Thailand’s ‘second city’ has been growing in popularity in recent years thanks to its easy-going pace of life, preternaturally friendly locals and burgeoning digital nomad scene. But there’s one factor that compels visitors to return to Chiang Mai again and again (or simply not leave, as is the case with many travellers who get pleasantly stuck here): the food.
Given the abundance of street cuisine and the ephemeral nature of the food stall scene, not only would it be impossible to list every fantastic food spot in Chiang Mai, by the time my editor hits ‘Publish’ on this article, they’ll no doubt be a new Tom Yum Goong venue in the Old City or Gaeng Keow Wan Gai stall in Nimman that deserve a featured spot on our recommendations. I’m going to go ahead and live with that and simply explain that these are some of the best of what the city has to offer. Moreover, I hope that you discover your own favourites and in that spirit I can’t urge you enough to step out of your comfort zone, away from hotel restaurants and into the epicurean maelstrom that is Chiang Mai’s culinary scene.
* There are few best-of-the best destinations that I’m going to top-load on each section as MUST SEEs; if you’re too busy/lazy to read the whole article or you only have a short time to spend in Chiang Mai, these are the ones to lock in your crosshairs.
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Chiang Mai is one of those destinations in which it’s genuinely cheaper and easier to eat out rather than cook at home. This is due to the (relatively) high prices of convenience store produce compared with the very affordable price of dishes in restaurants and stalls dotted all over the city, and the fact that if you go to a restaurant you won’t have to do the washing up (unless you forget your wallet).
(MUST SEE) Khao Soi Prince: Our first recommendation actually takes you out of town to the San Sai district, where this unassuming street stall achieves royal status by serving THE BEST KHAO SOI EVER. Khao soi (or kôw soy) is a rich and mild Northern Thai dish comprised of (usually) chicken, coconut milk, egg noodles, seasoned with various spices and served with pickled greens and crunchy fried noodles. We tried a bunch all over the city and none even came close to the one we had at this unassuming shack on the outskirts of town. The dish only costs a few dollars but getting a taxi there and back from the centre of Chiang Mai might be 5-10x that, so you should either rent a motorbike or share a hire car to explore the surrounding area with a bellyful of this aromatic chicken dish.
Address: Nong Han, San Sai District, Chiang Mai 50290, Thailand
Laap Kao Cham Chaa: Located on the side of a busy highway, you could be forgiven for passing this one by – but then you’d be missing their outstanding laab, a minced meat salad that originated with the Hmong people of Laos. Any iron-stomached culinary Columbuses out there should choose to have it served raw and raise a glass of fridge-cooled beer to the memory of the late, great Anthony Bourdain who featured this place on the Chiang Mai episode of his Parts Unknown show.
Address: Nong Pa Khrang Sub-district, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Chang Phueak Night Market: This bustling constellation of street stalls emits alternate aromas every few steps and should feature heavily in any foodie’s trip to the city. Made famous by the enigmatically named Cowboy Hat Lady – who lives up to her hype by serving bowls of ridiculously moreish Khao Kha Moo (braised pork leg over rice) – you could return dozens of times and taste something new on each visit. One regular purchase should be the mango sticky rice from the stall at the Northern Gate end of the market; it’s hands-down the best in the city, which might make it the best in the world.
Address: 248/70 Manee Nopparat Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
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Once you’ve experienced the sheer basic joy of crouching on a plastic chair surrounded by chattering locals, chilled Singha beer in hand, spooning sumptuous street food into your maw then you might not want to eat any other way for your entire trip. And it wouldn’t be the wrong decision. However, you’ll find more variety in the city’s restaurants, as well as some interesting fusions and enticing drinks pairings…not to mention comfier chairs.
