Long a stopover on the Southeast Asian travel trail, the north of Thailand has recently fallen under the radar as natural disasters, high-end villa sales and Starck-designed hotels have created a property bubble in Phuket and Koh Samui.
But for those looking for quietness and next-big-thing potential, the north of Thailand is experiencing some profound changes. As any long-term resident will tell you, subtle and slow is really the only way change happens in these parts. It would certainly describe how the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (and the lush countryside between) have started to mimic the development arc of western American retreats Aspen and Boulder.
The area first changed when Thai creatives began to roost in Chiang Mai. It didn’t take long until their modern entrepreneurial sensibilities blended with the cottage industries of this 700-year-old city – and in no time a bona fide movement was born.
Although small art studios, ceramics galleries and textile makers can be found in all corners of Chiang Mai, the movement is centred upon a few key areas. Our favourite is the Nimmanhaemin area, a series of small soi (lanes) filled with cafés, shops and ateliers such as Ayodhya, Wit’s Collection and Studio Kachama. You also have Charoenrat Road in close proximity, where old teak homes house modern crafts collectives (Sop Moei Arts, Vila Cini), and edgy markets where university talents constantly rotate, such as JJ Market in the Assadathorn area.
While these changes began in Chiang Mai, things are spilling out into the countryside to Chiang Rai and the area once known as the Golden Triangle. Europeans are building mansions on mountains and a bevy of modern hotels has sprung up. Perhaps most importantly, old-monied families and their scions are building second homes in the area.
As the north of Thailand evolves, from the walkable streets in Chiang Mai to rural weekend perches, some parallel movements are taking place across the border in China. It is just a plane hop into an area booming in its own right: Yunnan and the old town of Shangri-La. Our sense is the real boom will happen when the savvy that’s driving growth in both countries finally joins the dots. For now, we’d invest in a Nimmanhaemin two-bed and reserve a mountain plot in the Golden Triangle for weekends.
Flights to Chiang Mai:
Singapore Airlines – one flight daily (indirect)
Thai Airways – up to five flights daily
ANA – one flight daily (indirect)
Apt F1,1 Nimmanhaemin Soi 1; + 66 53 217 544
An anchor of the Nimmanhaemin Soi 1 design scene, Wit’s mixes local Siamese and European objets d’art. Hand-fired ceramics are a specialty, and the staff are elegant and eager.
10-12 Nimmanhaemin Soi 1; + 66 53 219 499
Textiles are the house currency. Specify your blend (poly, cotton, silk) and go bespoke – sales are done by the yard in the upstairs studio. We adore the playful take on local lanterns in artful, Expressionistic colours.
199 Moon Muang Road; + 66 53 419 014
Although the fairer sex gets the spoils at Hans Christensen’s eclectic outlet for Bangkok Modern style-come-north, the bazaar-like room and spot-on styling make it a fun look-see for all.
45 Assadathon Road; + 66 53 231 5209
Named after the famed Bangkok weekend market, this is a more sanitary affair, allowing for a sense of discovery without the chaos. There are usually finds to be had in furniture made from local teak, water hyacinth, bamboo and modern textiles.
Nimmanhaemin Soi 1; + 66 53 894 413
Bold, contemporary and solid, the AKA aesthetic is applied to the full range of things Thai: ceramics and vases, furniture and one-off housewares. We prefer working with them on a custom basis.
13 Charoenrat Road; + 66 53 241 886
The Ping river is most tranquil from under the paper lanterns of this music bar/café’s teak decks. The grilled meats and winged bean, eggplant and morning glory salads are the perfect foil for dying tropical heat and cold passionfuit juice – or simply a local beer as the sun sets.
Mae Fah Luang
With the late Queen Mother’s floral gardens at its centre, this mountain-top perch also boasts hand-woven carpets, flower-strewn hills for hikes and a great café. A favoured Monocle stop before or after the Hall of Opium.
Hall of Opium
Golden Triangle Park, Chiang Saen; + 66 53 784 444; goldentrianglepark.org
An intelligently curated museum looking at the crop that once ravaged the North’s tribes and hillsides, and came to define an era. It’s all the better for being carved into a hillside once used for drug smuggling.
The Royal Project at Doi Ang Khang
The world’s longest reigning king, HM Bhumibol Adulyadej, has sponsored hundreds of agricultural projects in the country, including the Doi Ang Khang site, north of Chiang Rai, which has been used by the UN as a model of sustainable farming.
Ban Rai Yam Yen
3 Faham Road; + 66 53 244 796
Classic and classy version of the beloved Thai suan aahaan (garden restaurant), this tiered wooden struc-ture is open-air and full from dusk until midnight, with chili dip-laden tables, and plenty of gentle local spirits and whiskey.
