Chiang Mai is one of my favorite places in the world. Why? Well, there really isn’t a lot to do. There are lots and lots of wats, but you can see them in a couple of days’ worth of hard walking. There are a few museums, but most are fairly small and don’t take long to get through. Again, a couple of days at most. There are some markets: the night market (it is OK for overpriced touristy stuff), the Sunday Walking Market (OK for slightly less overpriced touristy stuff), and the Saturday Walking Market (waaaaaay tooooo crowded—skip it). But we have spent more than a month in Chiang Mai.
So what did we do?
Eat! Chiang Mai has amazing food, and we tried to eat it all. Here is where to eat in Chiang Mai (and see the map at the bottom of the map for the locations for all these places).
Street Food in Chiang Mai
By the North Gate. Exit the Old City through the North Gate, cross the moat, and you will see a congregation of food carts. There is (as always) a 7-11 if you want soda (etc.), but most of the venders in the area sell cheap bottles of water.
The Cowboay Hat Lady (best stewed pork in Thailand). Find the lady with the big, white cowboy hat (I know, that doesn’t sound like nice, clear directions, but it is easy. Just go. You will see her). She serves up a dish called khao ka moo, stewed pork over rice. She will wreck this dish for you. Hers is so good, there is only one other place in Thailand that I will order khao ka moo. This is what my family feasted on when we were in Chiang Mai for Thanksgiving. Look for space at one of the tables behind her and sit down. A server will come to you with just enough English that you can order without knowing any Thai (although we found our eating experiences in Thailand to be much better once we learned to speak enough to interact with the food sellers). Order a plate or three.
Suki Cart. A little way down from the cowboy hat lady is a cart selling suki (from Japanese sukiyaki—but very different from what the dish is in Japan). The tables will probably be totally full. The last time we were there a woman was handing out numbered tickets and you just waited until your number was called and she showed you to a seat. Previously, we always just lurked in the are until we can slip in. You have two choices here: wet and dry. We like the dry the best, but both are good.
Lots of other stuff is good as well. Wander and see what looks good
By the South Gate. Exit the Old City through the south gate, turn right, and walk 100 meters or so and you will be in the midst of a street food fiesta. On your way, you will pass a roti cart (egg, banana, and Nutella is our favorite). Soon you will find yourself on a street with both sides lined with food carts. Dig in! This gate doesn’t have the standout superstars like the North Gate does. Just start grazing. Eat what looks good. Here are some of the carts we have gone back to again and again:
Pork Burgers. On the city side (as opposed to the moat side) of the street you will find a cart making cheeseburgers. They are quite good. I always get the pork burger—I know, I would never get a pork burger at home, but in Thailand the pork is almost always better than beef. I was surprised at how much I liked the pork burger.
Smoked meat. On the moat side, there is a cart with all kinds of smoked meat on a stick. We tried quite a bit and like the chicken the best.
Pah Tong Koh. Right in the middle of all the action is a cart making pah tong koh, fried dough in the shape of little Xs. Lurk about until you see a fresh batch come out of the fryer and pounce. Buy a container of the creamy, green sauce (pandanus sauce) to dip your pah tong koh in.
Sunday Walking Market. At the Sunday Night Walking Market (but not the one on Saturday) all the wats along the market route set up as food courts, with street food vendors lining the area inside the wat walls. It makes for a great place to try and eat all of Thailand. Wat Samphao and Wat Phan On are our favorites. If you start at the Thapae Gate and work your way west, these will be the first two wats you come to (one on the north side of the street and one on the south side). Just file through and eat what looks good (the little bundles of mushrooms wrapped in bacon are awesome! So is the fried chicken—Thais make the BEST fried chicken! Also great are the Thai sausages, and the waffles, and the kebabs—just eat it all).
Restaurants in Chiang Mai
We have never eaten at a “fancy” restaurant in Chiang Mai. It is the little hole-in-the-wall places that we love. Here are some of our favorites.
Aroon Rai. To get to this place you go out the Thapae Gate (east gate), cross the big street, turn right and walk 5 minutes. This is one of my favorite curry places in all of Thailand. Get the northern style curry (hang le) and the yellow curry with potatoes. The khao soi is also good.
SP Chicken. This is maybe my favorite chicken place in the world. Chickens are small but so freaking good. Get a half or a whole chicken, some sticky rice, and anything else on the menu that catches your eye. It is all good.
Lert Ros. Great northern Thai food. The grilled pork with various cooking options is fantastic. Watch out for the bamboo shoot salad! It was the one thing we ate here we didn’t like (it smelled like the elephant house at the zoo)
Khao Soi Islam. This place is outside of the old city. We have walked here from the Old City, but you can also take a songtaew to the Night Market or Warorot Market areas, then walk from there. Khao soi is a traditional northern Thai dish and you should eat it while in the north, but what this place is famous for is khao mok gai—Thai style biriyani. Get the mutton. Holy crap is it good.
Get out there and have yourself a Thai feast. You deserve it. Because travel is hungry work!