What is Lanna colonial architecture? Ping Nakara in Chiang Mai, Thailand exemplifies the historical style that northern luxury hotels and resorts are adopting, first used by the rich in the 19th century

The “wedding cake” Lanna-style facade of the Ping Nakara hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Handout

When Chairat Usavangkul opened the Ping Nakara hotel in Chiang Mai, he marked the occasion by writing a book explaining the inspiration for its design. The result was Lanna Colonial: A Return to Elegance, a beautifully illustrated volume that delves into local history to reveal a fusion of architectural styles. In doing so, Chairat coined a term that is heard increasingly to describe new hotels and resorts in northern Thailand that adopt a historical theme.

“Before Chiang Mai became a part of Siam in the early 20th century, the region was known as Lanna, which means ‘a million rice fields’,” explains Chiarat. “In the late 19th century, the city attracted Western missionaries and teak traders, who brought with them popular Victorian architectural features such as gingerbread fretwork and sheltered colonnades.”

An illustration of Lanna colonial architecture from the book Lanna Colonial: A Return to Elegance by Chairat Usavangkul. Photo: Sumit Temdee

During the teak boom era, he continues, many wealthy merchants constructed ornate, opulent houses with added Lanna influences, including carved pediments. “The result of this fusion of local and Western design was often a two-storey house with a ground floor of bricks and mortar and an upper storey of teakwood with spacious balconies and perforated panels that allowed for good air circulation – a necessary feature to cope with the tropical heat and humidity.”

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At Ping Nakara, these include the gingerbread carvings on the upper floor balconies, and a veranda that runs alongside the pool, as well as a set of bas-reliefs depicting elephants at work in the teak forests, carved in such detail that the pachyderms seem to spring to life.

Chairat Usavangkul, author of Lanna Colonial: A Return to Elegance and owner of the Ping Nakara hotel. Photo: Handout

The guest rooms are named after local flowers and are decorated with oil paintings and drawings of these flowers. The hardwood floors, Persian carpets, and antique-style fixtures and fittings give a feeling of yesteryear, accentuated by the way that guests are transported to and from the hotel in vintage Mercedes driven by smartly dressed chauffeurs, or else in environmentally friendly pedicabs.

A search for similar architecture across the city brings many rewards. A classic model of this stylistic fusion is the Lanna Architecture Centre, located in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old walled city, almost opposite two of the city’s main temples – Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao – and open to the public five days a week.

The upper level of Khum Chao Burirat. Photo: Ron Emmons

Formerly known as the Khum Chao Burirat, it was built around 1889. Khum means “residence”, and the Chao Burirat was a high-ranking local ruler responsible for administering foreign logging companies. Later, the office was moved out of town and the owners donated the property to Chiang Mai University. It is now part of the Faculty of Architecture.

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The property functions as a museum, with rotating exhibitions on architectural and cultural themes, although the building itself is the main attraction. Sutida Sumonsiri, the museum curator, showed STYLE around.

A cosy seating area at Khum Chao Burirat. Photo: Ron Emmons

“The property underwent a major renovation in 2021,” she said, “but examples of the original brickwork and paintwork have been left exposed to view.” She pointed out a section of ancient brickwork and yellowing paint that indicate the structure’s great age.

Sutida went on: “The ground floor is made of bricks and stucco, while the upper floor is constructed of teakwood with intricate floral-shaped carvings on the balustrades and friezes. Perforated vents above doors and windows allow air circulation, reflecting Lanna design, while the decorative arches enclosing the colonnade on the ground floor are typical of Western design.”

A view of Khum Chao Burirat, now a museum and part of Chiang Mai University. Photo: Ron Emmons

The painstaking renovation of this building is a strong indication of the pride locals feel in their heritage, and this meticulous preservation can be seen in several other buildings around town. One of the best examples is the centrepiece of the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, a century-old building that once operated as the British Consulate and now functions as an atmospheric restaurant, The Service 1921.

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Like the Khum Chao Burirat, the restaurant consists of a concrete ground floor and teakwood upper floor, and both floors have breezy colonnades and verandas offering sweeping views of the Ping River as it idles by.

The library room at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort’s restaurant, The Service 1921. Photo: Handout

“These days, the restaurant is decorated as a hideaway for secret service agents,” explains Pitak Norathepkitti, general manager of Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. “We believe our Brit Bar has all the hallmarks of a quaint British pub, and the Secret Agent Room upstairs is lined with spy paraphernalia.” Accessed through a concealed entrance disguised as a bookshelf, which revolves to admit wannabe spies, lies a hidden private room.

One of the well-appointed guest rooms at Ping Nakara. Photo: Handout

Though the Anantara clearly treasures its architectural heritage, the menu of The Service 1921 is thoroughly modern. It would hardly be intelligible to guests from a century ago, when dishes such as Maine lobster and Cajun-spiced cauliflower would have raised puzzled eyebrows.

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Gastronomic tastes may vary from year to year, but Lanna colonial architecture often exerts a lasting attraction on visitors to Chiang Mai. Not least because those who choose to stay in such properties benefit from the graceful blend of ancient and modern thinking on living well.

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  • The name came from Chairat Usavangkul’s book Lanna Colonial: A Return to Elegance, written to mark the opening of his Ping Nakara hotel built in the Lanna colonial style
  • Other examples are the Lanna Architecture Centre, part of Chiang Mai University, and the century-old centrepiece of the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, now a restaurant called The Service 1921