Guide to Chiang Mai
Food, elephants, art, and plenty of adventure in northern Thailand
October 6, 2020 ● 9 min read
We consulted Chef Vanda Asapahu, a second-generation owner and chef of Ayara Thai in Los Angeles, to guide us through a visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Though her job keeps her mostly stateside, Vanda lived in Thailand while working with non-profit organizations and the United Nations, and she visits frequently with her family. Right now, the best we can do is plan to visit when the time is right. And when it’s right, here are Vanda’s expert recommendations for what to see, do, and eat in Chiang Mai.
There are many guides that map out the best khao soi in Chiang Mai; this is not one of them. (But if you want to seek out the best khao soi in the city, learn to make it with Chef Hanuman Aspler, Thai food master of Three Tree Doi Saket Cooking School, located about an hour outside of the city and run from Aspler’s home.)
You can’t visit Northern Thailand without eating traditional Lanna cuisine. Make a reservation at Tong Tem Toh, a popular restaurant with a beautiful teak house setting and consistently delicious food. (My aunt and grandma who live in Chiang Mai frequently host their out-of-town guests here.) For newbies to Lanna cuisine, start with the northern Thai relish platter with nam prik num (green chili relish) and nam prik ong (tomato, ground pork chili relish) that comes with an assortment of vegetables and proteins; add the gaeng hang lay (pork belly tamarind curry), and a toss between the grilled pork collar and crispy pork belly. If you’re already familiar with these, try something new: northern Thai herbaceous pork laab or the seasonal, sought-after kaeng phak waan sai khai mot daeng, a soup with a subtly sweet, pale green vegetable with no English name and red ant eggs. Both ingredients are only available during the dry season, February through May.
Night markets have become increasingly popular across Thailand over the past 20 years, and Tha Pae Sunday Walking Street claims to be the one that started the trend. It’s a food lover’s paradise of traditional savory and sweet treats, like meats on skewers and khanom krok (coconut rice-pancake cooked in a dimpled clay pan), and innovative new treats that change every time I visit. Beyond food, the walking street night market allows artists and artisans to share their handmade wares, from unique keychains to shirts using recycled materials. This is a great place not only to eat but also to find special gifts to take home while supporting local artists. It’s also the only place on this list that’s within the walls of the Old City.
Warorot Market, known as Kad Luang by locals, is split into two parts: the main market with spices and food, and the Ton Payom market with cooking tools, baskets, clothes, and souvenirs. I typically venture out to this market as soon as it opens to avoid the crowds, starting in the main area to stock up on northern Thai spices, including prickly ash peppercorn, caraway, mace, white shrimp paste, and tua nao (fermented soybean cake).
I also pick up Northern Thai artisanal snacks like sai oua (northern Thai herb pork sausage), nam prik num (green chili relish), naem (fermented sour sausage), moo yor (steamed pork loaf), fried pork, and of course pork rinds and sticky rice. Not eating any of these snacks would be as if you never came to Chiang Mai. Watch the crowd to find the popular stalls.
Huen Jai Yong, a traditional wood house/restaurant specializing in Lanna cuisine, is a little trek from the usual touristy Niman Road area and Old Town Chiang Mai. You can choose to sit on the floor traditional-style upstairs or on a chair downstairs. Don’t worry, no one is judging if you prefer to sit comfortably in a chair — my family usually sits in chairs! This place offers black sticky rice, nuttier than white sticky rice. Eat it like a local by balling it up with one hand and using it as you would use bread to scoop up sauce and pair it with meats and veggies. (Do it only with your dominant hand if you can for bonus points!) If you’re tired of the usual Lanna classics, try roasted fish laab, roasted eggplant relish with boiled egg, jin som mok khai (fermented pork grilled with egg), jackfruit curry, and chang da (local greens) with eggs. After your meal, explore the property and the art gallery in the back.
Lerd Rote Tai Rom Ma-Feuang translates to “bold flavors under the shades of the star fruit trees.” It is both poetic and a true description of this place, which serves Chinese style wok-intense seafood dishes (with a heavy hand of Thai herbs like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fresh peppercorn, and krachai ginger) on the back patio of the restaurant on the banks of the Ping River. I’ll address the (proverbial) elephant in the room: Why come to Chiang Mai to eat seafood when the ocean is hundreds of miles away? Chiang Mai is a major city in Thailand with hundreds of domestic and international flights daily. Restaurant owners get daily shipments of fresh seafood. (Due to this, not everything on the menu is always available.) The food here is some of the most deliciously prepared seafood I have ever had anywhere in the world. When you arrive, walk through the shophouse and kitchen to find the patio in the back. And bring mosquito repellent!