Photo: Khao soi in Chiang Mai.

Eat and meet



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Thai

Local cuisine is influenced by its immediate neighbour Burma, (Myanmar), as with the famous, slightly sweet, mild, pork curry gaeng hanglay, as well as China—in particular Yunnan Province—with khao soi being a perfect example. (Khao soi is soft and crispy wheat noodles combined in a mild coconut curry soup stock.) The city has large Chinese and Chinese Muslim minorities, (khao soi is actually derived from the latter’s cuisine), as well as Shan and these have all influenced local dishes. You’ll also notice some similarities to Isaan and Lao food with a profusion of spicy dips—Chiang Mai specialities being 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, often slightly sweet and with 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 dance show and or music. Several large specialist restaurants offer such evenings to visitors with Khum Khantoke, just beyond the superhighway getting consistently good reviews. Their 850-ish 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 genuine, authentic local specialities at local prices are in the street stalls and bustling night markets of which the busy Chang Puak Gate or Chiang Mai Gate ones, or tiny but fun Su Meut Night Market which opens up Thursday to Saturday outside Central Kad Suan Kaew, are fine examples. The 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 go from 30-40 baht a dish at the aforementioned up to perhaps 50-60 in a more upmarket mall’s food hall like Maya’s though to our minds 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 the famous khao soi. You’ll be full before you’ve spent 100 baht. When it comes to the ubiquitous khao soi soup 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, authentic Thai fare at sensible prices is the 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 there while the rest of the city was under construction. You wouldn’t go for the plain setting and decor but the food is good and authentic with a large-ranging menu available in English. (Most main dishes 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 with their long standing restaurant on Ratchamanka Road, or the new, plush setting of their restaurant on the top floor of the Baan Huen Phen Boutique Hotel opposite. Sharing a few dishes between two we’d count perhaps 150 baht per person.

If you’re up Nimmanhemin way then among the eclectic collection of boutique beer bars and chic fusion eateries there are a couple of excellent spots specialising in North Thai fare with 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 at both lunch and dinner time. Weather permitting they set up a barbeque on the pavement outside the front door so just follow the crowds and the smell of grilled pork. There are also plenty of vegetarian options 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 menus.

Although not a full-on night market as such you’ll also find plenty of evening food stalls lining the main Nimmanhemin drag between sois 1 and 11 to 13 serving up soups and barbequed tit bits to peckish hi-so designer beer drinkers. Most open up between 17:00 and 18:00 and go on until closing time. Just look for the longest queue!

If we could only eat one lunch in Chiang Mai though, 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’d make an afternoon of it; laze around by the lake on bamboo salas supping 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 the 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 found their classic Thai and Chiang Mai food offerings a step above those of the competitors and service was good. You will notice a substantial price hike from our more local suggestions though and their range of fried rice dishes for example tops out at a whopping 170 baht for the seafood version. Tom yam or tom kha kai for instance seemed better deals at 100-200 baht, depending upon size of portion, and to be honest we’d avoid seafood when we’re so far from the ocean anyway. Such tourist orientated addresses cater well for vegetarians which can be an issue in more local style cafes.

For Isaan/Lao specialities, (quite a choice), we’ll stick with the 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! Very popular among Western tourists nonetheless and you’ll be lucky to get a table after about 19:30.

Another Thai restaurant that is worth splashing out a bit extra on is the long standing Good View with its riverside location and popular with both locals and visitors. Great setting, live music and good quality food; it’s ideal for a more 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 a very good deal. Last but not least in our Thai section—and a very useful address for night owls—is the 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. Good at any time of day but for anybody feeling peckish after midnight—this is the place.

Other Asian

Again 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 and Japanese and, with Western visitors in mind, plenty of Indians.

With a large Burmese and Shan population there are of course several options in this field and we were very impressed by the authentic and cheaply priced fare at the Burmese, The Swan, on Chaiyaphum Road. Best vegetable tempura we’ve ever eaten; pleasant surroundings and chirpy 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.

Needless to say, with the recent influx of Chinese visitors, there’s plenty of classic Cantonese fare available but if you’re feeling really adventurous then try the speciality 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 can seem much closer to Southeast Asian tastes. Plenty of veggie choices with salads, tofu and Yunnan cheese dishes but as we say you do need to be feeling adventurous. There’s no English language sign outside, (it’s directly opposite La Fortuna Italian Restaurant), but they do have a menu with plenty of photos to explain the unfamiliar dishes.

