Being a popular (for locals anyway) tourist town, Phayao has an embarrassment of riches in terms of food, drink and even coffee shops. Sure there’s nothing much aimed at the trickle of foreign visitors but for Thai grub and Thai style bars the outlook’s fine and sunny. Chai Kwan, the lake-side road, has the best part of a kilometre of cafes, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and local style pubs running from the weekend market park at the southern end to the Phaya Ngam Muang Park at the top end. These go from simple local cafes with plastic chairs up to plush trendy, well decorated bistro style.
Very roughly speaking the strip starts out south with simpler, cafe style eateries, followed by more classic restaurants, finishing up around the junction with Prasat Road, with the flashier pub style joints. That’s Thai style pubs, so; trendy decor, spicy food, often large screen TVs showing EPL games and frequently live music. However the new, two storey, very smart, D Day, (odd name), at the southern end bucks this trend and seemed very popular with Thais for great views and good local food though, as with several of the other flashier spots, prices weren’t so cheap. Again generally speaking the simpler food joints will close down earlier – perhaps 21:00-22:00, whilst the pubs open as long as licensing hours permit; – i.e. up to 00:30.
With such a choice it’s difficult to single out any in particular and really it depends what you’re after. If food quality and value for money’s your criteria then the simpler plastic chair jobs are your best bet and we found an excellent one just diagonally opposite, (a few metres south), of the boat pier. Named, (in Thai only), Chan Cheep they offered the local speciality, grilled lake fish with salt crust and stuffed with herbs. (You’ll see these cooking outside numerous cafes). They even pealed the skin and crust off for us and, despite what you may imagine; the flesh was only lightly salted, delicately flavoured, and infused with herbs. Delicious and a whole fish goes for 160 baht including spicy dipping sauce. Chicken was also on the outdoor grill costing 120 for half or 240 for a whole one. (The advantage here being that you can just point, since we found not all restaurants by any means had English menus.) As well as grilled fish, chicken, pork and so-on most of these places will knock up a variety of other Thai dishes and, as we said, some do have English menus, or at least menus with photographs in.
If you’re more concerned with a view and perhaps cosy spot to have a sundowner then some of the larger, two storey bars offer good vantage points such as the aforementioned D Day or Ti Deim which has a central location and rooftop seating as well as an air-con interior. (Ti Deim also functions as a coffee shop so is open most of the day.) Some of these trendier places aren’t so cheap though, since they’re charging you for the decor. Saen Saerp, (with a tiny English language sign on the wall), a few doors down from Ti Deim, seemed to us a good halfway house; more upmarket than the plastic chair spots but not too flashy with younger staff, perhaps students, who did speak some English even if their extensive menu was all in Thai. We ordered – “whatever the chef recommends”, which came back rapidly, tastily and reasonably priced so, since we were at their mercy, they definitely get a gold star for that.
Away from the lake, and perhaps where locals go to avoid the tourists, is an equally huge strip of stalls at a night market on Rob Wiang Road. Again, stretching from near the junction with Don Sanam right past Northern Lake Hotel, this formed the best part of a kilometre of food and drink stands. All kinds of noodles, sukis, hot pots, soups, grilled chicken, meat balls, pork, fish, som tam and so-on with some setting out chairs and others take-away only. The market starts up late afternoon going in until late evening.
With so many lakeside eateries and such a huge night market it’s not surprising that the rest of town is a bit quiet cafe-wise but we did find a couple of interesting spots down Tha Kwan Road. Khao Soi Seng Pian, on your right as you head towards the lake, serves up a copious bowl of traditional style, and very good, khao soi for 45 baht in either beef or chicken formats.
Across the road from the khao soi cafe, and worth a mention, since it’s a bit different, is a Thai Italian restaurant named Forno. There’s an interior air-con room and tables on a small terrace and they offer pasta dishes for around 80-90 baht, Thai standards for 70ish and pizzas at 110 and 200 for 8 or 12 inch pizzas. Note these are Thai style but they do have cheese, a choice of toppings and aren’t too bad if you’re feeling riced-out. They also offer either classic tomato sauce or white, bechamel sauce which wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
There are plenty of decent coffee shops around, particularly along the lake road, but the excellent Cupcakes bakery and coffee shop merits a special mention. Friendly, with fluent English and plenty of information on offer, they serve up fresh coffee; juices, smoothies and a good bakery selection of Western style cakes in a very cute garden setting. Also have WiFi and bicycles for rent and when we were there the daily special was English style fish and chips for 130 baht. They do close relatively early though but are open for good breakfasts with a full cooked one, including juice and coffee, for 150.
Bar-wise there’s nothing approaching a ‘farang’ style drinking hole – not such a bad thing – but there are plenty of Thai style pubs and bars. As we’ve said before Thai restaurants and bars merge since the locals generally can’t drink without eating and vice versa, but some; slightly off the waterfront with loud music, occasional live bands and trendy decor such as BM Pub and Vespa Club or Meeting Point, next to the 7-eleven, are more out and out bars. All officially close at midnight 30 though.
Chan Cheep: 22/3 Chai Kwan T: (084) 808 8601, (080) 679 5596 open daily 09:00-21:00.
Cupcake: Chai Kwan Rd. T: (086) 446 8885 open daily 08:00-20:00
D Day: 44 Chai Kwan, southern end on the corner opp. weekend market park. T: (054) 481 443 open daily 17:00-00:00
Forno: Tha Kwan Rd. open daily 09:00-20:30
Khao Soi Seng Pan: Tha Kwan Rd. T: (054) 482 006 open daily 08:00-20:00
Night market: Rab Wiang Rd. open daily 17:30-22:00
Saen Searp: Chai Kwan, central stretch, T: 088) 260 7187 open daily 17:00-00:30
Ti Deim: Chai Kwan, close to boat pier, open daily 10:00-00:30