Featured Image: The 46th Chiang Mai Flower Festival 2023, Parade Float
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 8 March 2023
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 8 March 2023
Articles in the series on food and restaurants in Chiang Mai are: 1 Akha Tribal Food, 2 Pho Vieng Chane, 3 Khao Soy, 4 French & Italian Restaurants, 5 Airport Plaza, 6 Update 2017, 7 Update 2023. Another article is about What Travel Costs in Chiang Mai, part of another memorable series.
2023 Food in Chiang Mai Update
Tourism, Marijuana and Food
Certainly, it is time for an update on Chiang Mai. I was last there in 2018 — other travel then Covid-19 got in the way. In 2023 we spent two weeks in Chiang Mai in January/February. Three highlights of this visit were:
- Birding. In many previous trips to Thailand we’d never involved ourselves in discovering Thailand’s amazing bird species;
- We’d met Ron Simpson and Panya (Toy) Suwan previously through our Akha friends Phennapha and Phing Phing but we’d never been in Chiang Mai for their annual antique textiles (mainly Chinese and tribal) exhibition. In 2023 we were actually present for their Dragon and Phoenix Exhibition near Wat Ket and bought some Hmong (Miao) cloth and two bracelets.
- We also attended the 46th annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival 2023 and parade from 3-5 February for the first time, which was fascinating. The parade begins at 8 am Saturday from the railway station, crosses Narawat bridge and proceeds up to and circuits the old city to the park. The floats, flower displays and stalls then remain at Nong Buak Haad Park until the festival ends on Sunday.
Times were tough for Chiang Mai and all Thailand because of Covid and because of the reliance of the Thai economy on tourism. Many shops, tourist venues and restaurants closed temporarily or permanently. Australian visas on arrival in Thailand are normally 30 days. From October 2022 to March 2023 a token by the government has extended them to 45 days. It gave us a few extra days on a month.
The Thais say that things began to improve from July 2022 and were good now. I doubt that as on the beaches of the west coast, Krabi and Ko Lanta, numbers were well down on normal. Similarly, in Chiang Mai. And, although parts of Bangkok appeared crowded — Chinatown after 6pm, Soi 4 Nana and a few other places at specific times, elsewhere wasn’t. The malls seemed relatively devoid of foreigners.
The biggest change in Thailand and in Chiang Mai has been the legalisation of marijuana. There are Cannabis shops everywhere in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Though they are mostly empty much of the time.
We were alerted to this on the way over by a Queenslander, who is mainly interested in medical problems, his own and others and has partnered with a Thai family of farmers in Chiang Mai. He has a retail outlet in Chiang Mai called Elephant Express. He’s only been in the business for five months but has researched assiduously. He has great hopes for legalisation in Australia soon.
We also met another American businessman with a perhaps wider involvement in the industry. He said that many of the top growers and some large corporations were actively involved in Chiang Mai already, but admitted at present marijuana in Chiang Mai was like the wild west.
In these early days, the government perhaps with pressure from various groups may close things down once more, especially as there is an election in May and the issue has become highly politicised.
Population and Tourism
The population of Chiang Mai and Chiang Mai province has increased. The estimated population of the city remained a ridiculously low number for years. Wikipedia estimates the city population as about 1.2 million (or 66% of the province, which totals 1.8 million). However, the central city area, say that area bounded by the old city, the river, the foot of the mountain Doi Sutep, the airport, all joined with an arbitrary eastern boundary, has a small city feel to it. I think of this part Chiang Mai as not being much more populated than Canberra where I live.
Tourism hasn’t quite come back to Chiang Mai, many establishments have folded, there are many vacant shops. Chinese tourism hasn’t come back yet, even though Yunan is only a day’s drive.
However, the big change during Covid has been the influx of Chinese permanent residents buying up land. My friend Mike says his village or development area (east of the airport), which had many vacant blocks has doubled in size during Covid, all Chinese with plenty of money. Perhaps, a strong reaction to Covid lockdowns in China, by those who could afford it.
Traffic has certainly increased but is quite manageable outside the 4-6pm peak hour. An earlier problem was inexperienced Chinese drivers causing accidents. This may be on the way up again, who knows. Motorcycle hire was supposedly difficult this year but warned by my friend Mike, after no success online, my hotel Sakorn Residence friends booked a motorcycle for me well in advance. But, when tourism reaches previous levels perhaps the traffic will become difficult.
The police in Chiang Mai were back to their old check point strategy, the roads around the old city and Nawarat Bridge are favourite spots. Helmets, your foreign motorcycle licence and an International Driving Permit are required. The police may well be worried about road safety, but previous experience bribing traffic police in Chiang Mai and the fact that International Driving Permits are required nowhere else in Thailand, makes me cynical. There is a current scandal in Bangkok over a famous Taiwanese actress and her friends being forced to pay money to police, but I doubt that much will change.
