Travel Musings: Chiang Mai 2014

Back in the end of 2014, I was in Thailand yet again and decided to make the most of my time by branching out of Bangkok. Having always been interested to find out more about the northern great city of Chiang Mai, I booked my flight, guesthouse and jetted off to uncover Thailand's second largest city.

As an ancient, ancient city, Chiang Mai has an aura of regal authority to it that makes one wonder how things were in the city's past prime. Remnants of the city walls, temples, and other structures are found throughout the city's old center making it wonderful to walk around.

In terms of accommodation, I was contemplating for a while whether to stay in the old city or out of it but since it was my first time and I wanted to check out the various must-sees within the older city, I decided to stay close to the older city.

After reviewing on Airbnb, I went with Le Canal Boutique House which is just on the northern side of the old city. I must say, it was a fantastic choice.

The boutique house even has an excellent cafe on the first floor.

Room was clean, spacious, and comfortable.

Le Canal Boutique House
91 Sripoom Rd., T.Sripoom, A.Muang Chiangmai Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
+66 53 221 304

The charm of the old city is best explored on foot or on bike.

Getting hungry, I knew I wanted to try out the khaosoi I had heard so much about. Being in the north and close to the Burma and Laos regions, this Burmese-influenced dish is a specialty of the north. In a thinner yellow curry soup in goes meat (commonly chicken), egg noodles, hard boiled egg, and then plenty of pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime ,chili on the side to add in.

In the old city, I was recommended to Huen Phen which has been around for a while.

Their khaosoi comes in a bowl with big chunks of chicken, lots of noodles

All the sides to add :)

How can you not love egg noodles?

Very tender chicken. Look at the whole leg in there.

In retrospect, the khao soi here was on the sweeter side and a little less "bold" compared to other khao sois I tried on this trip. It was still decent though not my favorite (more on that later).

Love somtam too much not to order it...

Huge restaurant with lots of seats though meal times can get quite crowded.

Huen Phen
112 Ratmakka Rd, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
+66 53 277 103

The old city has temples (wats) seemingly on every block. You could probably spend an entire day just exploring all the temples if you wanted. I don't even remember all the wats I looked around in that first day.

If you're short on time however, the wat you dont' want to miss out on is Wat Chedi Luang. Originally the grounds had three major temples and what's left now is Wat Chedi Luang. 

All the more fascinating considering it was originally built in the 14th century!

Wat Chedi Luang
103 Road King Prajadhipok Phra Singh, Muang District, Chiang Mai, 50200, Thailand
Sun - Sat 6:00 AM - 5:00 PM

For an eating spot not far from my guesthouse and not too far off from Chang Puak Gate, I was recommended to a place called Jok Sompet. This 24 hour place is quite famed even among locals and features an array of Chinese-Thai dishes from the Chinese-Thai family that started the place.

Their jok (congee or porridge) is well-known but also quite popular are their dim sum-like dishes.

Kanom jeeb (steamed Thai dumpling), steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings were some of the fare I sampled for a dinner one evening.

Everything was scrumptious and delish. The porks buns were particularly good.

I must say though,my favorite was the gang hung lay (or gaeng hanglay). This is another northern curry dish made with fatty pork, lots of ginger, and (rather unusually for Thai curries) without coconut milk. Considering it's usually made with such a fatty cut of pork, the ginger and curry spices really does a swell job of making the curry feel less heavy on the stomach than it probably is.

Can we also talk about how tender the pork is?

Practically breaks apart with a simple prod of your fork.

I mentioned it's 24 hours so you can get your fix of dumplings, congee, and other goods breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in the weee early morning hours. Very low prices too.

Joke Sompet
Sri Poom Rd. (cor Ratchaphakhinai Rd.), Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
+66 53 212 844

Hopefully I'll get around to it one day soon but I spent a day volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park which doesn't do any of the elephant rides or other practices that abuses the elephants. I'll share more about that in a separate post but I must say it was an unforgettable experience that I would recommend to anyone.

