Beginning with breakfast choices and coffee shops, our favourite in-town spot was an unassuming, street-side breakfast bar located in a hardware store just north of the junction between the main road and the cave road, Soi 25. Hubby sells the building materials and farm implements while the wife has enterprisingly availed herself of a coffee machine and English menu and set up a couple of tables out front. If we attempted, we’d describe as a “full Chiang Dao” consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and strawberry salad. Unusual but it actually worked and with a 06:30 opening time this is the earliest decent coffee in town. The place has no English name but you’ll see the coffee stand and food photos on the wall.
In the same part of town and just a few metres to the south, you’ll find the Krua Chiang Dao Restaurant which, at 07:00, is the second good morning coffee to open while their English menu proffers a range of local and Western breakfasts as well as fresh juices. It’s opposite Chiang Dao Inn and next to the carpark where the Bangkok buses stop and is a large affair with plenty of tables, a small, local-style bakery section and even a souvenir shop out back. With a comprehensive menu of cheap standard Thai dishes too this is also handy for lunch or an early dinner.
Just around the corner, a short distance up the cave road, you’ll find another good coffee shop in the unlikely location of the grounds of Wat Mae It. Set-up on the right-hand side of the temple carpark; they offer locally sourced coffee with free WiFi.
Continuing along the main road and about 200 metres north of the bus station—just past the small bridge—is the very friendly, family-run Chiang Dao Coffee Shop and Bakery. They serve up excellent and inexpensive fresh coffee, tea and juices and though they seemed a bit short on the actual bakery department, they do offer good rice and noodle dishes including Thai style biryani (khao mok gai) for 35 to 40 baht a plate. The walls are covered in family artwork with paintings achieved by the owner, his wife and his son.
Heading back into the town centre and just past the bridge road, Sompraew Coffee has a couple of stools to sup a coffee or smoothie but is principally notable for doubling as a bicycle and motorbike hire shop. The owner does shut up shop early—at 15:00—after which she apparently goes home for a siesta before returning to open up Star Cafe, a little further south again, from around 17:30 to 18:00 onwards. Same motorbike rental then, though the cafe is a much larger affair with a comprehensive international and Thai menu plus drinks list. The wooden building is decorated with old Hollywood movie star posters so a pun on the Thai name for the town which of course refers to the stars of the twinkle, twinkle variety. There’s WiFi, friendly service and all the usual Thai and Western suspects so pasta, steaks etc as well as rice and noodle dishes. Thai food was fine and reasonably priced though we can’t vouch for the quality of the Western options. Star is conveniently open until midnight.
Almost opposite Star is the particularly good Model Farm cafe. There’s a local, community organic farming project outside of Chiang Dao and this is their in-town outlet with a small supermarket and coffee shop on site as well as an excellent restaurant offering some highly imaginative choices. The superb smoked duck in tamarind sauce for 130 baht made a drive out to Nest almost redundant while more classic choices such as red or panaeng curries went for 70 baht. Not bad at all considering the quality of the food but it is a shame they close late afternoon and don’t stay open for dinner.
Still in downtown Chiang Dao, a few evening stalls set up by the bridge over the Ping River just off the main drag, selling barbecued meats, Thai sausages and fish accompanied by sticky rice and the obligatory som tam. Some tempting stuff, but very limited seating available so, basically, take-away only. Back on the main street, there’s a fledgling night market—well two or three stands in the same place—in front of the pink-coloured Government Savings Bank. Opens until 21:00 or 22:00 depending on how business is going.
Last but not least in town, if you fancy a Western alternative, try the very good Jerns, also on the main through road but right at the southern end of town close to the junction with the bypass. They offer excellent burgers, wraps and competent pizzas (we had a more than acceptable fish and chips) with a choice of indoor or terrace seating. It’s a convivial place and though not practical without transport we’ve heard they’ve just started up a handy takeaway and delivery service. Pizzas go for between 179 and 199 baht and you’ll find their full menu plus phone number on their Facebook page.
