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.
My Opinionated Chiang Mai Guide
I kept returning to Chiang Mai because it’s a great place to stay, eat and settle quickly into a routine I found comforting. I found I did 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.
In January 2023, a reader named Marc W. sent in his additions and updates to this guide. I am now disabled and unable to travel due to a spinal CSF leak, and my community has stepped in and stepped up to help ensure my guides are current. Thank you Mark!
Last update: JANUARY 13, 2023
Best grilled intestines in Chiang Mai
Tong Tem Toh: 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 in Chiang Mai
Tam Jai Sung – CLOSED :( A reader writes to say that this place now sells Chinese and Thai food and not Burmese. Another option is Nong Bee’s Burmese Restaurant and Library.
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 venues for live music
Thae Pae East: 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.
North Gate Jazz Coop: Located (unsurprisingly) right by the North Gate, this is a great spot for live music in Chiang Mai. Open every night, a revolving cast of jazz and improvisational rock musicians jam out for people who either enjoy from inside the tiny venue or, as most do, watch with drinks from just outside of the venue, through the open space on the side. A perfect place to spend both the warm and cooler nights, with street food waiting nearby when your stomach grumbles.
Best Vietnamese food in Chiang Mai
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 cuttlefish 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
Mushashi Contemporary Sushi Bar: 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), 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 in Chiang Mai
Ruam Jai Gai Yang, to the right of Chiang Mai Ram hospital. Bunrueang Rit Road. 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 (gai yang) in Chiang Mai: it’s a 3-way tie
1) Cherng Doi: Soi Sukkame, just off Nimmanheimin road, right side if you’re walking down the soi. Closed Mondays. I’ve been here more times than I can count, and can’t ever visit Chiang Mai without stuffing my face here at least twice.
2) Kai Yang Wichian, aka “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. Lots of great treats too, like chicken hearts on skewers also grilled, as well as accompanying salads and of course the required sticky rice.
3) SP Chicken: Another option for some of the best gai yang (and thus best grilled chicken in the world), SP Chicken offers spatchcock cooked chicken that’s rotated nonstop over coals, ensuring some of the crispiest but juiciest chicken you’ll eat. The bird is also rubbed/stuffed with garlic and other spices prior to cooking. Their nam jim jaew dipping sauce will have you stopping back here multiple times on your trip. Located not far from Wat Phra Singh.
Best cat cafe in Chiang Mai
Catmosphere Cat Cafe: 233/5 Huay Kaew Road. Open daily, 10am-8pm. Minimum age: 5 years. I spent a very fun afternoon here awash in felines and loving it. The drinks, while enormous, were also not bad—and the latte art was great!
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 this 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)
Tong Tem Toh, above, has incredible sai oua and you can’t go wrong with anything else on their menu. If the line up is too long, another option is Cainito Bar and Restaurant, photo below. There is a famous (amazing) 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
9-1 Coffee: 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.”
Yes this happened.
Best khao soi soup
Arguably, the best khao soi in Chiang Mai is wherever you had your last bowl. I’ve yet to try one that isn’t absolutely delicious. That said, here are three spots for ‘best of’ that I recommend for the city.
1) Khao Soi Khun Yai: Located by the North Gate, Khao Soi Khun Yai is the best bowl within the Old City and reason enough to visit Chiang Mai. Although the chicken is delicious, the moo (pork) is what should be ordered. The broth falls slightly more on the spicy side of the scale, a welcome change for those who love spice. The name means Grandma’s Khao Soi, and that’s exactly what it tastes like: a bowl of home-cooked amazingness. Note that there are two entrances to this small shop along the main road that can come up quickly, and that it closes by 2 PM.
2) Khao Soi Mae Sai: My pick for best tasting bowl goes to Khao Soi Mae Sai, again with their pork version – it’s so 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.
3) Khao Soi Lamduan: Don’t mix this up with the similarly-named Khao Soi Lamduan Faham to the northeast of the city, which receives more recognition. This shop is the one to visit. The chicken is perfectly cooked and the flavor of the curry is pristinely balanced: not too sweet, not too spicy. Exactly what your stomach wants and needs. Combine this trip with a visit to the JingJai Farmer’s Market on the weekend for snack on some sai ua sausage and other Northern goodies, then stop off for khao soi on the way back. The restaurant is just off of Route 11 (slightly north of the city).
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 Southern Thai food
Southern Phatthalung. If you’re missing the flavours that Southern Thai food brings to the table, this restaurant is for you. A local spot just off of Route 121 and 10 minutes northeast of the Old City, this is where you come for green curry with fresh peppercorns, perfectly fried chicken covered with fried turmeric and garlic (make sure to take some home), stir fried liang leaves with egg, and Southern dry curry pork. Just go, point at what looks good, and enjoy.
