his ‘n’ hers silk slippers supplied to skate across the teak floor, which gleams like a polished conker; a balcony from where we watch birds practise swooping from rooftop to rooftop; and a large hot tub filled with water and lotus blossom for our arrival. Directly above, in a composition that brings to mind an oft-repeated scene from Only Fools and Horses, is an enormous chandelier.
Our room may be grand but the hotel is small and amiable, and designed to complement the architecture of the traditional homes found throughout the streets of Chiang Mai. You will very likely bump into the owners, a thirtysomething Thai couple, Att and Koy. They’ve given the Puripunn a personal touch, with him donating Burmese paintings from the family collection, and her designing the garden, which manages to be green and jungly over just a few dozen square metres. Their young son, playing on the small lawn, has yet to contribute anything significant, but is pretty handy with a butterfly net. Att and Koy moved here from Bangkok, and tell us how they fell in love with Chiang Mai, which is cooler and greener, with less shopping malls, and does have people who don’t work so hard. ‘Lazier?’ I ask them. They laugh: ‘Well, it took a while to get the hotel finished.’
The Puripunn is a good place to be lazy. There is a gym (although here it’s called the ‘fitness room’) somewhere, but its exact location remains a mystery to us; and, anyway, in this humidity you can break into a sweat simply by turning the pages of your book. Instead, we loll by the pool and order a lunch of spicy minced pork and club sandwiches, watching butterflies flit across the water. The hotel is in a lazy part of town, too, across the Ping River from the city proper, close to the walled Old Town and tucked down a small, almost rustic lane with ramshackle homes for neighbours. In the afternoon we leave our poolside perch to explore, following a little hand-drawn map given to us by our favourite member of staff, Payon, a man so sweet-natured that even a sudden appearance by Chiang Mai’s mythical water dragon would probably fail to upset him.
Such serpents coil down carved steps at the nearby temple, Wat Gade (it’s more than 600 years old), and a golden puppy statue, garlanded with flowers, smiles up at us. A roof is being replaced, and a group of women sit in the shade of a tree, washing each tile by hand. There’s a temple museum, which sounds dusty and dull, but inside we’re greeted by a white-bearded wooden head – a Santa of the tropics – and a collection of curiosities. Among ancient bicycles and typewriters is Mrs Smith’s favourite cabinet, labelled simply, ‘Bits of wood that look like elephant.’ We walk out, and on, past age-blackened timber buildings along the river, and cross a footbridge to the Flower Market, where blooms for golden puppies and their owners are painstakingly threaded together. We return to the Puripunn in time for sausages.
As Mrs Smith notes, you can always trust a place that does a good banger, and I have to agree, mentally adding Chiang Mai to Toulouse and Cumberland as trustworthy places. The sausage here is dark and spicy, served with a fiery beef dip peppered with red flecks of chilli, and what look curiously like pork scratchings – they’re curls of crispy saltiness. We sit outside in the night air with a bottle of chilled white wine, and wonder what to do with the rest of our time at the Puripunn. There are buggies at hand to take us into town for the Sunday Market, noted for its excellent local handicrafts rather than fake designer buys, and our handwritten map suggests several bars for cocktails. There is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the golden hillside temple, to visit, ancient ruins to explore and local noodle dishes to taste. We could, if we so desired, learn Thai cooking at Puripunn or, indeed, take classes in the fine art of carving fruit and vegetables. For the moment, though, we’ll just return to our chandelier and bath tub and see where fate takes us.