Before moving up to Ban Tham’s offerings there’s a couple of noteworthy locations on the less-frequented east side of the river. Firstly, a short ride or walk over the bridge brings you to the excellent cafe at the Makham Pom Art Space. A fine spot for a coffee, snack or ice-cream while you peruse the displays.
A little bit further out of town but one of our favourite eating and drinking spots in these parts is a series of riverside cafes just past Muang Khong village on the left bank, slightly to the north of town. There’s a few of these set-ups close together with a choice of riverside seating or floating rafts but Chiang Dao Riverside (English sign) seemed the best organised to us and came with an English menu. It’s your standard bamboo raft fare so laap, fried chicken, fish dishes, tom yam, fried rice and so-on with plenty of cold, cheap beer to hand. A delightful pastoral setting and good, inexpensive local food made this our top choice for a lazy afternoon.
Back towards the Chiang Dao caves you’ll find an even greater proliferation of coffee shops and another wide selection of both international and local food choices. First off there’s a bunch of local-style eateries offering khao soi, fried rice, pat kra pao, grilled chicken and so-on around the Chiang Dao Cave carpark as well as yet more coffee shops. All eateries we’ve tried seem very similar and all offer competent local standards in the 40 baht range so we wouldn’t want to choose between them. Ditto the various coffee shops providing locally sourced tea, coffee and fresh juices. Needless to say they do all close down early as cave traffic dies down.
Since many of the local resorts aren’t convenient for town quite a few offer their own full restaurant services and very good some of them are too with the aforementioned Chiang Dao Nest being a justifiably famous culinary hot spot. Nest concentrates on international cuisine with some very fine and imaginative offerings. There’s an extensive menu plus blackboard with daily specials. On our last visit the latter included pan-roasted duck with passion fruit and honey sauce or pork tenderloin with caramelised shallots in red wine. The former came in at 395 and the latter at 335 baht. Imported and locally-sourced products are top quality and we’d say Nest is well worth a splurge. Bear in mind that, outside of Chiang Mai, you’ll only see food of this sophistication and quality in a handful of five-star resorts where it’ll certainly be at least two or three times more expensive.
The menu also includes simpler dishes such as sandwiches, salads and pasta creations while the Nest 2’s restaurant down the road towards the Caves concentrates on Thai and Thai fusion dishes. They again make use of top quality local products and offer a range of generic, as well as specifically northern, Thai dishes. Presentation is a strong point but we’re more sceptical about these local dishes since, at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do with a khao soi or north-style hanglay curry. Pu Ka Ya Restaurant down the road can’t do duck in passion fruit sauce but they can knock up a decent pat kra pao, (minced pork with basil and chillies) for 50 baht—including, on our last visit, free mango and sticky rice—while Nest’s version with fancy decor and “carefully selected local ingredients” was 145.
Another interesting spot on the road before the caves is a local-style eatery called Rim Nam. With an unbeatable setting including bamboo salas overlooking a stream they serve up Thai standards as well as barbecued meats and sticky rice. Popular amongst locals for a cold bevy and piece of grilled chicken, it’s cheap, tasty and fun. A nice shady spot, which claims to open all day from 07:00 until 22:00. The stream is suitable for a dip but the whole place looks like it could get a bit hairy during heavy rains.
Bar-wise, The Cave, (just a short distance past Chiang Dao Huts), has a bit of a Pai thang going with pool table, bar games and vodka Red Bull buckets for 150 baht while over the road the more sedate Chiang Dao Hug competes with a small selection of bottled, craft beers.
