Thailand's second biggest city straddles the northern half pushing up towards Laos and Myanmar. Famed for their temples and old city, most people flock here with a bursting tourist itinerary eager to not miss a single pagoda, I came with an inexhaustible list of places to eat and drink, and would be happy if I even managed half.
Landing in Chiang Mai after spending time in Bangkok is always a pleasure. The air holds a balmy calm that Bangkok struggles to deliver with its chaotic roads and incessant heat. You can actually ditch your public transport and walk around most of the city since a vast majority of the good spots are within a 2 mile radius. Luckily I had been here on numerous occasions, and met some chefs who wrote long lists of spots I "had to try", and had the help of some locals to guide me to the right watering holes when the sun had set across the moat.
Here in no particular order, places worthy of your baht in exchange for a full stomach, and places worthy of your baht in exchange for a cheery disposition:
Where to eat
Khao Soi Khun Yai ($)
Ignore the rampant throng of tourists visiting this spot every lunchtime, they are here for a reason. The Khao Soi is exceptional. Also, due to the great reviews it happens to appear as the first place when you search for Khao Soi, so little wonder it's so packed. These old ladies turn out a faultless bowl of rich soup, amazing noodles and all for the merry sum of 40 baht. I cannot stress how great this place is.
Note: They close at 2pm! This is strictly a lunch place.
Mit Mai ($$)
Chances are that you might not be in the mood for Yunnan cuisine whilst visiting Chiang Mai, but if you want to take a walk on the wild side, this might just be your favourite place yet. I went in the middle of the afternoon so the place was completely deserted (my kinda place), Atli and Tyler had been here the week before and bestowed glowing reviews about their food. I followed their advice and ordered exactly what they did. The food came, the waitress showed me how to properly season and eat the cucumber chicken salad, the pork ribs were torn to shreds in seconds, the beer quelled the late afternoon heat. This was food of the highest order, bursting with flavour. Utterly stunning. I ended up pouring far too much of the chili paste into the salad dressing, so my mouth was flipping between burning hell and euphoria... a good place to be.
If you miss this place on a trip to Chiang Mai, you only have yourself to blame. It was truly excellent.
Big Big Shabu ($$)
Having walked past this place numerous times, it took a recommendation from two chef friends in Oslo and Mexico City, to finally eat here. The place was completely rammed, people and plates spilling out from random angles. I thankfully found a table all the way at the back facing away from the punters, and ordered a beer. My empty plates arrived ready for me to fill them up with whatever I wanted, I specified to the waiter that I wanted the extra spicy broth to which he did a double take, asked again "was I sure?", "Yes, i'm sure".. so he brought me this murky, dark, satantic broth on one side and clear water on the other: "This was to boil your egg".
I loaded up cuts of meat, enoki mushrooms, various salad leaves, corn, herbs, and chilli dipping sauces and went back to find my cold Leo waiting there frosting over like a lighthouse in winters bone. I dug deep of the cold beer, wrapped my hands around a chopstick and threw in the vegetables and herbs first so they would flavour the soup. After waiting a sufficient amount of time it was apt to cook the meat, hanging to the end of my chopsticks, dunking back and forth counting to 10, so the meat would come out perfectly cooked and not a second close to well done. Dipped in the chilli sauce, bunch of herbs ingested, this was seriously good stuff.
Eating more than I expected, sipping down on true golden nectar, mouth burning from insane amounts of chillis, locals looking in disbelief that I wasn't vomiting since I asked for "Extra spicy, spicy".... The night pulled to a close, I paid, wiped the spicy sauce from around my talking machine, thanked the waiters and walked out into the night. Firm in the belief that there are thousands of places to be discovered, millions of amazing meals awaiting you, you just have to take the steps and actually leave your goddamn front door to find them.
Validated by the late Anthony Bourdain, immortalised daily by a million camera toting Chinese tourists, and purveyor of mountains of glistening, fatty, juicy pork meat, no visit to Chiang Mai is complete without a trip here to taste the (in)famous oink oink. Stoic in her stature, poring over her staff like a military leader, briefly smiling when a camera rears it's head, then back down to the stern business of selling pork, and selling it FAST!
Grab a plate, sit on the plastic stools and allow time to stop for a complete stress-free minute while you salivate at the sights, sounds and smells permeating about you.
Ramen Sanmai ($$)
Another day, another adventure. This time the rain was a sheet of impenetrable glass, so I was forced to use a Grab taxi to seek out yet another Ramen place that lay untested and untried. I had read a lot of good feedback online, and it was highly rated despite its bizarre location (word of mouth rules).
The Grab driver had no idea where it was and the address didn't show up so I had to get off a couple blocks away and walk. Approaching the tiny soi where the place was stood an old lady who just looked at me and shouted "RAMEN?" and pointed. I walked in, was told I had to wait since it was packed (good sign), shown my ordering sheet, perused the menu, went for a spicy Tonkotsu to ward off the chills, and sat back waiting until a spot at the counter opened.
