It used to be best known as the obligatory stop en route to northern Thailand, but today Chiang Mai can hold its own against Bangkok in terms of tourism, with dozens of temples and traditional Lanna culture sitting alongside digital nomads and hipster coffee shops. That means accommodation has been taken up a notch, with hotels no longer resting on their laurels, but sharpening up to accommodate the aesthetically demanding Instagram generation. And, for the rest of us, its new reputation as South East Asia’s coolest city can only be a good thing.
That’s not to say modernity comes at the expense of tradition — new openings, such as Vana Som, are reinterpreting Lanna culture for a 21st-century global audience, while the focus on liveable public areas means hotels are attracting as many locals as guests. Chiang Mai’s now a destination in itself, so it’s time to cut down on beach time and head north.
In an area where most of the luxury options are dominated by big chains, Vana Som stands out from the crowd. Owner Aarya Surindhara has transformed her grandmother’s Siamese-Lanna manor into six self-contained rooms across a main villa, as well as two external pavilions. The style is simple — lots of carved wood and tiled floors — and guests enjoy butler service, so there’s time to relax or nip over to the pool and gym at the nearby Four Seasons (access is free to guests). There’s also a botanical garden and the in-house restaurant, Terra, opens this month. Doubles from £159, B&B.
Opened on the banks of the Ping River last November, the X2’s slick design features wooden stools alongside exposed brick walls, and traditional white stucco motifs on the bedroom walls. If you can tear yourself away, don’t miss the pool, with its in-water loungers. Doubles from £140, B&B.
Super-swish bolthole 137 Pillars House whirls you back to its 1880 roots with teak furniture in the bedrooms and rocking chairs on the terraces. The public areas are especially atmospheric; this was originally part of the Borneo Company HQ, and there’s still a sumptuous feel to the wood-panelled bar, daybed-strewn lounge and white lobby. Doubles from £239, B&B.
This ever-trendy hotel fits right in with its surroundings on Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai’s digital nomad hub. All 30 suites are modern, if slightly subdued affairs (hardwood furnishings dominate), but you’re here for the public areas, which are deliciously popular with locals — especially the rooftop pool and bar, Rise. Doubles from £155, B&B. theakyra.com
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)