(MUST SEE): Blackitch: Billed as an ‘artisan kitchen with a focus on supporting local trade’, this supperclub lives above a health food cafe that’s run by the chef’s wife in the daytime, who then ditches the apron and runs upstairs to greet guests and serve plates on which her husband places some of the most exciting flavour combinations that you’ll find in the city. The intimate space is decked out like a stylish apartment, lending to the ‘chef’s table’ ambience. With only a handful of seats, you absolutely have to book in advance – you’ll be asked for any dietary requirements and the kitchen team will tailor their tasting menu around these specifications. Expect the unexpected; the bold and sometimes challenging but always impressive dishes combine Thai and Japanese influences but are ultimately geared towards the western palate. And make sure that you ask for a bottle of the chef’s specially brewed beer – it’s so good he put his face on it.
Address: 27/1 Nimmanhaemin Soi 7, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Kaeng Ron Ban Suan: Translated as ‘hot curry garden house restaurant’, this relaxed space serves classic examples of Northern Thai cuisine at friendlier prices than you’ll find in the Old City.
Address: 149/3 Moo 2, Irrigation Canal Rd. Chang Phueak, Muang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Thailand
Huen Muan Jai: Another restaurant that draws inspiration from the top end of the country, this ramshackle wooden construction serves a starter platter that contains a superb range of Nam Phrik (spicy dips), aromatic Northern Thai spicy sausage and a delicious pork curry that all act as an excellent and educative introduction to Northern Thai food. Oh, and the floorboards that rattle every time someone walks past will make you feel as if you’re on a pirate ship.* (*That might have just been my fourth Singha talking, me hearties…)
Address: 24 Ratchaphruek Alley, Tambon Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
Ginger & Kafe: Decorated in colonial chic, you’ll feel like an emperor as you make your way through the huge menu of avant-garde Thai food (air-dried goat, anyone?), plates of watermelon & fermented fish and scallop & mangosteen curry piling up in front of you as you admire the palatial surroundings. And if the emperor wants some new clothes, peruse the vintage sartorial offerings in the adjoining shop before heading next door to THE HOUSE by Ginger for some of their famous libations. Not cheap but well worth the price tag if you’re up for treating yourself.
Address: 199 Mun Mueang Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
When you’re missing home
No matter how delicious and varied a foriegn cuisine may be, sometimes you’ll miss a taste of home. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic – Chaing Mai has you covered.
(MUST SEE): There isn’t one, get out there and experiment with more Thai cuisine!
Food4Thought: This spacious, open-plan al fresco joint is a hippie-tinged haven for expats and locals alike. There wasn’t a hangover that we couldn’t cure with a coffee tonic and a breakfast wrap (and believe me, we tried). If you want to set yourself up for a day of exploring, their quinoa salad with added avocado and chicken breast is a nutritional powerhouse. Plus, you can stock up on as many herbal mosquito repellents and sustainable bamboo travel cutlery sets as you can carry.
Address: Sudjai Alley, Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand Muang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand 50300
Art Roastery: Come for the US hotel-style food but stay for the setting, as you follow the path round to this out-of-the way spot’s expansive backyard. Perch on one of the tables by the large, fish and turtle-filled pond and harmonise with the exotic birds that fly overhead as you tuck into maple-syrup laced pancakes while ’gramming your authentic Thai dish from last night so the folks back home don’t know that you’re cheating.
Address: 233 Huaykaew Rd, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Cafe de Oasis: On the more expensive side of cafés, this cozy spot serves decent western fare and fresh coconuts with a lovely, calm ambience; hop across the cute water feature’s stepping stones and while away an afternoon or two before heading back into the city.
Address: 131 25 Moo 1, Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
SS1254372 Cafe: Located on a trendy street in Nimin, this funky café is owned by a local artist who also runs Gallery Seescape, an installation at the rear of the building that showcases local art installations, making it a worthwhile visit even if you don’t eat anything.
Address: Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
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Drinking in Chiang Mai
In terms of buying booze, the beers are similarly priced in the bars and the 7-11s, so it really is worth going out rather than trying to save a few pennies by staying in. Most places will sell a bottle of Hong Thong or Song Tam, which are brands of Thai whisky – think sweet ethanol and by the time you want one you probably won’t care what it tastes like. I wouldn’t risk ordering wine unless you’re in a specialist shop or winery, as the imported stuff is fairly average at best.
