Chiang Mai offers a stunning array of cuisines, served at its streetside eateries through to high-end fine dining restaurants. Diners are spoiled for choice, with options including traditional Northern Thai dishes, foods from neighbouring Burma and China, eclectic cafes and bakeries serving delicious local coffee, plus broad international selections. Pack clothes in an extra size larger for comfortable onward travel!
Thanks to China’s proximity, Chiang Mai has large Chinese and Chinese Muslim minority populations, with the latter to thank for influencing the creation of khao soi, the famed soft and crispy wheat noodles combined in a mild coconut curry soup that Chiang Mai is renowned for. The city’s significant Burmese population, in particular the Shan, have also influenced various local dishes, such as the slightly sweet mild pork curry of gaeng hanglay. You’ll notice some similarities to Isaan (northeast Thailand) and Lao food, with a profusion of spicy dips. Chiang Mai specialities include the relatively mild nam prik ong and nam prik noom—and grilled meats with sai oua or north Thai sausages popular with both locals and visitors. Sticky rice commonly accompanies dishes. Generally speaking, local dishes are milder than central and southern Thai ones, often slightly sweet and have an emphasis on fresh herbs rather than dried spices.
A classic north Thai-style dinner—much touted to visitors—is known as a khan thoke (or khantoke) dinner and consists of a selection of local specialities served on low round rattan tables or trays, with guests seated on cushions on the floor. Tourist versions these days are often accompanied by a traditional music and dance shows. Several large specialist restaurants offer such evenings to visitors, with Khum Khantoke just beyond the Superhighway getting consistently good reviews. Their 850-ish baht per head price sounds a bit steep, but does include return transfers to any downtown hotel, and their traditional dance show gets good reviews if you like that sort of thing.
As is often the case, your best opportunities to sample authentic local specialities at local prices are in the street stalls and bustling night markets. These include busy Chang Puak Gate or Chiang Mai Gate, and tiny but fun Su Meut Night Market, which opens Thursday to Saturday outside Central Kad Suan Kaew. Two weekend walking street markets are also excellent spots to sample a wide range of local snacks as you stroll, though there aren’t so many seating areas.
Despite their canteen-style settings, the food halls inside Kad Suan Kaew—or indeed any of Chiang Mai’s other huge malls—are always a good bet for cheap and cheerful local fare. Prices start from 30 to 40 baht a dish at the aforementioned up to perhaps 50 to 60 baht in a more upmarket mall’s food hall like Maya’s. We reckon the best, for sheer variety and value for money, is the awesome third floor food centre at Central Festival Mall.
Another good downtown hunting ground for classic and authentic Thai fare is the strip of local cafes along Intraworowot Road, alongside the Arts and Culture Museum. These dish up Thai versions of Hainanese chicken rice, stewed pork shank and so on with a variety of noodle soup choices including khao soi. You’ll be full before you’ve spent 100 baht. When it comes to ubiquitous khao soi our all-time favourite spot (and we’ve tried a few) would have to be the wonderful Khao Soi Khun Yai (Grandma’s Khao Soi), tucked away in a garden off Sri Phum Road. Only open from 10:00-16:00, you’ll probably have to wait for a table at lunch time but it’ll be the best 35 baht you’ll spend in town.
Another long-running address serving up decent Thai fare at sensible prices is well located Aroon Rai on Kotchasarn, a short distance south of Tha Pae Road. Equally popular with foreign visitors and locals this has been dishing out classic Thai fare for so long we reckon King Mengrai probably used to lunch here while the rest of the city was under construction. You wouldn’t go for the plain setting and decor but the food is authentic with a large-ranging menu available in English. Most main dishes are under 100 baht.
