An Expat’s Expert Guide to Chiang Mai
Featured destinations: Thailand, Chiang Mai
Published 30 March 2016
If you’ve never thought about visiting Chiang Mai, you probably haven’t seen Emily Lush’s Instagram account. An Australian freelance writer living in Chiang Mai, Emily has a penchant for discovering quaint cafes and secret scenic spots that you won’t find on TripAdvisor.
Here Emily tells us about her favourite discoveries of this beloved Thai city.
The best café to get a caffeine fix
Traditional Thai iced coffee is a thing to behold. Known as gaafae yen, it’s made by mixing espresso with generous amounts of condensed milk and sugar syrup before being served over ice in a tiny plastic bag. Thankfully, for every street stall that peddles this potent, saccharine brew, there is also a trendy cafe catering to coffee purists like me. Ristr8to on Nimmanhaemin Road is locally owned but takes inspiration from Australian cafe culture (the slick timber fit-out is enough to rival any Melbourne establishment) and is my go-to for a caffeine fix. A comprehensive selection of house-roasted, single-origin beans feature on Ristr8to’s whopping six-page coffee menu, but I can’t go past the Satan Latte: a perfect showcase of both the mellow house grind and the baristas’ award-winning latte art skills.
Find it at: 15/3 Nimmanhaemin Road, Nimmanhaemin, Chiang Mai
The best street eats in town
Khao soi (literally ‘chopped rice’) is a northern specialty and staple street food. Having never tasted the part-soup, part-curry before, my very first excursion after arriving in Chiang Mai was to Khao Soi Mae Sai, a little open-air restaurant north of the city that specialises in what is now my favourite street eat. Made to a recipe that originated in Myanmar, khao soi is a whirlwind of flavours and textures: soft and crunchy egg noodles, sliced and minced pork, fresh and fried shallots – all submerged in a rich, spicy broth. Every table at this friendly, family run restaurant is decorated with an array of condiments, so you can add chilli, pickled greens, peanuts and raw sugar according to your own taste.
Find it at: Ratchaphuek Road, Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai
The best eats for vegetarians
One thing that surprises me about Thai street food is how heavy most dishes are on the protein and carbs (and how difficult it is to find a decent serve of leafy greens!). My favourite place for a health fix is ImmAim Vegetarian and Bike Cafe, an organic eatery on peaceful Santitham Road. ImmAim is connected with an organic farm and seed-saving initiative in rural Chiang Mai, so I can be sure the veggies stuffed into my rice paper rolls are fresh, clean and grown ethically. ImmAim also offers excellent smoothies (I recommend the banana and cinnamon) plus a range of juices, herbal teas and even Tom Yum Kombucha – a unique Thai take on the fermented health elixir.
Find it at: Santitham Road (near Tepprarit Road), Santitham, Chiang Mai
Where to go for souvenir shopping
Market stalls, high-end boutiques, ultra-modern malls – when it comes to shopping, downtown Chiang Mai has it all. But my favourite place to pick up a souvenir or gift lies well outside the Old City limits on the eastern bank of the Ping River. Woo is a lifestyle shop with a strong focus on local, independent brands and handmade goods. There is something to suit every taste hidden amongst a beautifully curated collection of ceramics, pottery, linen textiles and houseplants. Woo is a bit of an all-rounder, so I’ll often grab a coffee and slice of carrot cake at the adjoining cafe while I’m at it – and check out who is showing at the small art gallery upstairs.
Find it at: 80 Charoenrat Road, Chiang Mai
The best place for people watching
For those days when I just want to watch the world go by, there is no better place to people watch in Chiang Mai than at Camp. A 24-hour co-working space housed inside the MAYA building, Camp’s tiered timber seating (made to imitate a mountain or perhaps a rice terrace) is the perfect vantage point for observing the throngs of Thai students, digital nomads and curious tourists who drop in and out at all hours. If I position myself just right, I can peek out at whoever’s visiting the games arcade, movie theatre and shops outside, too.
Find it at: 5th floor, MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Centre, cnr Nimmanhaemin & Huaykaew Roads, Chiang Mai
The best Buddhist temple to visit
Wats (Buddhist temples) are studded all over Chiang Mai and are an integral part of the landscape. The pilgrimage from Wua Lai Road in the city’s south to Wat Si Suphan is well-trodden by tourists, but this is still my favourite wat to while away a few hours. The only silver temple in the country, Si Suphan is a splendid example of traditional Lanna silversmithing, best viewed after midday when the facade reflects the dipping afternoon sun. I like spending time on the temple’s well-kept grounds, watching artisans hand-beat intricate designs into the silver panels. If my timing is right, I’ll participate in Monk Chat – a free English program that pairs visitors with a robed resident who is keen to hone his language skills.
Find it at: off Wua Lai Road, Chiang Mai
The best markets to shop at
Talat Warorot might be Chiang Mai’s oldest marketplace, but it often gets overlooked for the more central Night Bazaar and weekend walking markets. Bustling, disorientating and at times a bit on the nose, it’s Warorot’s authentic feel that makes it my favourite market in Chiang Mai. Aside from the usual spread of fresh fruit and veg, fermented fish, unidentifiable packaged foods and knickknacks, vendors here also carry an excellent selection of textiles and garments, including Thai silks, indigo batik and embroidered hilltribe garb. What I most love about Warorot is the layout – the only undercover market I’ve seen with an open mezzanine level. My favourite thing to do is climb to the second level and quietly observe the ordered chaos below.
Find it at: Cnr Chang Moi & Wichayanon Roads, Chiang Mai
My go-to drinking hole
Hidden deep in the suburbs away from the Old City’s cabaret bars and raucous nightlife, Sangdee Gallery is a not-for-profit art space that transforms into an atmospheric drinking hole every evening. And with the tagline ‘The art of fine mingling’, you know you’ve come to the right place for meeting new people. Local artists and musicians, designers and writers all gather around Sangdee’s bar on any given night. I like to drop in whenever the space is hosting a free event – be it an acoustic music performance, a fundraiser, one of the infamous open mic nights or the always enjoyable travel club.
Find it at: Sirimankhalajarn Soi 5, Nimmanhaemin, Chiang Mai
My favorite day trip
Just 30 minutes drive from the city centre in Mae Rim District, Huay Tung Tao Lake is my favourite place to venture for an easy day trip out of Chiang Mai. Popular with young Thais, the lake – which is located on a picturesque patch of army owned land at the foot of Doi Suthep – is primed for a plethora of outdoor activities, including swimming, cycling and kayaking. Whenever I come here with friends, I just stake out one of the bamboo shelters ringed around the lake’s edge and make myself at home. Stay all day and come sundown, you’ll be plunged into reverie as the lake and mountains melt away into misty darkness.
Find it at: Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai