During the last many years of travel, I have returned to Chiang Mai almost half a dozen times. When I first started visiting in 2008, there were a handful of travel bloggers there. We would meet daily for food and smoothies. We would explore on motorbikes. We would share what we learned about the culture in Northern Thailand. We visited all of the temples and ate all of the things. Nowadays there are many more temporary expats in town; jokes abound about the sheer volume of digital nomads and travel bloggers who spend their winters in the city. As a result, there are many posts out there for those who want a Chiang Mai travel guide. I’ve linked to a few good ones at the end of this piece.
I keep returning to the city because it’s a great place to stay, eat and settle quickly into a routine I find comforting. I find I do good writing when there’s no overhead to settling in easily. So instead of a regular narrative piece about the city, or a servicey list of only what to eat, I thought I’d share my favorites in a variety of categories. Of course, it’s mostly a “what to eat in Chiang Mai” piece, but there are other picks too. I kept it to within the downtown core so it would be easy for you to access even on a brief visit.
My Opinionated Chiang Mai Guide
Best grilled intestines in Chiang Mai
Tong Tem Toh
11 Nimmanhaeiman Road, Soi 13, +66 53 894 701
This is first on the list and I don’t even want to hear it if you don’t like intestines. Unless you just don’t eat meat (so you get a pass) you need to go to stuff your face at this fabulous restaurant. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. DEET up, bring your appetite, and give it a try.
In addition to the grilled intestines — which are only available after 6pm by the way — you must try the pork curry, the tamarind leaf salad (please just trust me on this), and some sticky rice. Obviously.
Best Burmese Food
Tam Jai Sung
Sermsuk Road just to the right at the end of Ratchapuak Road. Open 10am-9pm.
I know a lot of people go to the Burmese Library or The Swan for Burmese food, but I prefer the small Tam Jai Sung, not far from Kad Suan Kaew mall. The food is delicious, prices are reasonable, and the family who runs it are delightful. Don’t miss their tea leaf salad (of course), tamarind salad, and pork curry. Plentiful rice for the table – it keeps coming, even when you think you’re done.
Best venue live music
88 Thapae Rd., +66 81 765 5246, open daily 6pm-midnight. Closed on Buddhist holidays
This rustic venue opened not long before I visited Chiang Mai in autumn 2015, and I really enjoyed the space. With poetry nights, open mic jams, jazz solos, and much more, it has a wide open feel and reasonable drinks.
Best Vietnamese food
We found it because my friend had driven by and eaten there, and then couldn’t find it again. We drove in a circle until we found it, and it was worth the adventure. Their Facebook page has no official address but thankfully this Chiang Mai City Life piece has instructions:
I got their number, called them up and found out that if you drive along the moat from Sri Phum Corner turn left at Chang Moi Road, only about 100 metres in and you will see a wicker furniture shop by the road, turn left into that little soi for another 200 metres and the restaurant will be on your left hand side of the road. It is open from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily and if you want to pick up food you can call in advance and place an order at +66 53 874040.
It was delicious, guys. You just need to find it yourselves.
Best smoothies in Chiang Mai
Mrs. Pa’s Smoothie Cart
At Chiang Mai (south) gate, just across from the 7-11. She has a red and white cart with Mrs. Pa’s Fruit Shake written on the outside. Open 4pm-10pm daily except Sunday or if she’s sick. Smoothies 25 baht.
I met Mrs. Pa thanks to a friend’s recommendation, and I’ve never had another smoothie in town unless she was closed. I interviewed her recently about her goals and business, and she is always a pleasure to see. Bright smile, wonderful hugs, and great smoothies. She’s studied nutrition and knows what is in season and balances out beautifully, but if you’re in a pinch I highly recommend the “strango” (mango and strawberry) or strawberry-lime smoothie. If no strawberries are in season, don’t worry – she’ll make something amazing no matter what she’s got in stock.
Best hairdresser in Chiang Mai
13 /2 Nimmanhaeiman Road, Soi 13, +66 53 215 199. Open 10am-10pm.
I wrote a whole piece about how I essentially flew to Turkey to get a haircut (also to eat), and many women wrote to thank me. So I wanted to include the place I cut my hair in Chiang Mai, since it’s a common question. Prices are reasonable, and I’ve never had a cut I didn’t like. Head massage while getting your hair washed is also excellent!
Best vegetarian food in Chiang Mai
Nimmanhaeiman Road, Soi 10, left hand side, 2nd floor, +66 83 581 1689
I am more than slightly obsessed with the pumpkin curry at Anchan, but I’ve never tried a dish I didn’t love. With red rice to accompany the meal and huge portions, it’s a wonderful place to take a break from all the grilled chicken and intestines and load up on organic veggies.