If you’d like to check out more specifically north Thai cuisine, then Huen Phen (also mentioned in our accommodation section) has the best reputation within the Old City. They present a comprehensive English-language menu with all the Chiang Mai classics such as sai hua, nam phrik ong, nam phrik noom, gaeng hanglay and so on. You have a choice of two locations: their long-standing restaurant on Ratchamanka Road, or a new, plush setting on the top floor of Baan Huen Phen Boutique Hotel opposite. Sharing a few dishes between two, we’d count on spending perhaps 150 baht per person.
If you’re up Nimmanhemin way, among the eclectic collection of boutique beer bars and chic fusion eateries you’ll find a couple of excellent spots specialising in North Thai fare, including Tong Tem Toh, set in a lovely old teak house on Soi 13, and Kaosoinimman on Soi 7. The latter has a full northern Thai menu alongside its signature khao soi—of which they have some original variations—and sets up in a small but cute garden with interior and exterior seating options. Tong Tem Toh is hugely popular and there’s often a queue for tables for lunch and dinner. Weather permitting, they set up a barbecue on the footpath outside the front door, so just follow the crowds and the smell of grilled pork. Plenty of vegetarian options are on their menu, and most main courses weigh in at under 100 baht. The clientele up this way is predominantly Chinese, mixed with well-heeled young Thais, but both locations have full English-language menus.
Although not a full on night market as such, you’ll find plenty of evening food stalls lining the main Nimmanhemin drag between sois 1 and 11 to 13 serving up soups and barbecued morsels to peckish hi-so designer beer drinkers. Most open between 17:00 and 18:00. Just look for the longest queue!
If we could only eat one lunch in Chiang Mai, it would have to be at Huay Tung Tao. It is a little way out of town—not the sort of place you just pop into—but one where you make an afternoon of it: Laze around by the lake on bamboo salas downing cold ones and sampling the awesome array of Thai, north Thai and Isaan dishes. The menu is more elaborate and wider ranging than the in-town cafes with a choice of wonderful whole fish dishes as well as grilled meats and local faves such as laap etc. Food remains very authentic, prices reasonable and the setting second to none.
Back into town and our vote among the Old City’s host of more specifically tourist-orientated eateries would be excellent Kanjana, hidden away down Ratchadamnoen Soi 5. It doesn’t look much from the outside—simple and very similar to plenty of other nearby cafes—but we find their classic Thai and Chiang Mai food offerings a step above those of the competitors and service is good. You will notice a substantial price hike from our more local suggestions, with for instance their range of fried rice dishes topping out at a whopping 170 baht for the seafood version. Their tom yam or tom kha kai seemed better deals at 100-200 baht, depending upon size of portion. Such addresses cater well for vegetarians, which can be an issue in more local-style cafes.
For Isaan and Lao specialities, we stick with long-running local fave Roumjai Kaiyang-Somtam, next to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. Simple, cheap, authentic—get there early before the food runs out and don’t miss their signature Isaan-style grilled chicken.
A step up again—price-wise at least—is somewhere like the hugely popular Dash on Moonmuang Soi 1. With a choice of old teak house or adjacent garden seating you are paying for the decor and presentation rather than any quantifiable improvement in the quality of their classic Thai dishes. Food is undoubtedly well-prepared though we did find a 170 baht khao soi slightly off-putting! It’s very popular among Western tourists nonetheless and you’ll be lucky to get a table after 19:30.
Another Thai restaurant that is worth splashing out a bit extra on is longstanding riverside Good View, popular with both locals and visitors. Great setting, live music and good quality food; it’s ideal for a special night out. They do have Western options such as steak and chips, which we’ve never tried, with Thai mains going for between 90 and 150 baht. Everything considered, it’s a very good deal.
Last but not least for our Thai section—and a very useful address for night owls—is Chiang Mai institution Joke Somphet on the Sri Phum inner moat road. Open 24/7 this simple looking Sino-Thai location has been serving up great dim sum, roast chicken and their signature rice soup (jok in Thai) for as long as we’ve been in Chiang Mai (which is a long time). Good at any time of day but for anybody feeling peckish after midnight—this is the place.
