Us too! Luckily, there’s no better time to plan your escape for a future getaway to the beautiful country of Thailand.

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.  

 
 
Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, known as the "kingdom of a million rice fields,” and is now the unofficial capital of northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is known for its rich culture, beautiful temples, proximity to nature — and, of course, the food. Most people outside of Thailand may only know northern Thai food as khao soi, a friendly, mild, Burmese-inspired coconut curry noodle. But after exploring the area’s rich cuisine, they’ll realize this dish is an anomaly. To me, northern Thai food is my mom's food. She grew up in Lampang, southeast of Chiang Mai, and for most of her youth cooked and ate only this food. Northern Thai food is salty, roasty and bitter — and actually not as spicy as you’ve heard. Lots of sticky rice, grilled pork, salty relishes, and astringent spices. It is the food my mom cooks when she misses home and the same food she cooks to say she loves us.
 

 

 

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.)

 

 
Nimmanheimin is a hip and trendy street with themed coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. While many say it’s become gentrified (including me), I can’t deny that it is a food and lifestyle center for many who live in Chiang Mai. Start the day at SS1254372. Most hotels and guesthouses in Chiang Mai provide great complimentary breakfasts, but after a few days of the same thing, I venture out to find something different. That’s how I discovered this cozy art café. The menu is quite large and intimidating, with Western classics like eggs Benedict, fruity French toast with local seasonal fruits, avocado toast, and design-your-own sandwiches and bowls. You can’t go wrong when paired with a smoothie or a coffee drink made from local beans. After you eat, explore the art gallery and buy a souvenir to support a local artist.

 

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.

Less traditional but equally amazing is the 10-course tasting menu at Blackitch. Chef Black Bulsuwan is a master of fermentation and part of the farm to table and sustainable food movement in Thailand. He works with farmers to source locally and turns kitchen scraps into usable ingredients and offers an intimate, reservations-only chef’s table experience nightly. Enter through a gelato café, move to the second floor and down a dark hallway to a science lab with shelves of fermentation jars, books on food from around the world, and a chart that maps the anatomy of a bluefin tuna. Sit down and the gastronomical adventure begins. I was impressed with Chef Black’s ability to use local seasonal ingredients — some he pickled, some he foraged, some he received from farmers, and some he grew — to create an artful Japanese-inspired tasting meal with flavor rooted in Thai cuisine. Again, he is a master of fermentation, so do yourself a favor and order his craft beer.
Out of the lab and back outside, street food is obviously a true star of Thai cuisine. For that, head to Sai Kok Khun Yai. This popular sausage cart is an institution. Ten years ago, Khun Yai (Grandma) operated the shop with one helper on the super hip and traffic-heavy Nimman Road, and now she has a full staff to operate her cart (she still comes out a few nights a week). The cart is parked a few meters down Soi 7 Alley until they sell out or move to the main street. Start with the original pork and rice, and chase it with a liver-garlic sausage (my favorite).  Make sure to request the veggies and pickled ginger for a balanced snack. I typically end a night of drinking here, but on recent trips Khun Yai sells out before I make it out of the bars. Perhaps a stop before the night starts is a better strategy.
 
Then, drinks! End your day in the Niman district at Caravan Bar, a classy bar and lounge with a live DJ. The drinks are almost as beautiful as the décor and people who frequent this place. I’m a tequila girl, but when in Thailand I drink whiskey and gin. This place has a great collection of both, complete with knowledgeable bartenders. Tell them what you like, and they'll take great care of you. Ask nicely and your bartender can even pair your drink with the right mood music. Cheers!
 

 

 

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.

 

Speaking of popular stalls, Midnight Chicken is yet another Chiang Mai institution. My family and I have been coming here as long as I can remember. The street stall opens from 10pm to 5am daily, except Sunday. Don’t come expecting anything fancy (I suspect the wooden tables and stools have not been changed since the ‘90s) but the food remains as good as I remember. Order the fried chicken — it’s golden crispy perfection, and unlike southern-style fried chicken Americans are accustomed to eating, Asian fried chicken is commonly made without batter. Add crispy pork belly, fried intestines, nam prik num relish, a boiled duck egg, and, of course, sticky rice. Enjoy it all with your hands!
 

 

 

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!

Now for the actual elephants. I know this is a food guide, but becoming an Elephant Caregiver for a Day at this camp tops the list of my most memorable activities in Chiang Mai. Patara Elephant Farm seeks to improve the quality of life and welfare of elephants through conservation and cultural enrichment tourism. They lead a strong breeding program with many cute baby elephants roaming the camp, and they educate tourists on their struggles, how to care for elephants, and how to be a responsible tourist. As an elephant caregiver, I was assigned an elephant for a day and had to conduct a medical exam of my elephant, feed my new friend, examine its poop for any nutritional deficiencies, and bathe her. I gained her trust and rode her bareback appropriately, so as not to hurt her. Visiting Patara Elephant Farm is always a highlight in Chiang Mai. For those who want to have lunch with your elephant, book the earliest time slot of the day.
 
Finally, a truly unforgettable and unique food experience: Badboys Valley is perfect for a day trip. Hire a driver or rent a car with GPS, book a reservation at this wonderland, and get ready to enter the Mad Hatter’s house — if the Mad Hatter was a florist, artist, and collector of antiques. The 10-seat restaurant is located in the outskirts of town in the middle of a wild bamboo forest. The seven-course Thai-inspired menu is filled with whimsical textures, flavors and colors – using edible flowers grown in their garden, and locally and organically grown produce. At the end of the meal if space is available, ask to stay at one of their uniquely decorated guest rooms.