Gardens for the soul

It’s quite surreal, driving up this sweeping road in the near black of night. Every ten metres or so torches bearing large naked flames sway in the slight breeze. It seems as if a massive gothic castle should be awaiting us at the summit, with drawbridge down and armoured men standing to attention, waiting to welcome us.

Instead there’s a humble bamboo hut with baskets of red flowers hanging from the eaves, set in a garden that is obviously colourful and lush, even by torchlight. Our bags are collected, and we’re shown to our own bamboo bungalow just metres away.

We’ve arrived for a weekend at the Phu Chaisai ("Mountain of Clear Hearts") Resort and Spa, set on the top of a hill, rather than a true mountain, in Chiang Rai province. Designed by ML Sudavdee Kriangkrai, who is popularly called on by royalty and diplomats to decorate their residences and is renowned for her use of local Thai products, the resort had its soft opening just three months ago.

Our bungalow – one of 25 nestled into the hillside, in mostly staggered three-storey lots – is functional and clearly designed to be at the mercy of the views of the surrounding garden and mountains. We can’t see any distant mountains just yet, but at the foot of the bed is a huge plate glass window, and we eagerly anticipate waking up with a sweeping panorama at our feet. There are also windows on either side of the bungalow, able to be discreetly covered with some beautiful pull-down blinds. A note advises us that we might here our neighbours below talking and walking around – the properties of bamboo don’t extend to sound-proofing.

As former backpackers who know their way around a bungalow when they see one, this one scores highly. Plenty of shelf space, a walk-in wardrobe (with a skylight), a separate toilet and hot-water shower (with a skylight), both of which feature charming curtain doors rather than lockable ones… we’re impressed. The toilet features a window that looks onto the garden – and there’s a switch within easy reach from the loo to flood the garden with light at night. There are some touches that lower the tone a little – unmatching bathroom tiles, a lamp that’s seen better days – but still, this is hardly roughing it. Most of the furniture in the rooms is made on the property, and a lovely luggage bench demonstrates that this was a good idea.

The resort’s market is certainly not aimed at backpackers, though. "I don’t like to use these words exactly, but I suppose we are aiming at the upper class of Thai society," says ML Paddy Chakrabandhu, Sudavdee’s half-brother and our host for the weekend. "We’re not aiming to have a resort that operates at full capacity. Just having four or five families staying here all the time would be enough. We’re seeking to attract a niche market – there have been some Japanese, some Westerners come and stay, but we haven’t pushed that market yet."

When we awake, it is indeed to mountains at our feet, although it quickly becomes obvious that the end of the dry season is not the best time of the year to come. There are some mountains in the distance, but there are also some mere hints of mountains further in the distance, thanks to smoke from farmers burning off their fields. Better to set our sights closer to ourselves – the surrounding gardens, which are truly the highlight of the place. They’re unmanicured and have been carefully given a non-landscaped look – in other words, it seems like a wild garden with an extensive array of fabulous trees and flowers.

After an American breakfast in the outdoor restaurant located by the natural-looking pool, we’re offered an hour-long horseride around the property. Sudavdee’s mother bought the original 300 rai of land, of which 37 is now devoted to the resort, more than 30 years ago, and set up a retreat for a monk. Eventually the land fell into disuse, until Sudavdee happened to visit the site nearly three years ago. "It was very tough for a woman to come here at that time, when it was still mostly jungle, and there was no electricity," says Paddy. "She really put a lot of work into this."

We hop on some horses and are led around individually. My horse, Chai-su, isn’t happy about me at all, and decides to sit down and roll to one side in order to get rid of me. It was a polite way to do it, really – he could have just reared and thrown me, but this way I didn’t break any bones, and was able to promptly get back on, with a good story to tell later on. The surrounding bamboo forest is very dry, and one of the horsemen exclaims at the low level of the dam we pass.

Next we’re shown the family residence, built lower down the hill, and another showcase of Sudavdee’s talents. There are three separate "bedrooms", which are actually freestanding bachelor pads each with different Thai and Chinese themes, made of a mixture of woods, cement and mud, plus a common room and kitchen in a huge sala-style building. So this is how the other half live – these places are let only to a select few. Nearby there are also some intriguing mud houses, composed of separate bedrooms, a dining room, and bathroom.

For those who tire of mountain gazing, garden snoozing or dreaming about a bachelor pad of their own , the resort isn’t too far away from other activities if you have transport, or hire a car with driver from the resort. "We’re a half-hour from anywhere – golf courses, the Golden Triangle, Mae Sai, the airport. Doi Tung is 20 minutes away, and it’s 40 minutes to Chiang Rai," says Paddy. More activities, such as bicycling and motorcycling are planned, a recreation room is under construction, and a bigger swimming pool and exercise room are on the drawing board.

In the meantime, there’s still the spa. The complete menu, comparable to that of any five-star hotel, is not yet offered in full, but an excellent Thai Herbal body polish (Bt1,200) is enough for a start.

There are a few things that give away the fact that the resort is not quite operating at optimal level. Our transfer from the airport forgot to pick us up, but a phone call saw a car speedily dispatched; at lunch several items on the menu were unavailable, but all were specifically offered to us at dinner. Half-price rooms, being offered during the soft opening period, do make up for these and are excellent value, so get here quick – and try to arrive at night.