Best place to find cuttle fish at 3am
Outside any bar on Nimman, usually with the cart lit up by one spotlight, smelling like dried fish from at least a block away.
Ok, this isn’t the edible kind but there is a lady at the Chiang Mai Gate food market that had a pet goat and treated it like a dog, petting it and feeding it and holy crap was it adorable so I needed to include it. He was often tied to the area behind Mrs. Pa near the moat, or sitting in a cart midway back, toward the smoothie shack that is closer to Smith Residence.
Best sushi in Chiang Mai
Nimmanhaeiman Road, Soi 13 +66 82 344 6635
Not only is the sushi extremely fresh and the rolls beautifully-presented, but this sushi spot has their own gluten-free soy sauce, which I haven’t seen in Chiang Mai prior. As a celiac, I was impressed. They were also really careful with how they prepared the fish for me, to ensure no cross contamination. The couple who runs the place lives upstairs with their awesome cats.
A funny coincidence: a Legal Nomads reader was renting the room above the restaurant, and I ran into him there quite a few times!
Best place to get shat on by a bird
Long time Legal Nomads readers know that I have a problem with birds. I have been crapped on 14 times, plus there was the bat incident in the Dominican Republic. As such, I can’t leave out the most bird-tastic corner in the whole city: the spot where Huaykaew road meets the moat at Bunrueang Rit Road. There are a few trees at that corner and around 5pm they are almost shaking with birds. SHAKING WITH BIRDS. Don’t walk under those trees at dusk, especially if you have my luck when it comes to poop.
CAMP (“creative and meeting place”), top floor of Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center (yes that is its actual name)
Maya 55, Moo 5, open 24.7
When I uploaded my video of the storytelling keynote I gave in Bangkok, the only place I could do it without it taking a few days was CAMP. They have their own wifi network, accessible with a pass or by buying food or drink at their cafe, as well as a supplemental AIS Wi-Fi network that is extremely fast. For people uploading lots of photos or videos, this is your best bet in town.
Best Nam Tok Moo and Yam Tua Plu
Ruam Jai Gai Yang, to the right of Chiang Mai Ram hospital
Bunrueang Rit Road,+66 53 27 5912. Open daily, 1oam-9pm
Nam tok moo, waterfall salad, and yam tua plu (wingbean salad) are two of my favorite dishes to complement a plate of grilled chicken or pork.
A lot of tourists will order the basics for Northern Thai food: somtam and grilled pork and sticky rice. But you’re really missing out if you’re not trying these two light and bewilderingly flavorful salads to accompany your meal. Next time you eat, swap out your somtam for some nam tok moo. You won’t be sorry.
Funny enough, I discovered the yam tua plu by ordering nam tok moo with a cold. The stall, a bustling street spot in Bangkok, misunderstood me — and served me this instead.
Best Chicken Biryani
Yellow-awning street card at the Chiang Mai Gate night market, in front of the 7-11 that is to the left of the gate.
If you are at Mrs. Pa’s smoothie cart, this biryani cart is to the left, about a 2 minute walk. There is a 7-11 in front of the Mrs. Pa cart, and the next 7-11 over (past the Tesco Lotus) is where this delectable rice can be found.
They also have beef biryani and soup, but to be honest their chicken is why I go. Braised all day long, tender and flavorful, and served with a small bowl of broth and an amazing spicy dipping sauce. I must eat here at least 3 times a week when I’m in town. Smoothie for dessert, of course!
Best Grilled Chicken (It’s a tie)
1) Cherng Doi
Soi Sukkame, just off Nimmanheiman road, right side if you’re walking down the soi. Closed Mondays.
2) “Smoky Chicken”
Soi 11, near the Sirimangkalajarn end of the alley, telltale smoke billowing into the sky. Open from 7am – about 3pm when they run out of chicken.
Both of these chicken spots offer a different bird baking extravaganza, crispy and smoky respectively. At Cherng Doi, the nam tok moo (waterfall salad) is delicious,
Best Cat Cafe
233/5 Huay Kaew Road. Open daily, 10am-8pm. Minimum age: 5 years.
Panda the dog at 9th Street Cafe
Nimmanhaemin Road, soi 9.
I know this may be contentious, because I have also seen dogs riding motorbikes in Thailand, but Panda the dog stole my heart the second I saw him.
Look at that face:
Best cheap dessert
As a celiac, rice desserts are where it’s at in Chiang Mai. I get mine from the tiny cart right outside the Tesco Lotus at the Chiang Mai Gate food market in the evenings. He shows up around 5pm. Try the taro or the black rice squares. Fabulous.
