Not merely content with being a geographical and cultural curiosity, Mae Salong also possesses a unique culinary heritage and the small town’s ethnic composition has led to a corresponding variety of cuisine the like of which we haven’t come across anywhere else in northern Thailand.
Other towns in the region also originally founded by wandering KMT units, such as Mae Hong Son’s Ban Rak Thai or Chiang Mai’s Arunothai come with a few token—though often very good—Yunnanese-style noodle and dumpling shops but, undoubtedly encouraged by its greater volume of visitors, Mae Salong provides an impressive array of Yunnanese, Chinese, Chinese Muslim and Taiwanese offerings to complement its regular Thai and north Thai fare.
A good place to start and our longstanding favourite in town is the old Salima, a Yunnanese Muslim restaurant just to the west of the town centre but before beginning the climb up to the hill-tribe market. It’s definitely more of a cafe than restaurant, but offers a range of well-prepared and reasonably priced Yunnanese dishes with an English language menu and helpful staff members if you’re not sure what you’re ordering. Their Yunnan-style khao soi is very good at 50 baht while copious mains go for between 100 and 200 baht.
Another excellent spot to sample southern Chinese and Taiwanese fare is the tiny New Day Coffee perched precariously on the corner of the main street and the steep lane coming down from the morning market. It’s easy to miss and with just one little table on their minuscule terrace really doesn’t look much but they have a well-presented and surprisingly extensive, menu in impeccable English which includes good value Chinese, Taiwanese and standard Thai dishes. Great for sampling if you’re with a friend or two are their set Yunnan menus ranging from 500 up to 1,200 baht. The cheaper one is suitable for three people, a 700 baht one for four and so-on. Being on our own we tried a dish of their unusual and rather Shan-style, fermented minced soya bean and pork at 40 baht.
A bit further down the street—just past the 7-eleven you’ll find CJ Coffee and Mr Ho’s both of which knock up very good and inexpensive Taiwan and Yunnan fare. The former has a very pleasant terrace eating area with a simple menu of noodles and dumplings, though they do throw in chicken nuggets and fries which is handy if you have little ones in tow. We tried their tasty daily special called zhajiangmian (their spelling) which was minced pork and soya paste though this time with noodles. Mr Ho’s cheap and cheerful cafe touts communal hot pot sets going for 490 baht for four people and does have a range of one-off dishes around the 50 baht mark if you’re on your own.
Heading back up the hill towards the hill-tribe market you’ll see numerous cafes with Yunnan noodle signs outside while at the summit the Khumnaiphol Restaurant offers a more extensive menu in a more refined setting. Their funky all varnished wood and open-sided eating area serves up Thai, north Thai and south Chinese specialities. You’ll pay a bit more here for the classier setting but food is very good and they do emphasise cleanliness and hygiene as principal ingredients. (They don’t serve alcohol but we think this is more to do with licensing than religious reasons and you’re welcome to bring your own.)
One option—which has plenty of character—is the 55 year-old Xin Shi Dai Bakery curiously set below street level and situated just down the main drag from Shin Sane. As the name suggests this is also run by a Sino-Thai woman—whose father apparently was a KMT doctor. The unrestored old cafe oozes atmosphere while the extremely friendly owner has curated one of the town’s more eclectic menus. Aside from the very popular Asian-style bakery she dishes up good Thai classics such as fried rice, curries or stir-fried basil dishes as well as Chinese alternatives and some unusual fusion options including a Yunnan pizza. There are also home-baked sandwiches for lunch and smoothies and juices to wash them down. Pizzas were 199 small or 250 large and sandwiches from 50 up to 80 baht.
Another address with western visitors in mind and located slightly up the hill from here, is the seriously funky little Yang Ming Restaurant. Restaurant is pushing it a bit for a bamboo shack with two tables and four chairs but chatty owner Kai speaks fine English and has created a simple English-language menu specialising in vegetarian versions of Thai faves such as green curry, cashew stir fries and so on as well as offering breakfast suggestions such as pancakes or omelettes. Copious veggie mains were between 60 and 80 baht with fried noodles going for 40. This is another Mae Salong address where tiny and ramshackle are the adjectives that spring to mind but again it has atmosphere and the raised terrace provides a fine vantage point.
