Unlike Chiang Mai, where things are spread across the city, the most obvious evening options for visitors to Chiang Rai tend to be concentrated in a smaller area so correspondingly many of the bars and restaurants are to be found within a short radius of the Night Bazaar and Jedyod and Phaholyothin Roads. Perhaps, with the excuse of high rents in this central location, prices are often very high and because many are specifically targeting foreign visitors, quality doesn't always match the price. You’re better stocking up on your Western favourites in Chiang Mai since some of the burger and sandwich bars down Jedyod can be a bit grim whilst a couple of Italian joints, (e.g. Polo Marco and Da Vinci’s) on Phaholyothin were offering some of the most expensive pizzas we’ve come across in Thailand.
Walk a couple of hundred metres from Jedyod or the night bazaar though and there are some fine local spots and of course the night bazaar and walking streets have some good cheap options. There’s also a proliferation of chic coffee house type eateries close to the centre – we’re guessing aiming at the small expat community and more upmarket visitors – such as Destiny or Baan Chivit Mai whose high prices can we guess, be excused by their funding for local NGOs.
Bar-wise in downtown you’re a bit limited to the generally grungy selection along Jedyod which are split between ageing expats sitting in hostess bars (see Hangover’s, 69 Bar, Lamyai Bar etc) complaining about Thais, or backpackers trying to supplement their vodka red bull buckets with a sneaky puff in the back garden of somewhere like Peace House. (Do be careful in this not very discreet bar). There are some curious crossovers between the two and some bars can get very lively with both short and long term visitors, but prices aren’t so cheap with the limited competition and Chiang Rai’s finest keep a very strict 00:30 closing time rule. Several of these bars do offer lock-ins with up to double prices but local cops are on to this so once again, be careful. You may be better off doing your partying in Chiang Mai, waiting until you get to Vang Vieng or try an evening in Chiang Khong’s Hub Pub?
Our favourite downtown Thai eatery is the very fine Muang Thong Restaurant on Phaholyothin just a short walk down from the night bazaar. This is your standard Chinese/Thai eatery with zero decor and aluminium tables but cooked to order food is of an excellent quality, copious and cheap. What’s more it doesn’t seem to matter how busy they are you never wait more than five minutes for your food. Large servings of all your Thai faves go for between 60 and 80 baht a dish. They're also conveniently open 24/7!
Another fine little spot – a five minute walk north of the clock tower, next to the main mosque is the simply named Muslim Food. The friendly owners knock up a bunch of curries and biryani in the morning or you can order freshly cooked noodle dishes such as khao soi. Their large portion of khao soi goes for 40 baht and their chicken biryani 45.
The food court next to the Night Bazaar is a great place to go to choose from a whole raft of local and not so local dishes. The court has two sides where kitchen after kitchen has a menu on boards above the counter, most of which are in Thai and English. Like all food courts you can take one dish from one place and one from another. At each end of the court are counters selling water, beer and soft drinks. Most nights, but especially Saturday, Thai music and dancing are performed on the very grand stage. It's all free and no one comes round asking for money. The food court is a great way to start the evening without hurting your wallet.
A couple of the large tourist orientated restaurants on the main drag are, as we mentioned not particularly cheap, but do offer some decent food. Da Vinci’s is authentic Italian with very good pizzas out of a brick oven, friendly service and a pleasant Italian, bistro style decor but you will be paying 400-500 baht per large pizza and 150 baht for a glass of wine. Across the road is the large, long standing Aye’s, offering a staggering array of selections including; New Zealand lamb, German sauerkraut, Hungarian goulash, Dutch meatballs, Italian pasta, Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, English fish and chips, American or French style steaks and American burgers amongst other items. (Plus of course Thai, Chinese, Indonesian etc etc.) They propose no less than two pages of beer brands, two of wines and three of cocktails and liqueurs and the spacious seating area includes wooden tables inside and cane chairs out. They claim their signature dishes are north Thai style khao soi noodles and Hanglay curry which they serve for 300 baht a bowl each. (Already confused by 57 beer varieties it was at this point we walked out.) International dishes were a far more reasonable 350-500 baht with, as they claim, no MSG and organic products only. If you're interested it’s directly opposite the entrance to the Night Bazaar.