Central Festival Chiang Mai Lamphun Superhighway, northeast sector, Faham; T: (053) 998 999; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Chang Puak Gate night market Central strip of Manee Nopparat Rd, running 1 block west from Chiang Puak Gate; Mo–Su: 17:30–24:00.
Chiang Mai Gate Bumrung Buri Rd, southern inner moat road, Phra Singh; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:30.
Dash Teak House 38/2 Moonmuang Soi2, Phra Singh; T: (053) 279 230; http://www.dashteakhouse.com Mo–Su: 10:30–22:00.
Huan Phen 12 Ratchamanka Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 814 548; Mo–Su: 09:00–22:00.
Huay Tung Tao left off the canal road approximately 1 km past the 700 Year Stadium.; Mo–Su: Mid-morning-sunset.
Joke Somphet 59-3 Sri Phum Rd, Sri Phum; T: (053) 210 649; Mo–Su: 24 hours.
Kanjana 7/2 Ratchadamneon Soi 5, Phra Singh; T: (053) 418 368, (081) 884 1532; Su–Fr: 10:00–21:00.
Kao Soy Nimman 137 Nimmanhemin Soi 7; T: (053) 894 881, (088) 090 1370; Daily 11:00-22:00.
Khao Soi Khun Yai Sri Phum Rd, Sri Phum, (next door to Wat Khuan Khama); Mo–Sa: 10:00–16:00 .
Nimmanhemin night stalls Nimmanhemin Rd between sois 1 and 13, Suthep; Mo–Su: 17:00–24:00.
Roumjai Kaiyang-Somtam Boonrueang Rit Rd, by Chiang Mai Ram Hospital, Suthep.; T: (053) 215 912, (053) 216 516, (088) 268 4916; Th–Tu: 10:00–20:00.
Su Meut night market Huay Kaew Rd, Suthep (outside Central Huay Kaew department store).; Th–Sa: 17:00–22:00.
Tong Tem Toh 11 Nimmanhemin Soi 13, Suthep; T: (053) 854 701; Mo–Su: 11:00–21:00.
You’ll come across a bit of everything around town in this section including of course regional choices from Burma (Myanmar), Laos, China and Vietnam, but also further afield with Korean, Japanese and Indian cuisine.
We were very impressed by the authentic and cheaply priced fare at Burmese The Swan on Chaiyaphum Road. They served the best vegetable tempura we’ve ever eaten, and in pleasant surroundings with good service. Just around the corner off Chiang Moi Road is the acclaimed Dara Vietnamese eatery—again authentic, inexpensive and popular. The Swan and Dara both have plentiful vegetarian options.
Another excellent vegetarian choice is non-profit Free Bird Cafe over near Chang Puak Gate. The cafe assists Shan and hilltribe refugees and underprivileged youths, so it’s in a good cause and their menu has a distinct Shan and Burmese theme. Food is adapted for Western and vegetarian tastes so it’s not exactly authentic but nonetheless very tasty.
With the recent influx of Chinese tourists to Chiang Mai, you’ll now find plenty of classic Cantonese fare available, but if you’re feeling really adventurous then try the specialty Yunnanese restaurant, Mit Mai on Ratchamanka. As a word of warning, this bears zero resemblance to what most Westerners would think of as Chinese, and with fried worms, bees and other insects on the menu it can seem much closer to Southeast Asian tastes. Plenty of veggie choices are offered, with salads, tofu and Yunnan cheese dishes, but you do need to be feeling adventurous to get the most out of coming here. There’s no English-language sign outside, but it’s directly opposite La Fortuna Italian Restaurant. They do have a menu with plenty of photos to explain the unfamiliar dishes.
Dara Vietnamese Restaurant Chiang Moi Khao Rd, Sri Phum; T: (053) 874 040; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dara-Vietnam-Restaurant/247257651975408 Mo–Sa: 10:00–21:00.