Last but not least on our eatery list and one which does come with an attractive setting is the Sweet Mae Salong Cafe a short walk to the east of the town centre on the right-hand side. This rustic, traditional-style building combines a bakery—though much more Western orientated than the aforementioned Xin Shi Dai—with Thai restaurant so surprisingly (for out of the way Mae Salong) manages to conjure up spot-on versions of cheesecakes, croissants, crème brulees and raspberry bombs as well as tasty Thai curries with rotis while their breakfasts also get rave reviews. Commendable, though the downside is not only do they close is an evening but seem to us to have very erratic opening hours at the best of times. After several fruitless visits and dashed cheesecake hopes we’d suggest they just stick a board on the door indicating what time they actually do intend to open.
Much as we enjoy China tea we do crave that morning Arabica boost so the excellent The Local would be our first stop. With a convenient, central location, fine locally sourced coffee and very proficient Western-style bakery, the convivial little cafe, a short walk from the morning market, ticks all the boxes. The aforementioned Xin Zi Dai Bakery is also well-located and offers a good brew with the advantage of opening slightly earlier while Shin Sane have at least invested in a new coffee machine despite their architectural aberration and we also got a good caffeine hit—complete with their superb view—at Osman’s in-house tea shop. CJs comes with a range of good coffee options, although opens later, while again Sweet Mae Salong is one of the town’s top breakfast and morning coffee addresses.
A way out of town to the east, Yodyoi Coffee and Tea is worth noting and this is another spot with fantastic views. Beyond Flower Hills, so too far to a morning cuppa if you’re in town, we stopped off on our way out to the Thoed Thai morning market. There’s tea tasting and good coffee too but frankly with the awesome views back down the Mae Salong Valley a cup of dishwater would be fine.
Although Mae Salong lacks recognisable bars as such there’s no shortage of spots for an evening cool one or an afternoon juice. Hill-side terraces offer sumptuous choices for the former while several little roadside establishments provide entertaining vantage points for the town’s comings and goings once the sun has set. Flower Hills has a splendid, spacious seating area with views across the tea plantations and probably the widest drinks list in town including cocktail suggestions while the decks at My Place and Osmanthus are superbly sited even if their beverage choices are more limited.
In the second category the quirky Yang Ming is a good bet and offers various shakes and smoothies while a dish of Xin Shi Dai’s delicious tempura is the perfect accompaniment to one of their well-chilled beers or fresh juices. Both generally stay open until 21:00-ish (late for Mae Salong) and have friendly owners if you happen to be on your own as does The Local although they have a stated closing time of 20:00. For mingling with fellow travellers then Little Home or Shin Sane are probably favourite.
CJ Coffee Main Street, next to 7-eleven; Mo–Su: 09:00–23:00.
Khumnaiphol Restaurant Khumnaiphol Resort, Highway 1234, 1 kilometre south of town centre; T: (053) 765 001, (081) 493 5242; Mo–Su: 07:00–20:00.
Mae Salong Flower Hills Resort Route 1234, 2 km east of Mae Salong; T: (053) 765 496; Mo–Su: 07:00–21:00.
Mr Ho Taiwanese Restaurant Highway 1234 next door to CJ Coffee; Mo–Su: Variable hours.
New Day Coffee Main street corner of morning market road; Mo–Su: 08.00–21:00.
Osmanthus 90 Moo 1, Highway 1234 just east of town centre; T: (053) 765 271, (099) 669 1966; Mo–Su: 07:00–20:30.
Salima Restaurant 2 500 Moo 1, Highway 1234, slightly west of the centre; T: (053) 765 088, (088) 218 868; Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00.
Shinsane Guesthouse Next to morning market; T: (053) 765 026; https://www.shinsaneguesthouse.com/ Mo–Su: 07:00–21:00.
Sweet Mae Salong Cafe 41/3 Moo 1, Highway 1234; T: (089) 874 9656; Mo–Su: Variable hours.
The Local 16 Moo 1, Highway 1234 town centre by the 7–eleven; T: (095) 896 0698; https://thelocalcoffeeandtea.weebly.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00.
Xin Shi Dai Bakery Highway 1234, centre of town opposite Sabaidee Maesalong; T: (053) 765 075, (085) 718 4746; Mo–Su: 07:30–21:00.
Yodyoi Coffee and Tea Highway 1234, east of town centre; Mo–Su: 08:00–16:00.
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.