Chiang Khan is a fun town to wander around sampling different foods, though many choose to settle into a river-view patio for a relaxing meal. Thai-Chinese, Isaan-Lao and Vietnamese are widely available, and there’s even one great option for Western fare.
Possibly the food highlight of Chiang Khan is the local market that comes to life every day and night at Khaeng Khut Khu to the east of town. This is a great spot to sample ma-prao kaew (wok-fried strips of coconut meat with a hefty glazing of sugar) along with other local products like dark-brown coconut sugar and roasted peanuts. Also available are tiny river prawns—head, tail and all—served deep-fried in big round discs with cucumber dipping sauce, or as part of a fiery salad with chilli, garlic and lime. Order them kueng nawn ("sleeping shrimp") if you don’t want the little guys jumping around on your plate. If that sounds like fun, by all means go for the kueng ten (“dancing shrimp”) version. You can order this and other authentic Isaan dishes from several sit-down restaurants in the market.
Chai Khong Road hosts a less-dramatic night market, with several vendors and small eateries selling grilled pork balls, som tam and sweets like khao mao (pounded rice sweetened with pandan leaf and coconut). You’ll also find a range of foods with a local twist at the day market, located between Sois 9 and 10 just south of Sri Chiang Khan Road. On the same road, several basic Chinese-Thai restaurants churn out staples like pak bueng fai-daeng (sauteed morning glory) and gaeng jued (mild tofu soup) served with rice porridge or steamed rice. Most don’t have English menus so bring along your phrasebook if you’re not familiar with this sort of cuisine.
Chiang Khan also hosts at least three restaurants focusing specifically on Vietnamese food. We had an excellent spread of khanom bueang (or banh xeo in Vietnamese) and khanom pak mor (rice paper dumpling with ground pork and a finely chopped leafy green) at a shop on Sri Chiang Khan Road, directly across from Soi 17. They’re open only during daylight hours; look for a big red sign with Thai script and some pictures of the available dishes.
If you’re after a taste of something that’s hard to find beyond Chiang Khan, make your way to a nondescript noodle shop about halfway up Soi 10 called Jum Nuea. The place is named after its signature noodle dish that blends pork and morning glory in a slightly thick purple broth, which gets its distinctive colour and flavour from fermented soybean. It tastes a lot better than it might sound, but those who are turned off by a big bowl of purple mush can go for a sweet peanut-based curry that looks and tastes like mii krathi, a sort of soupy and mild coconut-influenced cousin of pad Thai that’s served with khanom jeen rice noodles. The shop has no English sign but any local will point you to it if you can manage to say jum nuea correctly. Get there by late afternoon, before they sell out for the day.
Now that you’ve had your local specialty lunch, follow Chai Khong Road to its western end for dessert. On tiny Soi 0, not far from the river, locals have been crafting sticky rice in bamboo, or khao lam, for decades. After being slightly sweetened with a touch coconut milk, the glutinous rice is stuffed into wide shafts of bamboo and grilled over a charcoal fire. The snack was once favoured by soldiers due to its ease of transport and ability to last for long periods without spoiling. The char-grilled treat is sold throughout the day, but you’ll need to get here in the early morning to watch it being prepared.
Back on Chai Khong Road, you’ll find no shortage of pricier restaurants with extensive menus and riverside seating. While we didn’t get around to trying it, we heard good things about Hein Luang Prabang, which focuses on traditional Northern Thai and Lao dishes along with standards like fried rice and krapao. Further east in the vicinity of Wat Tha Khok and Soi 19, Ganga Restaurant is a godsend for those craving a bite of Western food. They do excellent burgers along with passable pizza and a wide array of sandwiches, sausages, pasta and steaks to go with a dozen European beers and quality coffee.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.