Free Bird Cafe 116 Manee Nopparat Rd, Chang Puak; T: (081) 028 5383; https://www.facebook.com/FreeBirdCafe/ Tu–Sa: 09:00–17:00.
Grill of India 68-69 Phrapokklao Rd, Phra Singh; T: (086) 917 8002; https://www.facebook.com/Grill-of-India-Chiang-Mai-573741066097533/ Mo–Su: 10:00–21:00.
Mit Mai 42/2 Ratchamanka Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 275 033; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
The Swan 48 Chaiyaphum Rd, Chiang Moi; T: (081) 099 2777, (087) 381 7935; Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
Whole Earth 88 Sri Donchai Rd, Chang Klan; T: (053) 282 463; http://www.wholeearthrestaurant.com/ Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00.
There aren’t many examples of international cuisine that you won’t find in Chiang Mai, and indeed you’ll come across plenty of cafes proffering most of them on a single menu—not always a good thing.
Some, such as expat fave Gecko Garden, do a pretty good job of serving pretty much anything: Thai, Italian, Indian, pub grub and so on. While it’s hardly haute cuisine, large, tasty portions at inexpensive rates are always going to be a winner. Westernised (in taste and quantity) Thai dishes go for around 80 baht plus they offer daily specials and their bar snacks are excellent. Staff are friendly too and it’s popular with residents and visitors; it could easily fit into either our eating or drinking sections.
In a similar vein, though with a more reduced but to our minds refined menu, is Archers Chiang Mai on Ratchaphakhinai. For pub grub—check out their huge Sunday lunches—breakfasts, sandwiches and so on this is the best value for money address in town. Thai food is also good and their bakery and house-made cake selection exemplary. With real ales on tap too this is another spot we mention again in our bar section.
Talking of breakfast, a few eateries in town specialise in your morning options with our favourite—by virtue of an astonishingly wide-ranging menu plus very pleasant garden—being Blue Diamond Breakfast Club. There aren’t many breakfasts you can think of that aren’t on their menu and there’s a very good bakery for take-away too. Smaller but in a similar vein is nearby Angel’s Secret. They offer a range of lunches as well as breakfasts with a wide choice of quality sandwiches and crepes, as well as a few Thai classics and vegetarian options. They have a good range of juices, smoothies and coffees too even if their decor does verge on the twee.
Another excellent address for vegetarians, though they also serve meat and fish, is fashionable Salad Concept, with outlets on Nimmanhaemin and the moat road, Chaiyaphum, opposite Somphet Market. The menu is eclectic and while we weren’t convinced by the prawn and mango salad with strawberry yoghurt dressing, we will give them points for novelty and for a salad bar their classic burger was superb.
For more generic Western fare, Duke’s is one of the most popular names in town serving up a range of burgers, steaks, pizzas and pastas. Good quality food, sensible prices and enormous servings follow a simple but effective formula and they have now spread out across town from their original Ping River side address to open several other concessions including at Maya and the Night Bazaar.
For Italian try authentic La Fortuna on the Old City’s Ratchamanka or the more upmarket Arcobaleno in a converted villa with lush garden near Wat Ket. As with 7-eleven minimarts though, you’re never far from a pizzeria in Chiang Mai.
Somewhat scarcer are specialty French eateries. Our clear favourite is well located La Terrasse on the Kotchasarn moat road at the top of Loi Kroh. It’s slightly hidden from the main road, so look out for a lane down the side of the 7-eleven. This leads you into a small car park and garden behind which is the pleasingly designed restaurant with a choice of terrace or indoor seating. Don’t be put off by the very classy appearance—prices are extremely reasonable and both food quality and service are spot on. Special occasion? This is where we would go in Chiang Mai.
Finally, and for a cheap and cheerful fill, check out the city’s prime Mexican address, Salsa Kitchen. They’ll have seriously large servings of all your Mexican faves at low prices, making this another restaurant where you need to get in early to snare a free table.
