It is five o’clock in the evening at a hotel in northern Thailand and we are having drinks on the terrace, which is built around a working paddy field. Farmers in conical hats have done their work for the day and are preparing their buffaloes to leave.
The signal to go is a startling pounding of drums, then a torch-bearer begins his rounds so that soon the paddy field and the villas surrounding it put on a sparkling, nocturnal cloak that has us in awe.
This is the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, a wonderful, whimsical place that takes you into the heart of Asia and gives a taste of Thailand from the ground up. But with great comfort and style, it must be added.
Frazzled Bangkok residents make the one-hour flight here to relax, European tourists to experience the wilder side of the country, to ride elephants, go trekking, river-rafting and play golf.
Chiang Mai is no hamlet but it has a small-town feel. There are orchids everywhere at the airport, and traffic moves along with few hold-ups. Road signs are different too, such as Elephant Crossing.
Being the special place it is, most guests stuck close to the hotel for a while. The swimming pool, for example, has a lower level of loungers that are all but in the paddy field. Here bankers and brokers sit entranced by the timeless scenes before their eyes. I didn’t see anyone saying they were about to go back to the land but the thoughts were there – here was the simple life, slow, methodical, and as one Economist reader put it, “now I know where my rice puddings come from. ”
Golf is big around here, but it can be slow, one reason is that Thais like to play five-balls. Nor are the courses easy. One golfer returned to the Four Seasons saying he had lost 10 balls on this course. “Mind you, it was different,” he said. “When ball number 10 went into the water my caddy put her head on my shoulder. That’s never happened to me at Sunningdale.”
Nor are there elephants at Sunningdale. One day we took the concierge’s advice and booked a car to the Chiang Dao camp where elephants are trained to work in the forests.
It started with a young tusker raising a flag, there was a display of log rolling and we went for a ride, two per elephant with a mahout driving. There was the obligatory shopping, then an enjoyable river trip on a bamboo raft, complete with pole-wielding boatman. The Four Seasons provided a picnic hamper and there were opportunities to share our lunch with elephants we came across in the river.
More energetic types can go trekking, but one thing not to miss is a walk around the night market for which Chiang Mai is famous. Here is a bazaar as rich and amusing as you’ ll find anywhere in the world with lots of souvenir bargains as well as a criminal number of fakes.
What was that movie just released in Hollywood? The DVD is on sale here for $3.
Epic as the food is at the Four Seasons, few could resist a visit to a restaurant alongside the river near the night market. Here the bar list had a local alcohol billed as “whishky,” perhaps a reference to the after-effect.
The Red Lion pub caters to those who want their fare less exotic while TVs hum with sport on Star TV and ESPN. Conveniently, starting times of many European football league games are early evening here. Many pubs in Thailand also offer golf at discounted prices, transportation and the company of other visitors. Plus female caddies who might cry on your shoulder.