Best seafood spot
Lerd Rote Tai Rom Ma Feuang: I know, I know, Chiang Mai isn’t on the ocean or a large body of water. Still, if you’re craving some seafood, there is a spot you can go. For the non-celiacs, enjoy incredible salt and pepper fried shrimp, topped with loads of fried garlic and peppers. Any fish you order with chili and garlic is going to wow you, as will the black pepper crab. You’ll be sitting on plastic chairs, and you need to walk through a shop to get there. Open for lunch and dinner.
Best place in Chiang Mai to go for a run or a walk in nature.
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.
Best short stay outside the city
Mae Chaem is a small village on the other side of Doi Inthanon mountain. It’s where you go to get away from everything, the noise and the songthaews and the chaos, and just take in how peaceful Thailand can. Whether you’re finishing up a ride along the Mae Hong Son loop or wanting to see Doi Inthanon at sunrise, you can’t go wrong with a visit to this incredible village, located 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai.
When you go, stay at Ban Rai Jai Chaem Spa Cafe and Homestay. A home in the middle of multiple rice paddies and farms, the owner added four rooms for people to stay, all of which have comfortable bedding and outdoor showers, as well as an herbal steam room and places for massages. Here you’re comfortably staying amongst the farming community, while Manat and his family also cook what will likely be one of the best dinners you have in the area. Address on Google Maps, here.
Best Farmer’s market to visit
I mentioned the JingJai Farmer’s Market above, and it’s a great spot to feast the senses. I always try to visit local markets wherever I travel, and this one offers a mix of home goods, clothes, produce, coffee, and snacks. It’s a great spot to try a bit of everything from the region, including sai oua sausage, pork skin that are freshly fried (make sure to include the fat!) and nak prik (chili sauce). Please note that if flying with nam prik, it’s best to buy it in a jar that closes instead of a bag. Your belongings will thank you.
Chiang Mai guides from around the web:
- Fantastic Food Search, a compendium of where to find incredible food, started with Bangkok but has expanded to Chiang Mai. A project from Austin Bush – who has eaten his way around Thailand many times over, and I trust his tastebuds – and Christopher Wise, the photographs are beautiful and the recommendations unusual for most guidebook fare. Their living tree Chiang Mai guide is here, in map form.
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Located next to Chiang Mai’s largest mosque and sometimes also known as the Muslim Market, this weekly convocation of commerce is hands-down the city’s most diverse. In addition to vendors selling Muslim world-inspired dishes and ingredients such as samosas and goat meat, you’ll find Chinese vendors selling air-dried pork and funky pickled vegetables, Shan vendors selling seasoned rice dishes and sweets, hill tribe vendors selling unique produce, and Burmese vendors making delicious noodle dishes. The market is great for a wander even if you don’t have a kitchen, and doubly great for breakfast, as it’s located virtually across the street from some of Chiang Mai’s more famous Muslim-style khao soi restaurants. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ((FFS, don’t miss: mohinga, Burmese-style noodle soup; hill tribe avocadoes; Yunnanese-Chinese-style air-dried pork and beef)) ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Ban Haw Market (ตลาดบ้านฮ่อ) Soi 1, Thanon Charoen Prathet, Chiang Mai, Thailand 18.786445, 99.001507 6-10am Fri ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Use our hashtags to find fantastic food: #fantasticfoodsearch #ffsthailand #ffschiangmai #ffsmarkets #northernthai ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ FFS is now online at www.fantasticfoodsearch.com with an interactive map and lists to help you find your way to fantastic food. Check link in bio.
- Austin Bush’s Eater guide to the best restaurants in Chiang Mai is also worth a bookmark.
- Travelfish’s thorough Chiang Mai city guide
- Nomadic Notes’ coffee guide to Chiang Mai
- A Little Adrift’s Chiang Mai guide (incl. vegetarian food, temples, and what to do)
- Nomadic Matt’s Chiang Mai guide (incl. budget and what to do)
- Will Fly For Food’s thorough Chiang Mai guide (from 2018) and his 11 best street stalls and restaurants post here (updated in 2019)
- Breathing Travel’s Chiang Mai guide
- NomadList’s Chiang Mai guide
- Vegan? This list of eats is for you.
- The Broke Backpacker’s Chiang Mai guide (with costs) updated for 2019.
- 101 Cool Things to do in Thailand (includes Bangkok and Chiang Mai)
- The German Backpacker’s Chiang Mai Activities Guide.
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.