Angel’s Secrets 27 Moonmuang Soi 5, Sri Phum; T: (089) 560 0956; Mo–Su: 07:00–16:00.
Arcobaleno 60 Na Wat Ket Rd, (behind Wat Ket), Wat Ket; T: (053) 306 254; https://www.facebook.com/arcobaleno.chiangmai/ Th–Tu: 11:00–14:00 & 17:30–22:00.
Blue Diamond Breakfast Club 35/1 Moonmuang Soi 9, Sri Phum; T: (053) 217 120; https://www.facebook.com/BlueDiamondTheBreakfastClubCmTh/ Mo–Sa: 07:00–21:00.
Duke’s 145 Chan Klang Rd, Chang Klan; T: (053) 818 603; https://wherestheduke.com/ Mo–Su: 10:30–22:30.
Gecko Garden Corner of Sridonchai and Chang Klan Rds, Chang Klan; T: (086) 648 6306; Mo–Su: 08:30–00:30.
La Fontana Ratchamanka Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 207 091; Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
La Terrasse 69 Kotchasarn Rd, Loi Kroh; T: (083) 762 6065; https://www.facebook.com/laterrasse/ Mo–Su: 17:00–23:00.
Salsa Kitchen 26/4 Huay Kaew Rd, opposite the Shell Garage, Suthep.; T: (053) 216 605; http://www.thesalsakitchen.com/ Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
The Salad Concept 2 Chaiyaphum Rd, opposite Somphet Market, Chiang Moi; T: (053) 232 342; https://www.facebook.com/thesaladconcept/ Mo–Su: 09:00–21:00.
One of the most fun downtown spots we’ve come across in Chiang Mai is delightfully named Loco Elvis which, though officially serving burritos and tacos, probably serves up more glasses of beer and cocktails. It has an excellent house cover band which helps make for a lively, friendly spot.
Chiang Mai’s nightlife is tame compared to many tourist-frequented Thai towns and as of 2017 a strict 00:30 closing time is enforced. Yes, there is a short strip of generally low-key hostess bars along Loi Kroh Road and another clutch around the Ringside complex, which also hosts Thai boxing bouts and “ladyboy” dance shows, but the city has thankfully avoided the wholesale sleaze of popular Thai destinations such as Phuket, Hua Hin and Pattaya.
Chiang Mai’s finest are keen to keep it that way. You can get in serious trouble for after-hours drinking, drink driving or consumpation of anything illegal. Popular backpacker hang-outs such as Zoe in Yellow are sporadically subject to full-scale raids. There are plenty of fun options though—you just won’t be having too many late nights. The Tha Pae/Moonmuang and night bazaar areas have a profusion of various bars and venues. Loi Kroh, which connects the two, has plenty of bars of a non-sleazy nature while you’ll discover small bars tucked away down many of the Old City’s alleys.
Check-out narrow, winding Moonmuang Soi 1, where you’ll find low-key and cosy CU Corner and Lost Hut bars—both fun, friendly and with occasional live music. Other slightly less central but popular include Riva with pizzas, draught beer and live music upstairs on the corner of Chiang Moi and open-air, riverside Bus Bar by the iron bridge on Charoen Prathet Road, which is very popular with both locals and visitors.
For a good draught imported ale (and probably the cheapest in town), aforementioned Archers pub/restaurant in the Old City is a good and convenient address though real aficionados might want to head up to Nimmanhemin. Here, among the lifestyle boutiques and chic fusion restaurants, a couple of specialist beer bars with huge world beer menus cater to a mix of thirsty Chinese shoppers, well-heeled locals and expats. Beer Republic on Soi 11 is usually buzzing by 22:00 or the Beer Lab on Nimman’ itself has a very fine spacious outdoor terrace. This area makes for a tasty but not cheap night out.
Some of Nimmanhemin’s bars have occasional live music, as do several of the bars around Tha Pae and along Loi Kroh, though quality varies enormously. Much more consistent are the nightly offerings at North Gate Jazz on the moat road by Chang Puak, (the north) Gate. The tiny bar doesn’t have more than 10 or so tables, so drinkers and jazz fans spread out along the footpath and even on a busy night along the Old City walls across the road.