Best sit down sai oua (northern Thai sausage)
21 Nimmanhaemin Soi 5, +66 89 434 9009
There is a famous northern Thai sausage vendor in Warorot Market, but for those who want a version that isn’t always to go, try Cainito’s plate. Delicious and in an open air patio setting off Nimman road.
Best place to avoid digital nomads and travel bloggers
You can’t. You might just want to leave town.
Best place to see both of those groups of people
CAMP CoWorking space atop Maya Mall. See above under “fastest WiFi” for address.
Best place to watch the city stand still
Chiang Mai Sunday walking street, which spans the length of Rachadamnoen Road in the old city, and many of the surrounding alleyways. At 6pm, the city blares the national anthem from the speakers on each lamppost, and everyone stands completely still until it is over. The first time this happened, I felt like I was in an Improv Everywhere skit, but it quickly became a minute I looked forward to, total silence in the midst of a crowded street.
Best tasting coffee
With two locations in town, Ristr8to has the pour overs and cold brews your hipster soul desires. They provide smaller size cups for those who can’t handle the punch of caffeine (aka me). I’ve gone through their menu bit by bit and have enjoyed just about everything I have tried. Given the popularity of the cafes, both of their locations are often quite busy. Best to pop by around 10am or so, in between the morning and lunch time rush.
Best coffee shop with built-in barbershop and khao soi
Nimmanhaeiman, Soi 11, +66 91 775 8405. Open daily 7:30am-9:30pm.
The coffee at this tiny spot is tasty, and they have some really wonderful iced teas also. But adjacent to their space is a barber who happens to make a very rich khao soi, AND he was willing to fry up some rice noodles so that I could eat them in the soup, instead of the wheat-based noodles that are often used. Highly appreciated, beautifully-presented, and very tasty.
Best shop to get your iPhone screen repaired while also feeding a pet squirrel
Top floor of the Kad Suan Kaew mall.
I went to put my phone in my bag, missed, and it crashed to the pavement so abruptly that the guy repairing my screen got glass shards in his thumbs. I went to the Apple studio in Kad Suan Kaew first, but they told me that it would take 5 weeks (no) and that I would need to send it away somewhere else to repair it (also no). So I voided my warranty and paid a mobile shop to fix it on the spot.
Initially, he asked me for all my passwords so that he could test the new screen. ‘
“No,” I said. “I’ll just wait here and unlock as needed.”
“Ok,” he replied, “So long as you take the time to feed my pet squirrel while you wait.”
Best khao soi soup
My pick for best tasting khao soi soup goes to Khao Soi Mae Sai, which has a rare pork version – very good. They were also willing to sub out the wheat noodles for rice noodles, although these were not crispy like the barbershop version above.
Ratchaphuek Road, Chiang Mai. +66 53 213 284. Only open until 4pm.
For more khao soi recommendations, A Brit Abroad has rounded up her favorites here.
One of my guilty pleasures in visiting Chiang Mai is to buy as many 10 baht notebooks from the 7-11 as possible. Every 7-11 has them, and the designs are completely different with little rhyme or reason. Each is awesome. My fave remains “unsleep sheep” but this year’s gladiator rooster is a happy 2nd pick.
I use these for to-do lists, speechwriting, notes, you name it. They’re fab.
Wherever I may be on a night out in Chiang Mai, I try to wander home via Prappokloa road, so that I can get a ghostly view of this tree looming over Wat Chedi Luang.
Best place to shop if you’re a Thai-sized farang
Best place in the city to go for a run
Huay Tung Tao Lake, about 10km outside the city.
Located outside the city in Mae Rim, this reservoir is a wonderful place for a late afternoon run, or sitting at the bamboo shacks that dot the shores of the lake and simply enjoying the view with some snacks. There are also quite a few restaurants that surround the water, if you don’t feel like bringing your own noms. Beautiful spot.
Chiang Mai guides from around the web
- Travelfish’s Chiang Mai city guide
- Nomadic Notes’ coffee guide to Chiang Mai
- A Little Adrift’s Chiang Mai guide
- Breathing Travel’s Chiang Mai guide
- NomadList’s Chiang Mai guide
- Vegan? This list of eats is for you.
- 101 Cool Things to do in Thailand (includes Bangkok and Chiang Mai)
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
I tend to stay in apartments, renting for a few months. For those interested in visiting longer-term, The Siri, Bliss, Baan Thai Apartments, and Loft Residence have all come recommended. These are each outside the Old City gates, and I’ve found it really enjoyable to stay in Nimmanhaemin Road area and head to the Old City when needed.
For shorter term stays, Travelfish has a good overview of accommodation in Chiang Mai, reviewed by their writers. And Alana at Paper Planes Blog has an overview of the different areas in town, to help you decide where to stay.