There are a few craft breweries around the city but the staple beers are Singha, Chang and Leo. As is the case with Guinness in Ireland, Singha tastes better close to the source (a three-hour road trip from the city to Singha Park, Chiang Rai) and is the go-to drink of choice to accompany any meal. Chang is known as ‘headache juice’ (not going to explain that one) and Leo is for when the bar you’re at doesn’t have Singha.
Each of Chiang Mai myriad bars will have their own unique appeal, be it a rustic shack serving ฿60 beers to more upscale cocktail lounges, but here are a few that you shouldn’t miss.
(MUST SEE): 7 Pounds: This musical mecca should be at the top of your list when you’re looking for an awesome night out in Chiang Mai. Expat talents such as Eric Zyla, Owen Moore and Big Gulp regularly grace the stage along with a whole host of virtuosic local artists, including the charismatic owner Jeht who occasionally treats audiences with his own ethereal performances, all of which you can follow on the bar’s YouTube channel.
Address: Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand
The North Gate Jazz Co-Op: A 10-minute walk from Chang Phueak Night Market market lies this den of mellifluity that plays host to some of the most impressive jazz acts you’ll see this side of the Atlantic. With only about 20 seats, the audience spills out onto the pavement where there’s plenty of space for free-form dance moves and artfully posed cigarette smoking. Arrive early to nab a seat at the rear balcony that overlooks the stage, daddio…
Address: 91 1-2 Sri Poom Rd, ตำบล ศรีภูมิ อำเภอ เมืองเชียงใหม่ Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Image by Gundula Vogel from Pixabay
Found yourself at a loose end between meals and need to fill a few hours before more feasting? Read on…
MUST SEE: Neri Tenuta Winery: So, remember when I said that wine in Thailand is best avoided? Well, that is the case…unless…you’re up for an adventure. Jump in a taxi (trust us, you won’t want to be driving your motorbike back after this tipsy trip) and head to this winery in the hills of the Hang Dong district. You’ll be greeted by the friendly owner Max, who will serve seriously delicious vino that he imports from his hometown of Montalcino as you relax in for the afternoon or evening, surrounded by beautiful antique Italian furniture. Sure, sure, it might not be an authentic Thai experience, but any of these concerns will drain away as you raise your second glass to the verdant rainforest-tipped horizon and whisper “Salute!”
Address: 72/1 Samoeng Road, Ban Pong, Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai 50230, Thailand
Nimman House: No visit to Thailand would be complete without getting a massage but you should choose your venue wisely, lest risk getting bruised by a newbie. Although Kiriya Spa Vana is more centrally located and definitely worth a look if you’re in the area, Nimman House offers a superior Thai massage service with an optional herbal compress and truly rejuvenating facial treatment. Quick insider’s tip: head to the second building that’s diagonally left of the first for a much quieter and more serene experience.
Address: 47 14 Samlarn Rd, Tambon Phra Sing, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Baan Kang Wat: Be sure to set aside an entire day for this one, as once you reach this artisanal market you’ll be pleasantly ensconced in its microcosm of food and culture, complete with handmade wares ranging from leather wallets, ceramics and clothes. Fill up at the cute restaurants and food stalls as well as the gorgeous cafe-cum-library in which you can happily spend an afternoon sipping their bijous cold tea infusions. It’s also just a 10-minute drive from the 700-year old Buddhist temple Wat Umong.
MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum: Culture vultures should swoop down on this modern art gallery, which hosts interesting and unusual exhibitions that are usually worth a peek. If you’re hungry afterwards, head to the nearby Huean Jai Yong art gallery and restaurant with local specialities in a vibrant al fresco setting.
Address: 122, Moo 7 Tonpao San Kamphaeng District, Chiang Mai 50130, Thailand
Practical tips on eating in Chiang Mai
Cash: Although there are plenty of restaurants that take card, there’s usually a ฿500 ($16.50) minimum and many meals will be less this. That’s right, you’re not in Kansas – or any other Western-priced city for that matter – anymore. So bring plenty of cash and try and get smaller denominations from shops and bars – I’m not sure what the Thai for ‘faux pas’ is but you’ll probably find out if you try to buy your 9 a.m. banana pancake with a ฿1000 note.