Within 10 minutes I was seated between 2 strangers (the fear started), my heart trembling at the thought of raising the spoon to my mouth and having the contents shake off in utter nerves. The bowl came, the chef spoke to me shortly asking "How the hell did you find this place?". He was Thai but had just left a head-chef position in New York to open a Ramen spot in his hometown. "This place desperately needs good ramen, they have everything else except that, and I hope I've created that now". I spooned in my first mouthful of broth. Excellent. The menma was on the sweet side but crunchy and good, the egg was perfectly marinated and cooked, the noodles totally decent but not amazing. The only thing that let it down slightly was the Chashu. It was quite firm and toothsome, which I can definitely forgive when the rest of the bowl tasted as it did.
I actually managed to clear the whole thing, paid, tipped, complimented the chef and headed off in the rain to order another cab back home to wait it out until calm was restored.
Beast Burger ($$)
As most people, at some point I get serious burger cravings, and generally find it difficult to find a good spot in Asia. Beast Burger was recommended by a couple of friends, and reviews online seemed solid. I headed out there, ordered the regular "Beast". The service was exceptional, friendly and super fast. The locale was spotless and they had a great rooftop to escape the crowded downstairs if you, like me, are a people-avoider when food is in question.
The burger was top notch. Excellent meat, fantastic bun, great fries, literally everything you could ask for in a burger, brimming with juiciness and flavour. I would go back in a heartbeat if the cravings returned.
Khao Soi Mei Sai ($)
Tortured by the raveous sun, intent on bleeding me dry of all the energy stored up whilst swanning around in AC hotel rooms, I sought refuge where any normal person would: In a bar. Half a beer in, four locals asked to join my table, to which I heartily obliged. Three of them were chefs. Luck knows no limits. Of the handful of places they recommended me to eat at, Khao Soi Mei Sai was spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. Almost like sharing a secret you don't want the next table to overhear. With such glowing exhortations I was forced to shorten my regular sleeping hours by which to reach there before they close.
Off into the remarkable blue morning, wrapped in a gentle mood after sleeps tonic, rushed away by Grab taxi's cool interior all the way to the small roadside shack, gifted a table within minutes, ordered and nursing a cold coke I awaited in anticipation.
The chefs were right. Of all the Khao Soi's I had eaten in Chiang Mai over the years, this was a strong second place after the inimitable Khun Yai. Rich, umami-laden broth, not too creamy, not too watery. Superb noodles and the most tender beef. All for the paupers sum of 1 Euro 20 Cents.
Life truly can be the gift that keeps giving.
David's Kitchen ($$$)
Absolutely not for penny pinching "Beg-packers", this fine dining restaurant is a veritable Chiang Mai OG. The service is impeccable, the food delectable, the drinks drunk-able. We ate here as a group and tried everything from Wild Mushroom risotto, Beef Cheeks in red wine sauce, various cocktails, glasses of wine and beers and everything was a triumph.
If you are looking to impress a date, loved one, brother or mother then this is your Ace card.
Yok Fa ($)
Accidentally this morning I stumbled upon an article Andy Ricker (of Pok Pok fame) wrote about his favourite spots to eat in Chiang Mai. As I glanced at the article I noticed I had already been to a few of the places and they were superb, so I continued reading. Being a big fan of Phat Se Ew, I noticed him raving about exactly this dish at Yok Fa. Even better, it was 500 meters from where I was staying.
Out into the burning furnace of high tension sunshine, finding shade spots along the way snaking like a rabid cobra, I walked into what seemed like a time-vortex. This place was amazing. It hadn't been remodelled since the 60's or 70's so all the original wall hangings and clock were on full display.
An old lady fired up the wok and threw in some flat noodles, within 5 minutes the plate was at my table, a further 5 the plate was empty. This is exactly how Phat Se Ew should taste. Nothing more, nothing less. A glorious version of a classic Thai dish.
Jok Sompet ($)
An amazing chef once said to me "We go drinking, then we go to Jok Sompet to soak up the booze, make feel happy".
Truer words have never been spoken. I have a childish fascination with "jok", or "congee" hailing from my times in the far east 20 years ago ploughing down various versions of this simple food in all sorts of situations. Frosty mornings in Taipei, lunches in Hong Kong, cooking my own version in the kitchen in Oslo to ward off the impending doom of winter. It may not be a culinary miracle, but is porridge? or grits?... they are dishes we have become accustomed to and grown fond of despite their gastronomic un-adventure. Nobody ever won a Michelin star for an idly.