If the latter is your thing then carrying on past the junction with the by-pass will see you in front of the unusual Micro Bar. We say unusual since their vast menu of bottled craft beers plus a rotating draught option is much more reminiscent of a chic bistro on Sukhumvit or Chiang Mai’s Nimmanhemin than an out in the sticks small town. They are all imported so not cheap but another splurge-worthy spot and the highly knowledgeable young Dutch owner—or beer sommelier—is more than willing to suggest choices from the bewildering array to suit your taste. They also possess a simple but spot-on western menu including Chiang Dao’s best burgers or wild boar sausages to soak up your IPA. A great find and on a minor but appreciable note the music was by far the best in town.
Just around the corner From Micro and getting lively later in the evening so you can relieve your wallet with cheap Thai beer plonk you’ll find the Sut Jai Lai. This spacious local-style pub has live music nightly from around 20:30 and taking country-style to extremes even replaces chairs with hay bales. Foreign punters seem light on the ground but it is a very convivial spot with friendly service and though it may well be quiet on an early weekday evening by midnight on a Friday or Saturday it’ll be heaving.
Breakfast Bar Main street (Highway 1359), opposite the 7-eleven, northern end of the town centre, Chiang Dao; T: (053) 455 297; Mo–Su: 06:30–20:00.
Chiang Dao Coffee Shop and Bakery Main street (Highway 1359) slightly north of bus station, Chiang Dao; Mo–Su: 08:00–16:00.
Chiang Dao Nest 144/4 Moo 5, Ban Tham; T: (053) 456 612, (086) 171 985; Mo–Su: 08:00–21:00.
Chiang Dao Nest 2 Chiang Dao Cave road, Ban Tham; Mo–Su: 08:00–21:00.
Chiang Dao Riverside Ban Muang Khong (east bank of Ping River slightly north of town); T: (061) 315 1973, (098) 770 1336; Mo–Su: 15:00–20:30.
Hug Chiang Dao Moo 5, Chiang Dao Cave road, opposite Chiang Dao Huts, Ban Tham; Th–Tu: 08:00–20:00.
Jerns Main street (Highway 1359) southern end of town, near the junction with the by-pass, Chiang Dao; T: (099) 139 1627, (098) 945 7958; https://www.facebook.com/JERNS.CD/ We–Mo: 09:30–18:00.
Krua Chiang Dao Main street, Chiang Mai to Fang road, opposite Chiang Dao Inn, Chiang Dao; T: (053) 455 133; Mo–Su: 07:00–21:00.
Makham Pom Art Space 480, Moo 2, around 2 kms east of town across the Ping River; T: (053) 456 016, (089) 688 3978, (086) 654 0496; https://www.facebook.com/Makhampomchiangdaoartspace/ Mo–Su: 09:00–16:30.
Micro Bar Microkosmos, 259 Moo 12, Chiang Dao; T: (085) 992 7005; https://www.facebook.com/MicrokosmosCraftBeerChiangDao/ Tu–Su: 17:00–00:00.
Model Farm Main street, Chiang Mai–Fang road, opposite the songthaew station, Chiang Dao; Mo–Fr: 08:00–17:30.
Pu Ka Ya Chiang Dao Cave road, (opposite The Cave), Ban Tham; T: (082) 188 9834; Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
Rim Nam San Pong Village, Chiang Dao Cave road, Ban Tham; T: (087) 047 5119; Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
Sompraew Coffee Shop Main street, Chiang Mai–Fang road, just north of Tesco Lotus, Chiang Dao; T: (081) 952 9261; Mo–Su: 09:00–15:00.
Star Cafe Main street, Chiang Mai – Fang road, opposite Tesco Lotus, Chiang Dao; T: (081) 952 9261; Mo–Su: 17:00–00:00.
Sut Jai Lai Junction of Chiang Dao Cave road and the bypass, Chiang Dao; Mo–Su: 17:00–00:30.
The Cave Chiang Dao Cave road just past Chiang Dao Huts, Ban Tham; T: (081) 892 0531; Tu–Su: 17:00–23:00.
Wat Mae It coffee shop Moo 5, Chiang Dao Cave road, (soi 25), Chiang Dao; .
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.