112 Bunrumgrad Road; + 66 53 242 491
A 1960s bungalow with Chinese flourishes, this is where the Bangkok weekend set roosts before a night on the town. Moody, candle-lit atmosphere blends with Thai-Chinese tastes, late hours, and a BYOB wine policy.
Nimmanhaemin Soi 9; + 66 53 260 125
Coffeehouse culture is booming in the north (there are numerous local branded outlets), but it is Wawee, above all, that has neutered Starbucks’ expansion. There are dark local woods, fast wi-fi and fine people-watching at the Nimmanhaemin location.
199 Moon Muang Road; + 66 53 419 011
Thai-English architecture is a minor local tradition, and this former Burmese prince’s home maintains a few others worth raising a glass to: cocktails in the garden, crisp white tablecloths, good roasts, and tapas passed around in cushion-filled anterooms.
7 Nimmanhaemin Soi 9; + 66 53 226 997
Spicy Thai salads and acoustic music draw an over-thirties crowd of players from government, media and design outside. T-Pop bands and whiskey lure local students inside. Either way, this all-things-to-all-people nightspot is quintessential CM.
Mix Bar, D2 Hotel
100 Chang Klan Road; + 66 53 999 999
The sherbet orange outside makes the D2 Hotel impossible to miss. Perhaps ahead of its time in slick concept, the Dusit Thani boutique brand has one of the only bars where air-conditioning, service and quiet merge.
123 Charoen Prathet; + 66 53 253 333
A beloved battery-recharging spot for Monocle before venturing into up-country and rural, this Kerry Hill-designed property balances soulful Siamese elements with the right touches of Zen (open-plan rooms, sleek landscaping).
Four Seasons Tented Camp (Golden Triangle)
Chiang Rai, Golden Triangle; + 66 53 910 200
Low-key, high-style living in the upcoming Chiang Rai loop. Copper bath tubs, Thai massages by dusk on your own deck, and sunsets looking towards Myanmar are par for the course at one of the wittiest FS projects around. Kitschy rooms are themed (travel literature, famed adventurers) and the food can be lacklustre, but worth budgeting two days.
6 Rachamankha Soi 9; + 66 53 904 111
A subtle feat by a live-in architect, this property is as much a way of life as it is a re-invention of Thai-Chinese line and building traditions. The small, cloistered spaces are best contemplated over midday tea, cool lemongrass juice or late-night brandies.
Average price for a 120 sq m apartment
€1.05m - Hong Kong Island
€982,000 - Singapore
€104,000 - Kuala Lumpur
€83,000 - Jakarta
€92,000 - Chiang Mai
+ 66 89 560 9655; jasminehomes.co.th
Contact: Steve Malone
Buying land, homes or condos in Thailand is best done with both a lawyer and real-estate agent. Officially, law stipulates that a foreigner can’t take ownership of land, although above-ground properties (condos etc) are exempt, as is owning a building. There are, however, two options for ownership. First, land can be purchased on a 30-year leasehold with 30-year extension options and a caveat that the property is separate from the land. Second, and most common with investors, a foreigner can open a Limited Liability Company in Thailand (for minimum capital) in which they take just a 39 per cent stake but can act as the only director, guiding the company in all decisions to buy or sell land and homes. Almost all top real-estate firms offer packages involving legal services, company set-up and advice. Good rescources include chiangmairealty.com or a high-powered Bangkok law firm with expatriate and real-estate specialists, like ILCT (ilct.co.th; + 66 2 679 6005).
“Chiang Mai has all the things you could possibly want, much more so than somewhere like Phuket. It also has a relaxing atmosphere which is a far cry from Bangkok. I can enjoy really long motorcycle rides and have a little break in the middle of the day, without feeling guilty. In Bangkok, half your day is spent in a car, a bus or the BTS [Skytrain]. I live in the city but it has a rural feel. I recently took a space at SuriyanChandra crafts space, which has the definite advantage of allowing better immersion in the day-to-day business of design and craftwork.”
Owner of Salon De Guru, Chiang Mai’s top salon
“I moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok 17 years ago because my son has allergies. The weather is much better here and there is less pollution, so we decided among the family that this would definitely be the best course of action to preserve his health. I instantly fell in love with the country and the lifestyle it affords. Chiang Mai has very much its own culture and the people are so friendly – more so than in the south, though I do love the people of Bangkok.”
Architect of AKA Spa
“The reason I’m so happy in Chiang Mai is simply because you get a great sense of rural life here. I moved here 12 years ago from Bangkok to escape the Thai economic crisis that was more prevalent in the capital. At the time there were no jobs in design, but by moving here I was able to start work in ceramics and furniture design much more easily. Property rental prices have also stayed very low, which is a bonus, but for how long? Chiang Mai has everything that Bangkok has, but the pace is less hectic and it is far simpler to navigate. Also, the climate is less stifling – it’s cooler than down south.”