Chiang Mai, the cultural gem of northern Thailand, beckons with its rich heritage, vibrant markets, and captivating landscapes. It’s probably most famous for its historic Old City, which is surrounded by ancient walls and moats, preserving its many picturesque temples, quaint lanes, and lively night markets.
While the city has many areas, each with their own attractions, most visitors tend to concentrate either in the riverside area or within the Old City. Located along the picturesque Ping River, the riverside blends the old and new charms of the city with high rise buildings, while the Old City is home to Chiang Mai’s historic temples and low-rise shop houses. Another area that’s becoming popular with travellers is Nimman, which is known for its modern, hipster vibe.
No matter which part you choose to base yourself in, Chiang Mai is known for its welcoming locals and laid-back vibe, which are a big part of the overall charm of the destination. And while the city offers a myriad of reasons to visit, one particularly enticing aspect is its extraordinary culinary scene.
Eating in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai was once the cultural centre of the Lanna Kingdom, and today the local Lanna cuisine reflects the unique culinary traditions of this region. Lanna dishes often incorporate fragrant herbs and spices, and you’ll find specialties like Gaeng Hanglay (pork curry), Sai Oua (Chiang Mai sausage), and Kaeng Kradang (herbal soup).
You can sample all of these dishes on a khantoke, a low round table where the dishes are served in small bowls, usually accompanied by a dance performance. This is a cultural and culinary tradition that offers a unique way to enjoy a meal, Lanna style.
Aside from Lanna cuisine, the most famous local specialty is probably Khao Soi (rice noodles in thick curry, topped with crispy noodles), which has its roots dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s said to have emerged from the culinary traditions of Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan who travelled along the spice route.
Don’t forget to check out Chiang Mai’s many night markets for food as well. From the bustling Chiang Mai Night Bazaar to the popular Sunday Walking Street, you can sample various local delicacies at affordable prices, like skewered meats, fresh fruit smoothies, grilled seafood, and other street food. There are also many other different night markets that pop up on specific days, in specific locations. Many of these specialise in specific items, from affordable handicrafts to tribal garments, all alongside mouth-watering street food.
For a one-stop-shop, Warorot Market is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest and most famous markets that sells everything from food to flowers and household items. It has an old-school Chinese Thai feel to it, as the area it’s in is known as Chiang Mai’s little Chinatown (it even has a Chinatown gate).
This bustling market is a treasure trove for food enthusiasts. Here, you’ll find a huge variety of local delicacies and traditional snacks, including Thai desserts like Kanom Krok (coconut rice pancakes), dried fruits, roasted nuts, and savoury snacks – including deep-fried bamboo worms – which many vendors will let you sample for free.
It’s also a place where visitors from other parts of Thailand come to buy specialty curry pastes from Northern Thailand, as well as preserved meats (ie. sausages) and crispy pork rinds. The market is open from 4am to 6pm, and by the evening, Warorot is known for its food vendors that set up along the road, just outside the market.
Warorot Market is located in the centre of town in the riverside part of Chiang Mai, which is also where the sprawling Night Bazaar is located. If you’re planning to explore this part of town, Melia Chiang Mai is a new 5-star hotel with a rooftop bar boasting stunning 360º views of Chiang Mai. Located near the Ping River, it’s also conveniently right next to the Night Bazaar where you can enjoy local delicacies.
Dining in Chiang Mai isn’t just about traditional food. You can also find modern takes on traditional Thai cuisine in places like Blackitch in Chiang Mai’s trendy Nimman district.
Chef Black adapts local flavours in his decadent, 10-course meal, which deconstructs familiar Thai recipes into unique, flavourful dishes. You can also pair your meal with local tipples like homemade sake and beer, all curated and/or brewed by Chef Black himself.
If you love coffee, then Chiang Mai is a great place to sample local organic beans and brews. Coffee beans are grown around the hills surrounding the city, mostly by local tribes who have found an alternative way of earning a living through cultivating and selling coffee beans, even running their own cafes.
Chiang Mai has plenty of interesting cafes that serve “cofftails” – or “coffee cocktails” – these are alcohol-free coffee concoctions blended with local ingredients and flavours. For example, you can find cofftails with everything from orange juice to charcoal foam, coconut cream, Himalayan salt, and more. Many of Chiang Mai’s cafes are also worthy of an Instagram trip, as the interiors are as charming as their concoctions. No matter where you’re based in Chiang Mai, you can find interesting cafes to pique your interest.
Lanna: the story of rice
Lanna literally means “the kingdom of a million rice fields,” and Chiang Mai is known for cultivating several varieties of local rice, including Khao Dawk Mali (Jasmine rice) and Khao Niao (glutinous rice). That’s because the northern region of Thailand enjoys the advantages of fertile soils, ample sunshine, and a significant amount of rainfall during the growing seasons.
The cultivation and consumption of rice are also deeply rooted in Chiang Mai’s culture. Rice is not only a source of sustenance but also an integral part of festivals, ceremonies, and religious offerings, and even courtship. There are traditional dances that are choreographed to encourage young men and women to dance and flirt with each other while they work on harvesting the rice – it’s sort of like a rice-harvest-Tinder.
With such a long, storied history, it’s no surprise that rice makes frequent appearances in Chiang Mai’s street food scene, from Khao Soi (rice noodles) to Sai Oua, which is often served with sticky rice. And while Thailand is famous for its Jasmine rice, glutinous rice is the dietary staple that defines Northern Thailand’s culinary identity – it pairs incredibly well with the region’s tart, spicy salads, sausages, and huge variety of pungent chilli pastes.
Sticky rice is steamed and served as an essential accompaniment to almost every meal. Diners tear off small pieces and shape them by hand as a tool for dipping and scooping up sauces and meats. In fact, an order of a local Lanna specialty will usually come with a serving of sticky rice, which is often served in small, round woven baskets.
Rice is also used to make fermented noodles, called Khanom Jeen, which is a popular Northern Thai staple that pairs well with the huge variety of curries and sauces that the region is famous for. These are usually accompanied by fresh, local vegetables.
Working the paddy fields
For a more hands-on experience with rice, you can head to Ginger Farm, located just a short drive from Chiang Mai. This eco-tourism attraction began life as a small rice field, but has since expanded to include an organic vegetable garden and petting zoo where you can feed farm animals like goats and rabbits. You can even pet the friendly water buffalo.
Perhaps the most interesting activity here is either their rice planting (in April/May) or harvesting (October/November) workshops. Before you start, you’ll don a mor hom—a traditional Thai farmer’s indigo outfit—and get knee-deep in mud as you engage in hands-on learning of how farmers plant and harvest their rice!
Afterwards, you can also have fun slipping down a mud slide, and learn more about the many types of rice that Thailand grows.
After a day in the fields, you can have lunch at the on-site restaurant which serves northern Thai cuisine using organic vegetables grown right on the farm. Ginger Farm also conducts cooking workshops and art classes.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Singapore via direct flights. AirAsia has daily return flights to Chiang Mai, and the flight time is about 3 hours. Chiang Mai International Airport is only 4km from the city centre, which takes about 10 minutes of travel time. Chiang Mai is also only an hour’s flight away from either of Bangkok’s airports (Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang), and plenty of airlines ply this route, including AirAsia.
Another interesting way of getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is via the relatively new overnight train – the journey takes about 13 hours. The train features 12 First Class rooms, each designed to accommodate two passengers comfortably. For more information on Chiang Mai, visit www.tourismthailand.sg.