Built around a series of characterful courtyards, gorgeous boutique hotel Rachamankha's well-proportioned design emulates Chiang Mai’s ancient heritage by creating a private compound. Once inside, the decor is a sublime mix of white walls, raw silks, stripped floors and an enviable collection of Asian art and antiquities.
Check-out, noon; check-in, 2pm, but both flexible subject to availability. Late check-outs up to 6pm are charged.
Double rooms from £192.99 (THB8,314), including tax at 18.5 per cent.
Rates include à la carte breakfast and selected minibar drinks and snacks.
Rachamankha is the personal project of interior designer and owner Rooj Changtrakul and his step-father, the award-winning Thai architect Ong-ard Satrabhandu. The main inspiration for the hotel is 15th-century Lanna architecture, although it also reflects the symmetry of Chinese design. The owner’s collection of art and antiquities is on display throughout the hotel and in the upstairs gallery.
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout, book and DVD library, art and antiques gallery, gardens, boutique. In rooms: LCD TV with satellite, DVD player, minibar, air-conditioning.
Our favourite rooms
The Two-bedroom Suites may have the space of an apartment – along with private access to the pool – but our pick would be a romantic Deluxe Room with silk-draped canopy bed.
A delectable 20-metre turquoise-tiled pool with terracotta surrounds and day-beds under umbrellas for the ultimate in relaxation.
Relaxed and chic, Chiang Mai is a city built for exploring. Flat shoes for shopping, maxi-dresses for evenings out and something suitable for elephant trekking should all be in your case.
Smoking is allowed in outdoor areas only. There is a compulsory five-course Christmas Eve Dinner on 24 December costing THB3,500 a person (drinks included) and a compulsory New Year's Eve party on 31 December with unlimited drinks (THB5,500 a person).
Rachamankha is for reserved just for grown ups.
As it is inspired by ancient, vernacular design, Rachamankha is a cool, energy-efficient building. Solar-powered lighting is used and, with the exception of the GM, all staff members are local. The hotel sponsors community temples and schools.
Smart but pared down – it’s a city hotel not a beach resort.
The elegant Rachamankha dining room is the only part of the hotel open to non-guests. Small and intimate with white linen-covered tables, Ming-style porcelain, Lanna-period antiquities and heavy silverware, it serves northern Thai and European food. Top tips are the deliciously fragrant Tai-Yai prawn soup and earthy lamb masala stir-fry.
Rachamankha’s bar, beside the restaurant, is a charming spot for a pre-dinner cocktail or a cup of the best coffee in town.
Both the restaurant and bar see action until 10pm.
Light snacks and drinks are served from 6.30am–10pm.
Rachamankha is located within the walls of Chiang Mai’s Old City, about 70 metres from the south wall of revered temple Wat Phra Singh.
There are dozens of daily flights between Thai capital Bangkok and Chiang Mai in the north of the country. You can also fly direct from neighbouring Laos and Myanmar, and Malaysia and Singapore.
If you have the time, take the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (www.railway.co.th). Cool and comfortable, it’s a totally different way to see the country. Depending on the service, it takes about 12 hours.
Rachamankha is a 15-minute drive from the airport. Transfers cost THB450 a room each way.
Worth getting out of bed for
Staying at the Rachamankha gives you immediate access to the ancient centre of Chiang Mai. There are more than 35 Buddhist temples on the doorstep and it’s a short stroll to the night market as well as the Sunday Walking Street. Hotel staff can help organise cooking classes and arrange trips to Doi Suthep to visit the hilltribe village and national parks. For the adventurous there’s mountain biking, white-water rafting, elephant trekking, horse riding, quad biking and hiking, and there are several five-star golf courses close by. The city offers some of the best shopping in Thailand: look for art and interior design at Nimmanhemin soi 1 and antiques, furniture and handicrafts at Hang Dong, which is a couple of kilometres outside town.
Le Crystal (+66 (0)53 872 890), at 74/2 Paton Road, offers fine French dining in sophisticated chandelier-bedecked surroundings overlooking gardens and the Ping River. An old teak house by the water at 9 Charoenrat Road is the location for Riverside (+66 (0)53 243 239), a popular hang-out for locals and tourists with friendly service. The menu is long and includes tasty selections from all over the globe. Get there early to bag a quiet table by the river. There’s live music every night, and from about 10pm the place is heaving. The restored colonial villa that is home to The House (+66 (0)53 419 011), at 199 Moonmuang Road, was at the forefront of Chiang Mai’s renaissance as a style city. The food can be hit and miss, but it has a gorgeous atmosphere and the outdoor bar is a lovely spot for a drink.
Those with a sweet tooth should visit Love At First Bite (28 Soi 1, Th Chiang Mai-Lamphun; +66 (0) 53 242 731) for the enormous range of cakes, including the much-loved chocolate town cake and blueberry cheesecake. The excellent fair-trade coffee at Lanna Cafe (81 Huai Kaew Road; +66 (0) 53 266 349) comes from hilltribe growers in northern Thailand. The sandwiches and salads are good, too.