Destiny is a popular expat spot with a large, well decorated air-con room and a wooden outside terrace serving up a wide range of Western and Thai options. There’s pizzas, tacos, burgers, salads and Thai standards on offer; – nothing to write home about quality-wise but adequate and at mid range prices. Destiny operates throughout Southeast Asia helping children and girls who’ve been victims of human trafficking so in a very worthy cause but they do need to watch the food quality.
Ban Chivit Mai Bakery, (in English something like ‘New Life House’), opposite the old bus station is a non-profit organisation helping under privileged youngsters from local hill-tribe communities so, also in a very good cause. It’s a bakery, coffee shop and restaurant combined, with local and western breakfasts, lunches and snacks available and their bakery section is particularly good. Prices are again high and however worthy the cause, if they’re running a cafe, they do need to ensure value for money since a casual passerby, just perusing their menu and unaware of the background, may well just do that - and pass by.
Another option that’s NGO associated – this time with the Thai run PDA, (Population and Community Development Association) - is the famous Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant next to the hill-tribe museum. ‘C and C’ was originally set up to promote and provide funding for family planning projects, initially among lowland Thai but later for hill-tribe communities as well. They now have nearly 20 outlets all over Thailand including Pattaya, several in Bangkok, and even now two branches in the UK. (There’s another in Chiang Rai’s Wiang Pa Pao district on the way to Chiang Mai plus one at Ban Du.) First opened in 1978 we believe the Chiang Rai city branch is one of the oldest, (it looks it), and we doubt it’s the most popular. It’s a vast, unattractive hall with rows of wooden tables perhaps aimed at large groups and – a recurring theme in Chiang Rai - somewhat over-inflated prices. Yes their Thai food is very good quality and it is all in a good cause but we have seen similar places that manage to combine providing good value for money for the casual tourist with funding for associated projects. (You’ve got to wonder if a tiny fraction of the huge costs involved in setting up restaurants in England’s Home Counties could have been diverted into brightening up the Thanalai restaurant and sorting out the adjacent Hill-tribe Museum a bit?)
Last but not least, for some great Thai grub, is the oddly named Chiang Rai Beach on the western edge of town. During dry season there is actually a sandy shore along the Kok River though for much of the year it consists of a string of bamboo and wooden ‘salas’, sitting areas, built over the river bank. They come with roofs, low tables and mats and offer an inexpensive selection of Thai and North Thai dishes, accompanied by plain or sticky rice and washed down with cold beers. Very similar to Chiang Mai’s Huay Tung Tao set up, so specialities include; whole fish in hot and sour orange curry, sun dried beef or pork, laap, fried chicken, dancing shrimp, (live baby shrimp) and so-on. Though popular with visitors and expats it does cater primarily to locals so there won’t be green curry or pad Thai! Vendors with baskets also roam from sala to sala hawking nuts, fruit and quail’s eggs. You can stuff yourself for under 200 baht per person but careful taking a dip if you’ve eaten or drunk a lot! The ‘Beach’ lies around 4 clicks out of town to the west and can be reached by either following the river lanes from Mae Fah Luang Bridge or continuing to the end of San Khong Noi Road.
Back on Jedyod Easy House on the corner of the ‘massage’ soi leading down to Wangcome is popular with its strategic location, airy seating area, friendly staff and extensive English drinks and food menu though, yet again it isn’t cheap. There’s nothing much under 100 baht – even a fried rice – and burgers and sandwiches go for between 130 and 190 and main courses 120 to 150. Diagonally opposite, the Siam Corner have better deals for a similar range of Thai classics and Western comfort food.
