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Ancient Thai Temples Inspire Unique Designs at Chiang Mai’s Luxurious Four Seasons Spa

The stunning Spa at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai opened in late December 1999.  It portrays a uniquely “Lanna” (northern) Thai heritage of architecture and interiors together with specially commissioned artworks and sculptures.

Lanna literally means “the land of a million rice fields” and much of rural Chiang Mai still grows this staple crop.  Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai was designed as a tribute to the culture and heritage from this ancient Kingdom with its layout being that of a traditional Thai village, complete with its own working rice farm as the centerpiece of its landscape.  The area now known as Chiang Mai was, over 700 years ago, part of Burma and known as the “Lanna Kingdom”.  Even today there are many influences in northern architecture, design, artwork and sculpture from this period.

It seems fitting therefore that the inspiration for the design for The Spa - a temple of harmony for the body mind and soul -  is based on that of several ancient Thai Lanna Temples in the north.

The Spa is housed in a magnificent three storey building (900 square metres or 9,680 square feet) set in lush tropical vegetation.  Its seven treatment suites are elegant and exceedingly spacious, offering total privacy for couples or individuals, with a variety of features including outdoor showers, private herbal steam rooms, romantic outdoor soaking tubs and tropical rainshower massage tables.  All treatment suites have individual changing, shower and bathroom facilities. There is also a separate beauty salon within the spa.

The ground floor houses 3 large suites and one smaller suite, all with individual access through lush tropical gardens.  The half octagonal “Prae” Garden Treatment Suite has Thai-Style massage beds next to its own fireplace and opens out onto a private garden, complete with its own plunge pool.  It also has double rainshower massage treatment suites, herbal steam room, a relaxation area over-looking a lily pond, and an outdoor soaking tub with floor to ceiling screens made of natural cotton that can be easily angled to allow guests to see the magnificent garden views.


The main entrance and elegant reception area, together with a spacious lounge looking out over the landscape, are located on the first floor, as well as two spacious treatment suites, both with individual steam rooms, semi-outdoor soaking tubs and individual relaxing areas.  One of these suites has double tropical rainshower massage tables.  The beauty salon is also located on this level.

The “Laan Chang” penthouse treatment suite occupies the entire third floor and features a double semi-outdoor shower, herbal steam room, both Thai and Western massage beds and an outdoor soaking tub in a private “sala” or covered gazebo.  Stunning views from this suite look toward the Doi Suthep Doi Pui mountain range.

Design Concept

The design concept in creating The Spa was to provide a luxurious facility with total privacy for clients, at the same time incorporating both nature and culture, carefully blending the Spa into the resort’s existing environment.

Mr Lek Bunnag of Bunnag Architects did architectural design and interiors; Bill Bensley of Bensley Design Studios (both in Bangkok) did landscape architecture. 

In order to give each suite an individual identity, Lek chose a clearly defined room-type of architecture in which he then created “diminishing perspective”, giving visual depth inside each treatment suite with a design inspired from the gates of Wat Phumin. Wat Phumin is the most beautiful and distinctive Lanna temple in Nan province located some 300 kms from Chiang Mai.

Interiors are beautifully finished with extensive use of local teak, especially in the waxed and polished floors, majestic doors and the internal spiral staircase to the penthouse. A sacred “Lanna” style “Naga” or snake sculpture (signifying protection) surrounds The Spa and has been very creatively incorporated into the overall design, merging with the gates of the suites on the ground level, through which individual entrances are accessed through the lush foliage.  The use of the Naga design is also very prevalent in temples throughout Thailand.

Artwork and Sculptures

The basic underlying and most powerful colour expressed in the Lanna era is gold and maroon which gives a regal, stunning definition.  The use of gold leaf on a maroon background enables the gold to fully express itself in dramatic contrast against the rich warm tones as it reflects mystically in the light. 

Gold tones, again from the Lanna era, depict the sun, the Bo tree (a sacred tree often planted near temples as legend has it that Buddha learned his principles under a Bo tree) and small animals such as the squirrel and rabbit.  Several varieties of birds, parrots, butterflies and dragonflies extend the richness and playfulness of this delightful artwork.

The most impressive art piece which is featured in the reception lounge is a series of 6 oversized plastered, painted bas reliefs of the Lanna pattern “Khanok”  (a symbol of lightness from meditation). This simple yet charming pattern is also featured throughout the Spa’s interiors and has become the ‘logo’ of The Spa.  While similar in shape to a nautilus shell, Lek explains that it could have actually been inspired from nature (a flower) or the flame of a candle.

An exquisite collection of Lanna art frescos are displayed through the spa.  Traditionally, these frescos depicted everyday life of the village people. What impressed Lek was the expression of delight in the young as they frolicked, smiled and played in a rather naughty, but unoffending way.  It is a refreshing and totally unique artform, instantly recognisable once you have seen its form with the bright eyes, the coy smile, the tilt of the head and the inescapable charm. 

Lek took this influence and re-created a collection of paintings for The Spa, selecting the colour and composition, then retoning and recomposing the characters to fit the different scale of each treatment suite.  The artwork is painted on raw plywood in pastel-based tones in order to give them an aged appearance rather than merely copy the exact colour of old frescos from the temple walls.

The girls in the paintings have been painted in a more expressive and sensual way, which gives them a subtly more modern look than the original “Lanna” style.  Opposite the entrance to the beauty salon is a magnificent reproduction of a Burmese painting (A Lady of Quality by F. Middleton) showing a Burmese girl with a soft touch of morning sun.  Lek included this piece as he felt it important to express the significance of the Burmese influence in art as the Burmese occupied this northern region for half of the Lanna life span.  The light reflecting on the gold dress of the woman makes it totally lifelike.

Exquisite Thai sculptures and carvings are artfully placed in alcoves throughout each suite and the reception area.  Placed in the central plinth between the two spacious lounges in reception is a beautiful antique free-standing low partition carved in teak-wood with characteristic Lanna gold finish. Richly coloured hand-woven fabrics are artfully draped on sculptures and lamp bases.

Richly coloured carved wooden panels on the ceilings give added warmth and again depict traditional shapes found in temples in the area.

To achieve privacy, and rather than use heavy wooden shutters or blinds, delicate hand-made rice paper has been adhered to selected windows, still allowing soft natural light into the suite.

The spa is decorated with large arrangements of fresh seasonal flowers and greenery from the Resort’s lush tropical gardens. The uniforms worn by the Spa staff were also designed by Lek and continue in the traditional local style, featuring beautifully natural textured Thai fabrics in warm earth tones that are cool and elegant, yet practical and authentic.