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.