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PHUKET: I’ve always had an aversion to things that go bump in the night, but as our Thai Smile jet ramps up to 33,000 feet, an extended period of turbulence has left my forehead battered, but not bruised. Yes, the flight attendants shock orange uniforms put me into a Halloween mood, yet they move about the cabin like apparitions – not unlike giant mangoes.

My mission, which I have duly accepted, is a flying trip to Chiang Mai and there is nothing quite like getting your feet on the ground to see how Thailand’s great northern hope is faring these days. Things immediately get off to a good start with the taxi into town weighing in at a paltry 200 baht. A quick check of my pulse and slap in the face ensures this is not a bout of sleepwalking nor a visit to the afterlife.

Making big news in hotel circles lately has been the split between the Mandarin Oriental chain and the posh Dhara Dhevi resort; which is one of the city’s top places to stay. Over the next two days of idle chit-chat with various hoteliers runs the typical rumor mill but expectations are that a global luxury flag will be attached to the property once again in the not-to-distant future.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was a stay at the 137 Pillars House. Here the centerpiece of the property is a stunning restored teak house, which had served as the headquarters of the East Borneo Company. This place oozes charm, history and colonial elegance. I’ve travelled throughout Asia for longer than I can recall and this is one of the loveliest hotels I’ve come across.

A recent entry to the area is the 16-room boutique hotel Sala Lanna. With its unique riverside location, two restaurants and a rooftop bar overlooking the city, this is a very chic offering indeed. Having opened in April, the property is already gaining a strong reputation, as is the Sala Group, who aside from offerings here in Phuket, Koh Samui and Khao Yai, also recently added a Bangkok entry.

Both the 137 Pillars and Sala Lanna are strong design statements, albeit in very different ways. With the former being created by top Thai interior design firm P49 and the latter having a more modern feel, yet personal at the same time. It’s very much a yin and yang proposition and not dissimilar to a fine dining restaurant offering two irresistible specials for the day. Decisions, decision – perhaps I will have both.

As anyone who has not been in a coma for the past year can tell you, the Chinese have embraced Chiang Mai with an irresistible vigor. It’s not uncommon to see Chinese on signs, menus or special hotel promo cards at front desks. Despite suffering the woes of the global financial crises, and Thailand’s political circus, the destination now clearly has a second life. Walking through the Tapae area, there are echoes of the vibe you get in Luang Prabang or Ubud in Bali. Sure, there are budget travellers, but also a new set of older, well-heeled flash-packers who are looking for a more authentic Thai experience than that offered by the big beach destinations.

Another stop had me in the Manathai Village, which has retained its charm and its strong loyal following. Here, small is better remains the mantra. I had time to catch up with stylist David Shribsole, who continues to tweak the offering two to three times a year and keep things fresh for returning guests. Familiar faces surround me from a previous stay and David says that over the past six years, they have had only one staff member depart due to maternity reasons.

Nearby, in the district where the famed night market takes place, other guest houses and properties are starting to reinvent themselves. A case in point is the bright and funky SoHo which is an upgraded hostel offering, not unlike the new breed seen in Bangkok’s Lub-d and others.

Unlike Phuket, Chiang Mai’s tourists are taking to the streets in increasing numbers and the pace and rhythm is refreshing. Yes there are worries about an influx of new large shopping malls, traffic and of course the annual air pollution issues which come each burn season, yet the friendliness of the people and laid back feeling is infectious. As I board my Airbus to return to the island, and momentarily color blinded by the flight crew’s bold orange-ness, I can’t help but wish I could stay on just a little while longer.

Bill Barnett is the Managing Director of C9 Hotelworks and can be contacted through C9hotelworks.com.

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— Bill Barnett