They also serve a ridiculously good (mostly) vegetarian buffet that was way above expectations.

Elephant Nature Park
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand (for the booking office in Chiang Mai)
+66 53 818 932

If you're looking for cheap local eats, Chiang Mai has its share of markets that are especially popular once the sun starts setting. 

On the northern side of the old city are a range of stalls that are popular but probably the best known is the Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak stall. Infamous because of the owner/lady who always wears a cowboy hat, this stall specializes in khao kha moo. This dish consists of pork leg that's usually been fried and boiled with seasonings and then served over rice.

On a huge wooden table thing, you'll see miss cowgirl pulling out and chopping huge chunks of tender pork and then scooping it and serving over rice with a boiled egg on the side.

It's a simple dish that's a comfort food for many locals and also ridiculously cheap here. I think it was like 30 baht or something. As cheap as it is, like many Thai street food, the serving size is extremely small so one may have to pick up a few other dishes as well.

Pickled greens on the side.

Mixed together with the rice and mm mm.

Look how well that egg has been boiled.

Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak
Thanon Manee Nop Parat, Amphoe Mueang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

As I mentioned, serving sizes are small but there's plenty of other food options around to pick up other bites. Like steamed buns!

Some kind of sweet, seasoned pork meatball inside.

I happened to run into my super nice new friend from the guesthouse and her friend who also recommended me some other dishes.

New friends!

Just roaming around the old city center. The lit-up city walls really adds to the atmosphere.

Chiang Mai University has a beautiful green campus complete with its own (man made) lake. Nice to relax and people watch.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Chiang Mai's most famed temple. Very touristy and teeming with people but worth a visit though it was far from my favorite (more on that later).

Lots of vendors outside the temple grounds for all the tourists.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Road Tambon Su Thep, Chiang Mai Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
+66 53 295 003

Huay Tung Tao Lake is not well known to visitors but is a favorite for locals who gather to play, relax, and eat.

These little huts by the lake are serviced by a few small restaurants which makes it just perfect for a relaxing afternoon lunch.


Thai-style omelette and stir-fried water mimosa

I can never get enough of som tum

Fried catfish. Covered with a mound of fried herb, ginger

That spicy-tart sauce on the side is on point.

The fish is fried to perfection with a golden, crisp crust and flaky white flesh inside. Eaten with the chili sauce and fried toppings, what a match.

And the prices are ridiculously cheap. The lake has a very inexpensive entrance to the lake grounds too but well worth it.

Huay Tung Tao Lake
107, Don Kaeo, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai 50180, Thailand

Well known for their produce, Chiang Mai has some cheap and very fresh fruits and veggies.

Now if Doi Suthep is the extremely noisy, touristy temple, Wat Umong is the peaceful temple that locals favor. Referred by some as the "forest temple" this 700 year old temple is located in the forest.

Its ancient caves and tunnels even have original wall paintings from the 13th century.

Look at the details

It's absolutely amazing how the temple grounds and the surrounding forest seamlessly blend in together in a natural way. Unlike other temples where the temple grounds seem to have landed whole atop a hill or forest, Wat Umong almost makes you wonder if the temple grounds "grew" into the forest or the other way around.

It's also a haven for wildlife from birds and butterflies to fishes and turtles in the lake. There are quite a lot of very calm and happy-looking stray dogs around the grounds.

One of my favorite temples not only in Chiang Mai but all of Thailand!

Wat Umong
Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Baan Kang Wat is a hip, artist zone with shops, workshops, cafes all housed in old-style homes. The outdoor space gives it a very peaceful feel.

And the buildings and spaces are gorgeous.

Bann Kang Wat
191-197 Soi Wat U Mong | Suthep Subdistrict, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
+66 98 427 0666

So many visitors to Chiang Mai limit their stay to the old city center which is a damn shame because the surrounding lands is absolutely beautiful. The people are all so pleasant and warm and I genuinely believe the land gives the locals a sense of peace and zen.