On perhaps safer ground and among the host of Indian and Subcontinent offerings the Grill of India on Phrapokklao stands out for consistently good reviews as does the long-running Whole Earth in a delightful garden setting.

International

As we mentioned there’s not 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. Some, such as the expat fave Gecko Garden, do a pretty good job of serving pretty much anything; Thai, Italian, Indian, pub-grub and so-on and while it’s hardly haute cuisine large, tasty portions at inexpensive rates is always going to be a winner. Westernised, (taste and quantity), Thai dishes go for around 80 baht plus they offer daily specials and their bar snacks are excellent. Friendly staff too and 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 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 home-made cake selection exemplary. With real ales on tap too this is another spot we’ll mention again in our bar section.

Talking of breakfast there’s a few eateries in town specialising in your morning options with our favourite—by virtue of an astonishingly wide ranging menu plus very pleasant garden seating area—being the Blue Diamond Breakfast Club on Moonmuang Soi 9. 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 wholemeal vein, is the 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. Good range of juices, smoothies and coffees too even if their decor, as you may suspect from the name, does verge on the twee.

Another excellent vegetarian choice is the non-profit Free Bird Cafe over near Chang Puak Gate. The cafe assists Shan and hill-tribe 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 not exactly authentic but nonetheless very good. 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. Menu is eclectic and erratic and while we weren’t convinced by the prawn and mango salad with strawberry yoghurt dressing we will give them points for novelty and surprisingly for a salad bar their classic burger was excellent.

For more generic Western fare then Duke’s is one of the most popular names in town serving up a range of burgers, steaks, pizzas, pasta and so-on. 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 specifically Italian restaurants and pizzerias try the authentic La Fortuna on the Old City’s Ratchamanka or the more upmarket Arcobaleno in a converted villa with lush garden setting near Wat Ket. As with 7-eleven minimarts though you’re never far from a pizzeria in Chiang Mai.

Somewhat scarcer but with a smattering across town are speciality French eateries with our clear favourite being the 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 area 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, just out of the centre along Huay Kaew Road. Seriously large servings of all your Mexican faves at surprisingly low prices makes this another eatery where you need to get there early to find a free table.

Bars and nightlife

Talking Mexican brings us seamlessly onto our bar section as 1 of the most fun downtown spots we came across was the delightfully named Loco Elvis which, though officially serving burritos, tacos etc, probably serves up more glasses of beer and cocktails. Excellent house cover band; a lively, friendly spot with a great open-plan layout, you’ll find Elvis on the corner of Moonmuang and Ratchawithi.

Overall Chiang Mai’s nightlife is tame compared to many tourist frequented Thai towns and as of 2017 a strict midnight 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 of course Pattaya.

As word of warning though Chiang Mai’s finest are keen to keep it that way. You can get in serious trouble for after-hours drinking, drink driving or consummation of anything illegal and 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 2 has plenty of bars of a non-hostess nature while you’ll discover small bars tucked away down many of the Old City’s alleys.

Check-out narrow, windy, Moonmuang Soi 1 where you’ll find the low-key and cosy CU Corner and Lost Hut bars—both fun, friendly and with occasional live music. Other slightly less central but popular spots include Riva with pizzas, draught beer and live music upstairs on the corner of Chiang Moi and the famous, 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), then the aforementioned Archers pub/restaurant in the Old City is a good and convenient address though real aficionados might want to head up to Nimmanhemin where among the life-style 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. We did say well-heeled though and it would make 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 obviously 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 pavement and even on a busy night along the old city walls across the road.

Cafes

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.

You can’t really go wrong so just a brief mention for a few of our personal choices; Vigie Sist, Chuam Chom and Clay Studio cafes. 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 if you’re lucky. The second has a charming garden setting in a central Old City location as well as being another commendable scheme on behalf of inmates at Chiang Mai’s Women’s Correctional Institute, while the latter has simply the most astounding decor of any Chiang Mai coffee shop. Frankly 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 and Monsoon Tea out on Charoen Rat Road 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 surprisingly fascinating info 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.
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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Chiang Mai? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Thailand.


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