Archers Chiang Mai 133/4 Ratchaphakhinai Rd, Phra Singh; T: (084) 186 5788; Tu–Su: 08:00–23:30.
Beer Lab Nimmanhemin Rd, corner of Soi 12, Suthep; T: (097) 997 4566; https://www.facebook.com/beerlabchiangmai/ Mo–Su: 17:30–24:00.
Beer Republic Nimmanhemin Soi 11, Suthep; T: (081) 531 4765; https://www.facebook.com/beerrepublicchiangmai/ Mo–Su: 16:30–24:00.
Bus Bar Charoen Prathet Rd. corner of the iron bridge, Chang Klan; T: (084) 173 3113; https://www.facebook.com/Bbusbar.chiangmai/ Mo–Su: 18:00-00:30.
CU Corner 2/3 Moonmuang Soi 1, Phra Singh; T: (089) 554 3757; https://www.facebook.com/cucornermusic/ Mo–Sa: 16:00–00:30.
Loco Elvis 129/3-5 Moonmuang Rd, corner of Ratchawithi, Sri Phum; T: (053) 418 016; Mo–Su: 09:00–24:00.
Lost Hut Moonmuang Soi 1, Phra Singh ; T: (080) 122 2362; https://www.facebook.com/thelosthut/ Mo–Su: 17:00–00:00.
North Gate Jazz Co-op 95/1-2 Sri Phum Rd, Sri Phum; T: (081) 765 5246; https://www.facebook.com/northgate.jazzcoop/ Mo–Su: 19:00–24:00.
The Riva 310 Chaiyaphum Rd, Chiang Moi; T: (053) 232 510, (085) 711 8259; Mo–Su: 09:00–24:00.
We can’t think of a city with as many coffee shops per square kilometre as Chiang Mai and most, serving freshly brewed, locally sourced coffee, are very good.
The first serves a cracking brew, has very cute decor and the novelty of a piano that customers are welcome to use, so you may get some improvised live music with your coffee if you’re lucky. The second has a charming garden in a central Old City location and is part of a commendable scheme to help inmates at Chiang Mai’s Women’s Correctional Institute. The latter has simply the most astounding decor of any Chiang Mai coffee shop. Their coffee is neither the best nor the cheapest, but a series of delightful walled, connecting gardens filled with statues, sculptures and terracotta-moulded friezes is a stunning sight worth seeing in its own right.
Although Chiang Mai is about coffee, tea is also grown in north Thailand. Monsoon Tea makes for a tasty, fascinating and highly informative visit. The Swedish proprietor is both passionate about and incredibly well informed on all things tea, so you can not only sample some of his 60 or so organic varieties but also imbibe plenty of fascinating information, such as the difference between wolf and dog tea. Their menu, which is also based around tea, has some imaginative, tasty and inexpensive offerings, too. The chicken tempura in a tea leaf infused batter is worth the trip on its own.
Chuam Chom Food and Drink 142 Chotana Rd, Sri Phum; T: (053) 122 340; Mo–Fr: 08:00–16:30;Sa–Su: 09:00–16:30..
Clay Studio Coffee 36 Phrapokklao Soi 2, Phra Singh; T: (053) 278 187; https://www.facebook.com/Clay-Studio-Coffee-In-The-Garden-1549333661974514/ Mo–Su: 08:00–18:00.
Monsoon Tea 328/3 Charoen Rat Rd. Wat Ket; T: (052) 007 758, (080) 491 5353; https://www.facebook.com/monsoonteas/ Mo–Sa: 10:00–20:00.
Vigie Sist 200/3 Ratchaphakhinai Rd, Phra Singh; T: (053) 936 176; http://www.vigiesist.com Mo–Su: 07:30–20:00.
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.