As most know, I try and avoid the touristy places in traveling. One thing I was really on the fence on in going or not was a traditional Khantoke dinner show. Originating from the region, you sit on matted floors over low tables and various local dishes while a range of traditional dances and performances are made.

I had heard some mixed reviews on this and, above all, the whole thing just seemed like one of those things that was catered to tourists and I mean of the retired kind holding up digital cameras at awkward angles and then making sure to buy a souvenir magnet and T-shirt at the end of the show.

But... I went.

The setting was quite something. Sprawling grounds with lanterns and traditional facades everywehre.

Traditional mats for reclining. Must have been hundreds of them.

Including some tented spots for larger groups.

As show time approaches, seats begin to fill. Chinese groups, Americans, Russians, etc.

Along with the show, you get a pretty big feast. 

Traditional Burmese Pork curry, green chili paste, fried pork skin, etc. Drinks are separate from the dinner and show price.

Then comes show time. The entrance is quite something as they come in from the sides to music and flashy traditional costumes. 

They're a range of traditional dances from the north with dances like the swords dance, silk-reeling dance, etc. Others are specific by regions of the north.

And then some time to take pictures with the dancers afterwards. 

And capping it off with some paper lantern lighting. I've actually heard from a good local friend of mine that this actually quite dangerous with forest fires and entire homes burning down from accidents related to this activity. I didn't take part but here's hoping no accidents have, or will, turn up in the future.

Overall my impression of the khantoke was a mix. Food was better than expected and the variety of performances alone is worth the admission price. In terms of the performers alone, about 1/4 of them really are in it but the rest are so obviously going through the motions (which is somewhat understandable since they do this about twice a day, everyday), that it's more a visual impression for you than it is anything with soul. Basically go for a pretty decent meal with some pretty pics and vids for your Instagram feed but don't expect something along the lines of inspiration. 

Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center
185/3 Wualai Rd, Haiya, Muang, Chiangmai 50100 
Phone: (66) (0) 53 202-993-5

Back on the subject of khaosoi, I read review after review all claiming this "hidden" (that is, lesser known to tourists) eatery was the place to go for the dish in old town.

It's a bit tricky to find but walk down Sri Poom road until you see the alley with this little golden horse on it. 

Alley is an understatement because it actually looks like the parking lot but in you go and on the left you'll see this place.

Open-aired joint. Find your place a seat.

I was worried I would have to do the old look and point with awkward body language to communicate but because it's been growing in recognition from the international community too, they seem to have put up an English menu recently.

And as you can tell, prices are cheap, cheap, cheap.

As cheap as prices are, serving portions are not the biggest so I actually went with two khao sois - one beef, one chicken and went with egg noodles.

Verdict? Best I had in Chiang Mai. Really creamy, deep but so smooth. How is it that smooth? I could drink that up by the glassful.

But you gotta splurge the extra 5 baht for the thick egg noodles. When you got such a rich and creamy soup, you gotta get the extra wide, eggy starch to really have that soup cling to it and balance it out IMO.

Khao Soi Khun Yai
Address: Sri Poom 8 Alley, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Hours: 10AM - 2PM

I was taken to this restaurant for lunch by a friend.It's a bit off the road but housed in this beautiful traditional home. Packed with locals as you can see.

Northern sausages, a Chiang Mai famed favorite. I heard it's made with boar(?) but any gamy smell is offset by the spices, like lemongrass, that's packed with it. A nice snap to the case and just fragrant, meaty goodness inside.

I can't tell you what was everything we ate since my friend ordered for me but everything was delicious. Perfectly spiced and seasoned.

The restaurant also houses a gallery and a look inside a traditional home from the past.

Interesting gallery on the restaurant grounds- small but worth a look.

A look into life from the recent past in Chiang Mai.

Huen Jai Yong
64 Moo 4, Buak Khang-Sam Kampaeng Road | Buak Khang, San Kamphaeng, Thailand 
+66 86 671 8710

Any first time visitor can't miss Waroros Market or Kad Luang Market. An enormous indoor and outdoor market, this is one place that everyone from foodies to photographers will enjoy paying a visit to.