Jok Sampet has the clout of being open 24 hrs a day, something precious few places in Chiang Mai can boast. Therefore, inevitably they attract the raucous post-midnight crowd wanting a quick fix rather than 7/11 or Mikkie D's, but if you wait just 30 minutes and head over you will catch the cretins on their way out, bleary eyed and stupid as the day they left their mothers hoo-haa in Darwin or Florida. Then peace is restored, you can pull up a chair, order a jok (WITH AN EGG! WITH AN EGG!) and await the comforting pleasure that costs only 40 baht.
Delicious, luxurious, rich, rice porridge, speckled with fresh ginger, scallions, condiments and that soft poached egg just begging you to shatter it's thin membrane and allow the rich, orange divinity to flow unto your bowl and colour your offering. Sit back, scoop up that velvety love, let the beer sink to further regions of your digestinal tract, and know that you are putting a band-aid on a sore that hasn't appeared yet.
This is pre-emption at it's greatest.
Indish Restaurant ($$)
It's physically impossible for me to go a week without eating Indian food or at least suffering intense cravings. I found this restaurant that was a 700 meter walk from my hotel and decided to throw caution to the (future) wind and give it a go. My nerves were substantially calmed when the waiter told me he was Punjabi, and the chef also was from Amritsar. Having grown up being spoon fed by Punjabi aunties and uncles, this made my heart skip a beat.
I did what any self respecting tourist in Thailand would do! Ordered a chicken curry, garlic naan and raita! What came out of the kitchen was nothing short of a triumph. My only gripe was I asked for it really spicy and it was a 2/10 on the scale. The chef himself came out and apologised when I requested green chilli's to spice it up: "Sorry boss, when white people say spicy they usually send food back so I purposely make it mild but next time I will make pukka hot for you". I gorged on the meal, sipped my cold Leo, chit chatted with the waiter and had an altogether tip top night. Who would have thought you could get tasty, authentic Indian food in a small alleyway in Chiang Mai's old town? Never stop believing.
Places to drink
At first I questioned whether google map's had lied to me. I went from a busy street down a tiny lane with trees and bushes on either side. I trusted my instincts and kept going another 100 meters before the road turned and lights appeared in the distance. There stood 7 Pounds in all it's time-aged glory. A bar predominantly geared towards live-music, but if you get there early you can skip the crowds and the tinnitus inducing noise and sip a cold Leo in the privacy of your own thoughts.
The moment the lanky American took to the stage and started guitar-wanking was when I dialed a Grab and fled the scene like a suspect.
We Didn't Land On The Moon Since 1987
Any place with a Jesus & Mary Chain vinyl on the wall gets extra marks from me. This tiny "hole-in-the-wall" is adrift of the main drag, and therefore more of a "know where it is" place rather than catering to random drop in's. The music can swing wildly from indie/shoegaze/rock to house DJ's on the weekend, and he stocks the fridge with beer when he wants to, otherwise you drink cocktails or go to the little grandma's shop down the street and bring your own beer. You always end up meeting interesting people here since its so small you either start talking to your neighbour or shrink into a corner.
My Beer Friend
For those of you with moustaches and a thirst for craft beer, then there are two places that are recommended in Chiang Mai. Firstly this small spot that's a stone's throw away from WDLOTM, offering a few different beers on tap and a large selection in the refrigerators. The service is friendly and the music isn't loud.
Parallel Universe Of Lunar 2 On The Hidden Moon
Craft Beer Bar 2 would be this peculiarly named spot. Found by taking an elevator to the 5th floor, the bar isn't so much cosy as it is "viewy". There are private tables or a long bar-desk outside offering views over the whole city. The beer selection is healthy, with prices to match.
Look: this isn't a cozy place. You come here for the beers and the view. That's it !
My Bar can be a bit hit & miss. However, the bartenders here surely qualify as Thailands friendliest. The second night you come back you'll be greeted with hugs and high fives. Musically it swings between classic rock to old skool metal which is fine with me. The drinks are cheap, the clientelle varies from old pensioners sipping down their last hours on earth, to young backpackers full of expectation and wonder, to middle aged residents or young hostel groups bragging about conquests loudly to uninterested ears.
It promises everything, but delivers only once in a while. However, it you're bored there are plenty worse places to grab a beer and talk to the person sitting next to you. If that person turns out to be a freak, then head upstairs where there is plenty of room to sit back and relax solo.
The North Gate Jazz Co-op
Opinions are split on this place. In my personal experience it's a place I steer clear of generally. However, most people don't think sitting alone in a dark bar is their idea of fun, so i'll throw in something here that those "social" people might enjoy.
One night you might actually get a semi-decent jazz band playing some old Miles tunes, other nights you could have an ex-pat belting out "jazzy" versions of Beyonce or Taylor Swift while bare-foot scuzzy twats in elephant pants dance outside with their smuggled drinks from the 7-11 across the road. In those precious moments you better run for your life, or risk getting infected with bed bugs or fleas or any other unpleasantry nesting itself in their matty dreadlocks or unspeakable regions.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions and things change, chefs get fired, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.