You don’t have to be a member of the press to visit the Writers Club & Wine Bar (141/3 Ratchadamnoen Road; +66 (0) 53 814 187), but if you want to know what’s going on in the city you should drop by, as there are often travel writers propping up the bar. There’s an excellent selection of wines and a menu that features local produce, including trout from Thailand's highest mountain Doi Ithanon, and venison and wild boar from the Lampang Province. As well as an extensive range of wines available by the glass or bottle, Darling Wine Pub (49/21 Huay Kaew Road; +66 (0) 53 227 427) offers excellent people-watching, since it’s located near a busy night market.
There is something a little Matrix about him,’ Mr Smith whispers, peering down the panelled library towards its adjoining study, where a trim, serious-looking man pours over building plans through the kind of over-sized, owlish spectacles only creative folk with good haircuts can wear. We’re talking about the Architect – the impossibly suave, linen-suited co-owner and designer of Chiang Mai’s Rachamankha hotel. He looks up, sees us huddled at the other end of the long refectory table and stands to close the door with the smallest and most inscrutable of nods.
Mr Ong-ard Satrabhandu is indeed a powerful and influential man in Thai architectural circles, but his pet project the Rachamankha is an alternative reality of altogether more benign proportions. So serene and timeless are its generous courtyards, sweeping temple-like roofs and thick, whitewashed walls that it comes as a genuine shock to discover the whole compound has been built new from the ground up on a previously derelict but fantastically located old city block only within the last decade. Homaging heyday Lanna (15th-century northern Thai) style in its design principles, it is also stuffed full of Chinese and local antiques – scroll boxes, temple paraphernalia, exquisite prints – both inside the cosy, intimate rooms and beyond in the public areas. With Chiang Mai succumbing to some of Bangkok’s modern day vices of pollution, traffic gridlock and Lonely Planet-toting backpackers, the hotel truly earns the otherwise tired epithet of an oasis of calm.
But we get organised quickly with two wheels and some propulsion, as we’re only here for a couple of days (although it’s hard to call the 50cc matchbox we rent a motorbike, and while whole Thai families and their pets perch effortlessly on theirs, I spend most of the day hanging on to Mr Smith’s love handles with my bum barely off the bitumen).
Chiang Mai is pretty idiot proof – it’s a square with a moat – but it does have a complicated one-way system, so there are a few Mr Bean moments before we locate our first destination – an arts and craft shopping street, Nimmanhemin Soi 1, just outside the old city precincts. My favourite boutique is a cavernous gallery space strewn with contemporary textiles purporting to fuse the half-Japanese, half-Thai heritage of the artist with the traditional weaving techniques and fabrics of the area. Mr Smith just thinks it’s an overpriced ethnic cushion shop, but the French proprietor is charm personified and soon we are stroking wall-hangings over a fizzy orange drink and wondering about Australian customs.
Emboldened, we explore more – a Burmese art gallery here, a deserted Chinese temple there, a King and I municipal square complete with Victorian-looking street lights while we’re at it. Eventually we find our way to glam expat hang-out, House, where lime granita cocktails and street Thai finger food quickly assuage the weariness of open-air transport and a million fellow travellers. We return to our Rachamankha paradise rather pleased with ourselves and not a little tipsy; we are asleep in air-conditioned comfort in a nanosecond.
Day Two is the last of our holiday and we wake in a very different frame of mind, barely stirring beyond our room and the long, generous pool other than to stroll across the courtyard for lunch. The Rachamankha’s restaurant is well-respected in its own right, and we are pleased to see the Architect holding court as we enter. Pan-Asian dishes reign supreme; we mix piquant Thai fish cakes with deliciously rich Burmese curry, but guiltily indulge later, outside in the pretty courtyard as the sun sets, in a skyscraper-high club sandwich and the best chips in Thailand. I’m even more ashamed to say tomato ketchup has made its way to the Golden Triangle.
Nightfall – and a slight drop in temperature – stirs a final burst of energy and we venture out again, this time on foot, into the old city. Our slower pace makes clear just how culturally rich this town is. Still outnumbering 7-Elevens, temples lurk on every corner – wooden, brick, gaudy, serene. I pick one with the lights on and the amplified chanting of monks in prayer. Quietly we enter and adopt a lop-sided lotus position at the back, leaving our shoes outside eyed hopefully by the kampong dogs. The young novices turn round to stare but soon rejoin the flow of the repeating mantras. It’s wonderfully hypnotic – Matrix-like in its own way – and soon even the dogs pad in and collapse in the enveloping sensuality of it all, a string of canine crescents along the wall.
We reinstall ourselves in the library the next morning waiting to transfer to the airport. It really is one of the most convivial and contemplative hotel libraries in the world, largely by virtue of it actually being a library, rather than the designer furniture showroom with expensive coffee-table books beloved of so many other elite retreats. As if to prove the point, the Architect appears, opens one of the glass-panelled cabinets and takes out a tome. He looks sideways at us and tilts his head slowly. This time his nod seems more knowing, almost playful, as if a truth previously withheld is now clear to us all.