 The good thing about this market is that it's popular with the locals just as much as it is with visitors. Locals and passing through Thais are often found here picking up local delicacies like the sausages, fried pork rinds, chili paste, etc

Another great aspect of this market are the inexpensive prices. I was wandering around and thinking about getting caffeinated when I ran into this great coffee cart serving up strong Thai grounds for some excellent prices.

Just outside the market grounds is the canal..

.. as well as an old Chinese temple.

There are a couple of street stalls that open up at night along the canals besides the more touristy northern one. I forgot which one this one was but it was also quite wonderful to enjoy the various eats available.

As dishes like khao soi, dumplings, and whatnot show, the northern part of Thailand is quite an interesting mixture of culinary influences that reflect roots from China, Burma, Laos, etc. Particularly the many noodle dishes here are a result of these intermingling.

Handrolled fried pastries made on site.

Among the many shakes stands I was intrigued by one which had some interesting blends involving espresso shots. Having a hard time picturing the final result, I went ahead and ordered an espress, avocado, banana shake.

Blended right on site.

Interesting. All three main ingredients have some strong tastes that I was imagining would either come to clash together or somehow work. I think it fell somewhere in the middle where the taste kind of grows on you. Definitely more of a morning, breakfast-replacement shake than an evening one.

Most recently, as I was making my way back from a trip to Pai, I stopped by Chiang Mai again but only for a quick lunch. My friend's friend who lives and works near CM picked us up from the bus station to take us to this very nifty spot called Woo.

Part home living store, part cafe, part restaurant, this spacious spot is an interesting lifestyle hybrid that makes for a fun visit even if you're not there for the food.

The restaurant, cafe, and store section are all divided into different quarters though connected in a flow.

This is the cafe section which, with its large windows and fauna, makes for a cheerful break. Cool wall paintings, decoration, and furniture gives it a chic edge.

Baked goods on display.

Cafe menu.

Lifestyle section with pottery, plates, decoration stuff.

The restaurant also has a rustic yet artsy feel to it and, as you can see, is quite the happening spot for locals and visitors alike.

Menu is quite extensive and diverse with local northern Thai cuisine, rice dishes, noodle dishes, and even pasta and other western and hybrid fare.

When our coffees came out I was first gawking at the sheer size. The picture makes it hard to tell without something in comparison in scale but these babies were quite large. Coffee was above average but perhaps more a win on size than taste.

The coffee wasn't an exception to the portion sizes here as the food is enormous as well. Since we were in Chiang Mai and all, we had to get some khao soi and the noodles here came in a bowl that would have easily fit my entire face.

Crunchy fried noodles atop, big chunks of tender meat, and a hearty curry-fic soup base, it's hard to go wrong with these noodles. Don't forget the pickled greens and lime of course.

Some more northern favorites- northern sausage and fried pork rinds. With spices like lemongrass, these sausages pack a big ol' Thai punch but are always a treat.

And just when the three of us were filled to the brim, one person decides to order the carrot cake to split... which we of course still managed to polish off.

Woo Cafe-Art Gallery-Lifestyle Shop
80 Charoenrat Road, Watgate, MuangChiangmai, Chiang Mai 50000

+66 52 003 717

And if all that food wasn't enough, my new friend decided to take us to this local Thai sweets place. I can't tell you where it was as it was a good 10 mins or so drive to get there but apparently it's quite well known? The signage is below if you can read Thai...

They insisted I get all the toppings available to try. I've had these Thai iced treats before and I think one of its strongest merit is the variety of textures that comes from the toppings and shaved ice. Crunchy, chewy, slurpy... the flavors are as much diverse and fun as the sounds from eating it.

There's a raw, ornate and still relatively untouched beauty to Chiang Mai that I think is certainly worth discovering for anyone passing through Thailand. There's enough variety in the city to appeal to all types of travelers - history buffs, nature lovers, urban chic, foodies, etc. It's a city I have fond and warm memories of and I sense I will make repeat visits to in the future. So see you soon, CM.