In contrast to the bar selection below, Chiang Rai does have plenty of fine coffee shops starting with a few options around the clock tower. Yoddoi on the northwest corner is small, all wood with a couple of tables outside whilst on the opposite corner, (northeast) is the large Pangkhon with an air-con interior and also a couple of outdoor tables for those recalcitrants who enjoy some nicotine with their caffeine. Both have good little bakeries too and friendly service. On the south side of the clock tower is the attractive, Thai retro style Koffee Hub which also serves up a decent brew but lacks a Western style bakery.
Yet another good one, Maejantai Coffee, is to be found round the corner on Jedyod with a pleasant terrace out front and a nicely decorated, varnished wood interior finished off with a few Akha style handicraft items. As well as serving a decent cup of coffee, (good start for a coffee shop), they have tempting brownies and cheesecakes plus inexpensive breakfasts. If for some reason they’re closed Nangnon Coffee and Cake next door is a good alternative.
Bar-wise you are not presented with a great choice, though there are plenty to be found along Jedyod Road in the centre. Many of these are just single frontage, narrow, thin buildings, so usually just one or two small tables outside and dingy interiors and most would be easily helped by a good scrub and a coat of new paint. We found prices, atmosphere and service to be erratic and it’s difficult to differentiate between them all. Coconut Bar is popular with English style pub grub on offer and plenty of TVs for sports while the owner of Cats Bar struck us as particularly friendly and they do have a decent pool table. Rose Bar round the corner, marooned amid the strip of massage parlours, and Lamyai Bar towards the clock tower end of Jedyod are more hostess style bars but certainly friendly with a mixture of tourists and expats. We were charged 240 baht for a small local beer in the reggae themed Peace House so we’ll forget that one as we will Hangovers at the Phaholyothin end of the street with friendly staff but a truly hideous bunch of whinging expat regulars. A step away from the main night time drag – opposite the entrance to Wangcome and so a bit quieter - is the Boomerang Saloon run, if you hadn’t guessed, by an Australian and serving up good value, authentic Aussie pies, steaks and burgers.
Aye’s Restaurant: 869/170 Phaholyothin Rd T: (053) 752 534; (081) 783 9408. Open daily 11:00-23:30
Ban Chivit Mai: 167-8 Prasop Sook Rd.T: (053) 712 357;(089) 191 3034. Open daily 08:00-21:00 http://www.baanchivitmai.com
Boomerang Saloon: opposite entrance to Wangcome. T: (061) 805 6181. Open daily 13:30-00:00.
Cabbages and Condoms: 620/25 Thanalai Rd. T: (053) 740 657. Open daily 10:00-00:30.
Chiang Rai Beach: around 4 kms west of town on the riverbank open daily late morning to early evening.
Coconut Bar and Restaurant: Jedyod Rd. T: (053) 752 510. Open Mon-Sat, 08:00-00:30, Sun 10:00-00:30.
Destiny: 436 Suksatit Rd. T: (086) 672 6049. Open Mon-Fri 07:30-21:00, Sat. 07:30-21:30, closed Sun. http://www.destinyrescue.org
De Vinci Italian Restaurant: 879/4-6 Phaholyothin Rd. T: (053) 753 535; (086) 656 3363. Open daily 12:00-23:30
Easy House: Jedyod Rd. Open daily 10:00/11:00-00:30.
Maejantai Coffee: Jedyod Rd. T: (090) 475 9288. Open daily 07:00-19:00.
Muang Thong: Phaholyothin Rd, corner of Soi Sunpanad. Open daily 24 hours.
Muslim Food: between Thanalai and Phaholyothin, (turn left at clock tower if coming from Jedyod and take first right. Open daily 07:00-20:00 T: (053) 715 296; (089) 633 7660
Pangkhon Coffee and Bakery: corner of Phaholyothin and Suksatit by clock tower. Open daily 07:00-20:00.
Siam Corner: 1017 Jedyod Rd. Open daily 11:00-22:30.
Yoddoi Coffee: corner of Ban Pha Prakan by clock tower. Open daily 07:30-22:30.