Tipping: Although there doesn’t seem to be any official rules or pressure to leave any money after a meal, if you like your waiter then an extra note or two will be deeply appreciated. A good rule of thumb is to leave 10% at ‘sit-down’ restaurants; although it might not seem much to you, considering how low the wages are, that extra ฿20 will make a lot of difference to the person serving your table.
Food Hygiene: Ironically, it’s a good rule of thumb that the street stalls are safer to eat than mid-range restaurants. This is for two reasons; firstly, they usually only cook one dish all day long, so don’t require tons of not-so-fresh ingredients in their kitchen just in case someone eventually orders No. 184 on the menu. Secondly, most of the dishes are boiled or barbequed so any bacteria should be safely incinerated by the time it reaches your mouth. Obviously use common sense – a fly-covered Pad Thai might be the best thing you’ve ever tasted but if you have to fly tomorrow, it’s probably not worth the risk. Or is it…?
Phones: Navigating the city is easy with Google Maps – grab a Thai sim card from a 7-eleven (make sure you bring your passport as they will ask you for it!) and then start your search for nearby eateries; even the lesser known stalls might have a Facebook page with a Google address.
Photo by Lauren Kay on Unsplash
Although it’s less congested as the fume-filled streets of Bangkok and not as haywire as the oh-my-god-I’m-on-a-scooter-for-the-first-time-ever tourist-laden roads of the party islands of Koh Samui and Pha Ngan, the roads in Chiang Mai can be a little intimidating for newcomers. Regular road rules don’t always apply but everyone (for the most part) seems to know when to come and go, so if you’re going to cross the road, walk with confidence and speed!
Legal: Far from being the Wild East of a few years ago (where pretty much anything went as long as you had a few baht in your back pocket to buy your way out of trouble), Chiang Mai is becoming much stricter when it comes to policing the roads. Cops can pull you over at any point (particularly motorbike drivers) and fine you for not having a licence or make you take a breathalyser that (if you’ve had one too many) can lead to long nights and heavy penalties. If you’re planning on drinking then obviate all of this by hopping in one of the ubiquitous taxis, rickshaws or Grab ride shares that are around every corner.
Motorbikes: Ignoring the advice I just gave you, huh? Fair enough. You can rent scooters and motorbikes around ฿200-350 per day. They’re the quickest, easiest and most effective way to get around the city and explore its surroundings, not to mention being really fun to ride. However, make sure you take photos of the bike before you drive away, as even the smallest scratch can fetch a hefty fine (especially if you don’t have a Thai friend who can talk them down from their exorbitant first quote), wear a helmet and drive slowly. Jeez, alright Dad!
Bicycles: Waaaaay better choice. Your hotel or Airbnb may have a bicycle that you can rent, or you could even buy one from a second-hand shop and sell it back at the end of your trip. Plus, this gives you the opportunity to burn off all of your lunchtime calories, just in time to pile them back on at dinner.
Grab: This Singapore-based ride share company is the Asian equivalent of Uber or Lyft, with plenty of cars all over the city and relatively cheap fares. They also offer a food delivery service from a plethora of the city’s restaurants for any lazy days that follow heavy nights.
Hey, you made it to the end! Good job. Well, now that you’re armed with all of the knowledge required to have a budget-friendly, waistline-expanding foodie trip to Chiang Mai, there really is no time like the present to hop on a plane. With a second airport in the works and an increasing gentrification of the city centre, the chances of Chiang Mai remaining the chilled-out cynosure that it is today are low. To experience this peaceful yet vibrant city in all its glory, you should head there sooner rather than later, and while I hope that you hit up the places recommended above, it’s more important that you look around and discover some favourite Chiang Mai food spots for yourself… mainly so you can come back and recommend them to us for our next visit!
David Harfield is the director of PepperStorm Media and writes about his three passions: food, booze and travel.
Top image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay
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