Looking for things to do in Chiang Mai? Read our expert guide to the best restaurants and foodie experiences in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s distinctive cooking region. When visiting Chiang Mai expect tom yum soups, roast ducks and sticky rice, and plenty of rich curries and broths.
Back in the 13th century Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Sandwiched between Burma to the west, Siam to the south, China to the north and Laos to the east, it was a tropical – and fertile – independent mountain state.
Over the centuries this ancient kingdom, with its Buddhist temples, towering teak forests and verdant vegetation, was fought over, invaded and eventually swallowed by Siam, which, in the middle of the 20th century, became Thailand. Today, what was once a remote mountain kingdom is, less romantically, the northern corner of Thailand.
Some things don’t change. Lanna means ‘land of a million paddy fields’ and the landscape is still swathed in a shimmering shawl of emerald green while, in the markets, stalls are stacked with sacks of rice. Sticky rice, or khao niaow, is to be pinched between your fingers and eaten with nam prik – spicy dipping sauces.
Unsurprisingly, Lanna cuisine is a melting pot of flavours. The typical central and southern Thai staples of coconut milk and palm sugar were not readily available in the highlands. Instead the larder was stocked with roots and shoots, snakes, wild game and grubs from the jungle, the signature flavours sour and earthy.
Even the rice here dances to its own tune. “Sticky rice is soaked overnight then cooked in steam, not water,” chef Thiwawan – “call me Yiu” – tells me as we meander around the smart San Sai market. The clear white grains are what we would think of as normal rice, she explains; the short, fat, creamy grains are sticky rice. “You can also get black sticky rice. There are more vitamins in the black shell, but not everyone likes the crunchy texture.”
I am staying at the Dhara Dhevihotel, on the outskirts of the city, and have signed up for a morning market visit and cookery class. The resort sprawls over 60 carefully landscaped acres, its ornate architecture a medley of the region’s rich cultural heritage from Chinese to colonial, Burmese to Lanna.
It has an air of Disneyland about it, modelled on an ancient Thai city complete with palace, temples, lakes, moat and magnificent gateways. It’s part luxury resort, part living museum with a craft village and traditional wooden rice barns, alongside high-gabled teak and brick villas, and suites peppered throughout the paddy fields.
Some of the more rustic wooden villas huddle around a kitchen garden while guests can sign up for a rice-planting class in the paddy fields – the vegetables and rice grown at the resort are donated to local monks and the needy. The vegetables for the hotel come from Royal Project Thailand, an organic farm diversification project set up by the late king to help hill farmers switch away from growing poppies for opium production.
Back on the market visit, Yiu explains how central a role the market plays in Thai culture. “You do your shopping here, meet your friends, eat, even go to the barber – the market is where it all happens.”
As we stroll she points out young jackfruit, small bird’s-eye chillies, two types of garlic… “Thai garlic is tiny and very strong. We fry it and eat the skin too. Coriander is sold with the root on – that’s the best part. Chilli jam and Thai chilli paste are the secret ingredients in tom yum soup. Fish sauce is our main seasoning.” Ready-made bundles of herbs (kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and chilli) for the soup are tied together on another stall.
A pungent smell emanates from a bucket of gloopy grey shellfish. “Those are pickled blue crabs from the rivers and rice fields. We put them in raw papaya salad with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime and peanuts.”
The closed bud of what looks like a giant purple tulip is a banana flower, and is used as an ingredient in curries. At another stall a yellow watermelon catches my eye. “That’s honey watermelon. It’s less sweet but crunchier than traditional watermelon.” Bags of coconut cream line another counter, while a giant mangle squeezes piles of grated coconut. “The first press is the cream, then water is added for the second to produce coconut milk.”
Back at the Dhara Dhevi I don an apron in the cookery school kitchen. We’re making lunch, including tom kha khai (coconut soup with chicken and galangal – sometimes called Thai ginger). We chop the lemongrass diagonally so that more of the aroma is released into the soup. Heating the chicken stock, the lemongrass, galangal and torn kaffir lime leaves are added, then the chicken thighs. Next we add the coconut milk, mushrooms and chilli, fish sauce, fresh lime juice and sweet chilli paste. It’s so simple, sweet and spicy, and catches the back of my throat as I slurp greedily from the spoon.
After a few days on the outskirts of Chiang Mai I move to a boutique hotel within the ancient city walls. The leafy branches of a 200-year-old tamarind tree cast dappled shade over the courtyard garden of the Tamarind Villagehotel. So close to the 700-year-old Wat Umong temple that you can hear monks chanting in the morning and evening, the building design is based on the traditional Lanna style, with low-slung whitewashed walls and dark timber set around a cluster of courtyards.
The approach, through a rustling bamboo corridor, takes you from the screeching, swerving, exhaust-billowing, tuk-tuk-crammed streets into a tranquil oasis – where tamarind suffuses everything from the spa treatments (the signature tamarind paste scrub) to the restaurant menu.
For dinner I flip-flop down to the Ruen Tamarind restaurant, which spills out onto the poolside. The appetisers are a food stylist’s dream: pretty sesame soft-shell crab tempura with a chilli, lime and sweet and sour tamarind dip, and bite-sized miang chaploo tuna, moreish mouthfuls of fragrant fish, lemongrass, shallots, ginger and lime in herb leaf parcels crowning mini shot glasses. Ua nor mai is a seasonal local delicacy of tender deep fried bamboo shoots stuffed with minced pork, chilli and lemongrass, the young sprouts packed with vitamins.
For the mains I tuck into pan-fried tom yum goong (seared tiger prawns) topped with tangy chilli paste and seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, shallots, fresh lime juice and roughly chopped cashew nuts; and gaeng ped yang linchee, succulent slices of roast duck and lychee in a fiery red curry sauce. Desserts of juicy slices of mango, creamy coconut ice cream and sweet sticky rice are too tempting to resist.
The next morning I’m up early to join the hotel’s daily village walk, which takes in a handful of local temples from Wat Pan Tao, constructed from an 18th-century wooden palace, to Wat Chedi Luang, which dates from the 15th century and once housed the Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok’s Grand Palace). There are around 36 temples in Chiang Mai the guide tells me. And, at times, it feels like as many markets and bazaars.
After the temple tour I wander wide-eyed for an hour or so around the indoor Warorot market hall before hungrily grabbing lunch in its basement food hall, tucking into a bowl of khao soi, a rich curry and coconut broth with egg noodles and chicken, a wedge of lime and shallots on the side.
We start at the stalls threading along the pavement at Chang Phuak Gate, on the northern edge of the old city. The air is heavy with the aroma of pork meatballs and chicken smoking on makeshift grills, and groups of hungry diners chatter as they wander from stall to stall.
I spot a sizzling coil of Chiang Mai pork sausage on a barbecue. Flavoured with lemongrass and coriander, it’s fiery and fragrant. As the light fades we join the crowd queuing at a cart on the side of the road. It’s Chang Mai’s famous Cowgirl, brandishing a cleaver and working her way through a huge pile of pork. Grabbing a seat at a table nearby we place our order. The mound of meat comes with rice and a boiled egg – hearty and wholesome.
We then weave through the streets to the stalls at Chiang Mai Gate. It’s not all Lanna cuisine. There are Chinese dishes and spicy Isaan classics from north-eastern Thailand. Even stalls selling Japanese sushi, gyoza and noodles. But then, that’s nothing new. Chiang Mai has always been at the heart of a cultural – and culinary – crossroads.