Any expat or visitor to Chiang Mai will quickly become familiar with the town’s main drags. You’ll have strolled along Ratchadamnoen running through the centre of the old town, tuk-tuked down Tha Pae Rd on your way to or from the night bazaar and of course eaten, drank, hired a motorbike and bought a Bangkok Post on Moonmuang running alongside the eastern moat.
But what about all the narrow side alleys leading off in every direction into the old town, or into the maze of winding lanes between the night bazaar and the moat? Some are so narrow you can’t get a tuk tuk down them and some you can walk right past without even noticing they’re there; we’ve been here for more than 10 years and admit there are plenty such alleys we’ve not yet tried ourselves.
Called sois in Thai, they’re named and numbered according to the principal road they lead off, with odd and even numbers on either side of the road. Walking down Ratchadamnoen Rd, for instance, you’ll come across Ratchadamnoen Soi 1 on your right, Ratchadamnoen Soi 2 on your left and so on.
Most guesthouses in Chiang Mai are located down these sois so you’ll be familiar with the one your accommodation’s on, but hidden down many of the other narrow lanes you’ll find some of the town’s best bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
We’re going to have a series of posts that see us bravely head off into the heart of this labyrinth to see what we can find. Obviously we’ll need some sustenance on the expedition, so any interesting refreshment stops will be duly noted for you.
We’re going to kick off with Ratchamanka Soi 2 for three reasons:
1. It’s nice and short so won’t have to walk too far;
2. It has lots of interesting stuff; and
3. Got to start somewhere!
The soi leads between Moonmuang Rd on the old town side of the moat and Ratchamanka Rd, and is the only one of the numerous sois leading into the old town from the east that is at an angle rather than 90 degrees to Moonmuang. A good landmark is the well known and conspicuous Cozy Corner or John Place pub located on the Moonmuang corner of the alley – popular and not a bad spot for a drink and mingle but we won’t dally too long since it is very close to the busy road and there’s more further on. (Strangely enough it’s a fact that the noise does actually decrease in direct proportion to the number of Changs you consume.)
Those with a sweet tooth may get distracted by the rather distracting Café De Naga on the opposite corner of the soi – usual coffee suspects and a very good bakery if you fancy a slice of cheesecake or a loaf of good bread for a picnic on Doi Suthep. The café is part of the very chic De Naga Hotel situated next door, and the hotel also has a chic but not outrageously expensive Thai restaurant inside.
Immediately past the hotel entrance is the excellent Pizzeria Da Roberto run by a genuine Italian (Roberto) and his Thai wife. Friendly couple and though the menu is simple the pizzas are pretty good and certainly inexpensive, so a good choice if you’re getting riced-out. Indeed as you’ll see most spots in this soi are run by expats with Thai partners so it makes for a good destination if you fancy genuine Western food for a change, though usually decent Thai options are on their menus too.
A couple of doors down is the interesting Funan Bistrot – Chiang Mai’s only French-run creperie, so useful if you’re also pizza-d out as well. The newly refurbished décor is good and the small terrace is a relatively quiet and pleasant spot to sit, with traffic on the soi being light. Sweet and savoury crepes plus a few more consistent dishes of the day are on offer with a full bar menu.
Next door is Escape (Bar). Primarily an expat gathering place, tourists are welcomed (more than you can say for all Chiang Mai expat pubs), so this is a good place to meet folks and get local info, with meetings orchestrated by Ozzie innkeeper Steve, whose wife Nut knocks up one of the best full English’s in town as well as the usual range of pub grub and Thai classics. Cheap, fun and open all day.
Continuing our League of Nations tour next up is the Franco/Thai owned Cote Jardin Restaurant. Chiang Mai’s sizeable Francophile community means the town is now generously sprinkled with French eateries – many of them very good – but to our mind this one is the all-round best deal. Nice garden setting, good service, reasonable prices and excellent classic French dishes all with chef Marco’s thoughtful attention to detail. (Evenings only, closed Sundays and good idea to book.)
Further on up the road is Cool Place Café which isn’t the liveliest bar in town but does have very friendly service and a seriously cheap happy hour. And that’s a wrap for Ratchamanka Soi 2!
Café De Naga
Ratchamanka Soi 2
Ristorante Italiano, Pizzeria Da Roberto
21/1 Ratchamanka Soi 2
T: (086) 915 9467
Ratchamanka Soi 2
T: (084) 803 7859
19/1 Ratchamanka Soi 2
T: (082) 891 7558
15/1 Ratchamanka Soi 2
T: (086) 273 8675
Evenings only, closed Sunday.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 22nd March, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.