History meets hip

Royal Plaza on Scotts' general manager Patrick Fiat has tried rice-harvesting in Chiang Mai.
Royal Plaza on Scotts' general manager Patrick Fiat has tried rice-harvesting in Chiang Mai. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR PATRICK FIAT

Who: Patrick Fiat, 62, general manager and chief experience officer of Royal Plaza on Scotts. The Singapore permanent resident is from France and has been in the hotel industry for more than 40 years. He was recently named Hotelier of the Year for 2014 by the Preferred Hotel Group.

Favourite city: Chiang Mai
Why: My daughter Nadia Estelle, 21, lives there, which is one of the reasons I have been visiting this northern Thai city four to five times every year for more than 20 years. I have seen it transform from a quiet place to a hip and lifestyle-centric city, fast growing in popularity with tourists. Yet, even as it has become more developed, Chiang Mai is still not as commercialised as places such as Bali and Phuket, and continues to maintain its charm.

Best places to stay
I recommend Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai (51/4 Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road, Moo 1, T. Tasala, A. Muang, tel: +66-53-888-888), a luxury resort I dub "The Pearl of the Orient". With its intricate architecture that reflects Chiang Mai's history as the last capital city of the old Lanna kingdom, the hotel feels more like a palace.

The service is immaculate. Antiques are found throughout the resort and guests will feel as if they are walking through a museum.

It also offers a host of activities such as arts and crafts demonstrations, and cooking, fitness and rice- planting classes, which means guests can spend the day meaningfully without having to leave the resort.

Book the rooms facing the rice fields. The tranquillity of the place will help you feel relaxed. I recommend a walk around the property during sunset too.

The resort is a destination on its own. The only drawback is that you will never want to leave. Room rates start at 20,000 baht (S$811) a night.

Another hotel I would suggest is Rachamankha (Mueang Chiang Mai District, tel: +66-53-904-111), located in the heart of Chiang Mai's old town. The rooms open into wide courtyards and a lot of thought has been put into the landscaping surrounding the hotel. The result is a peaceful environment for guests.

Room rates begin at 6,518 baht a night.

Favourite restaurants
For lunch, head to Khaomao-Khaofang Restaurant (Ratchapruek, Nong Kwai, Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai 50230, tel: +66-53-838-838). The open-concept restaurant has a rainforest theme, with views of waterfalls and an orchid garden. This is a very relaxing place to have a meal.

Order the banana blossom salad as an appetiser, soft-shell crab curry as a main and banana fritters with sesame glaze for dessert. A meal costs about $15 to $20 a person.

For dinner, try Cuisine de Garden (Nong Khwai Hang Dong, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Chiang Mai, tel: +66-53-441-599). The chef prepares a set menu every day, depending on the produce he buys at the market. He uses molecular gastronomy for his presentation, making every dish a creative work of art.

The restaurant's minimalist decor and Zen-like ambience complement the innovative dishes served. A four-course set meal costs about $50 to $60 a person.

Best places to shop
Check out Nimman, a funky neighbourhood along Nimmanhaemin Road. Spend a day here walking through the alleys of this once-sleepy district, which is now a booming commercial centre where local artists showcase their work.

Here, you can pick up one-of-a-kind handicraft and souvenirs. During the "winter" season - from November to early February where temperatures can be as low as 10 to 15 deg C at night - there is an art bazaar that showcases the works of up-and-coming local artists.

If you are into terracotta, visit Baan Phor Liang Meun (36 Prapokklao Road Soi 2, A. Muang, Chiang Mai, tel: +66-53-278-187, www.artterracotta.com). This place has an extensive range of terracotta reproductions of Khmer art. Many of the pieces are placed in a park, so visitors can spend an hour strolling through and appreciating them. These reproductions make fantastic souvenirs and showcase the beauty and history of the old civilisations of South-east Asia.

Best day trips
For great views, visit Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand, which has a magnificent view of the surroundings. There, you can also visit hill tribe villages to learn more about the villagers' way of life and buy local produce.

The landscape is beautiful. On a clear day when the weather permits, one can even see the mountains of Myanmar to the west.

There are also many hot springs around Chiang Mai. Head to San Kamphaeng Hot Springs (Ro Pho Cho Chiang Mai 4192 Road, Mae On, Chiang Mai, tel: +66-53-037-011, open: 8am to 9pm daily) to soak in its sulphur-rich water and relax after taking in the sights of nature earlier.

Best place to people-watch
This would be at the different restaurants and nightspots by the riverside. Thai dishes are served at many of these establishments and, with their prime location on the banks of the Ping River, they are perfect spots to spend the evening with a drink and to enjoy the idyllic views.

The Ping River, known to locals as "The Lifeline of the Province", draws crowds every night with its nightlife.

You must try the food at The Good View Bar & Restaurant (13 Charoenrat Road, Chiang Mai, tel: +66-53- 241-866), which is popular among locals. A live band performs old classics nightly and guests are welcome to take to the dance floor.

One of my favourite dishes here is the assortment of northern Thai pork sausages served with vegetables, green chilli paste and minced pork tomato chilli paste. Snacks on the menu cost between $5 and $15.

Most memorable experience
It would be celebrating Songkran with my daughter. We would travel with friends through the streets on a truck and empty buckets of iced water on people on the sidewalk.

I also enjoy celebrating another Thai festival, Loy Krathong, with her. Loy Krathong is an annual celebration and the name could be translated as "to float a basket". It comes from the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river with lit candles in them.

As Loy Krathong coincides with the Lanna festival known as Yi Peng, people in Chiang Mai celebrate both festivals on the same night and release khom loi (lanterns) into the night sky. It is quite an enchanting sight.

Advice for travellers
Avoid the hottest months from March to June. Go during November to early February instead.