Riding bicycles is popular with tourists around the old city. But, you do need to be competent and careful.
Many restaurants have closed down and many new ones have started. Most of those that I’ve written about previously are still open, but not all. There seem to quite a number of new top end or expensive restaurants and prices have gone up in general, but not excessively.
Going back over my food articles, I have realised and it became obvious again this trip that when you are travelling, you are not interested in top end restaurants, unless you’ve geared your trip around going to some. We don’t take clothes with us to dine out in fancy restaurants. Alhough that doesn’t matter so much in Asia. It is nice to dress up and go out on special occasions and should we live in any of the cities we travel to, then things would be different.
Hence, I am not and will not seek out top end restaurants in any of my reviews of food and restaurants. That said I want to spend much of my time in Chiang Mai deciding where to eat and sampling new things. Chiang Mai is a gourmet city and food is one of its many attractions. I also want to slip in some extra places to eat wherever possible.
Another thing has changed enormously, since I began to write about where to eat in Chiang Mai. Where once I had to rely on Nancy Chandler’s maps and my own explorations, nowadays there are excellent private blogs, online magazines and food articles on all aspects of Thai food that it is easy to find excellent information and opinions without effort. And, Google maps makes finding places easy.
Thank God, I can avoid Trip Advisor and similar sites entirely, I’m sick of the mediocre food ratings and lowest common denominator reviews on these sites. Time Out is useful occasionally. (I’ll provide links to some good blogs in my street food article.)
One problem with this ease of access to the good oil is that certain restaurants particularly at the street food end have become de rigeur and too popular. This is particularly true of Chinatown in Bangkok, where the crowds and queues after 6pm are ridiculous. This is fortunately less true of Chiang Mai so far.
I’ll also offer my own alternative comments to some of the popular or best suggestions in my street food article. I’ve changed some of my attitudes towards food as well.
3 My articles on Food in Chiang Mai
On this trip, I tried to get around to all the restaurants in my previous articles, but we were sick with a bad cold for several days, which limited opportunities. We also went on a guided food tour, which broadened my horizons and which I’ll cover in the separate article on street food. We also discovered birds in Thailand for the first time and spent much time birding, which also limited our time for food exploration.
My favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Chiang Mai, Pho Vieng Chane has sadly closed. Another Ya Ya Dumplings, a quirky place run by a Chinese family, in an unusual development called Chiang Mai land also appears to have closed for good.
I followed Nancy Chandler with ‘khao soy’ but no one else spells it this way any more so I’ll change to khao soi, similarly in Bangkok klong has become khlong and I’ll begin to follow the trend.
My original article on Khao Soy in 2015 with a 2017 update, provides a good description of what khao soi is all about and some of the main places to go. My 2017 Update adds some new information on the khao soi story. The Hainanese chicken place mentioned in both articles is still going strong and hasn’t changed. Street food and small down-market restaurants, including most khao soi places, that specialise in only one thing are always family concerns and, as long as they have survived for years, don’t change much.
Most of the travel blogs referred to say Khao Soi Khun Yai is the best khao soi in Chiang Mai.
The directions there are usually vague and despite its simple location and signs on the street, it can be hard to find. If you go out the North Gate, turn left (along Sri Proom Road) and walk past the mirror wat and the horse wat (Wat Khuan Khama) cross the tiny lane and the restaurant is directly behind the wall beside you. Enter through the gateway. (Google maps has the location right too and is another powerful change since I started writing about food in Chiang Mai.)
We finally made it for the first time, just before Khao Soi Khun Yai closed for the day on this trip. They were full. They’d run out of the chicken khao soi and we had to have pork. I must admit the khao soi was excellent and the restaurant deserves its reputation. The khao soi was really good a cut above most. The downside of Khao Soi Khun Yai is that they only serve khao soi with some pickled vegetable on the side.
You therefore miss the Thai experience of the khao soi lunch. Khao soi places are only open for lunch. I mentioned in the first article:
The Thais love to eat khao soi as a communal lunch, with fellow office workers, colleagues or family. I remember once going to Lamduan Khao Soi and being halted on the road by a junior policeman who was stopping traffic so that three vehicles of senior police could back into the parking area across the road. Then he helped me to cut across the traffic into the same parking area.
As a lone Westerner (or sometimes as a couple), I usually miss out on the range of food available. But, occasionally when seated at a table with a group of Thai strangers, they’ll often offer you a taste of everything. It’s a great way to eat.
With khao soi one eats a range of other side dishes, such as sate, Chiang Mai sausage, grilled meats, cellophane noodle salads, vegetables and other things. You eat sitting at stainless steel tables on plastic stools.
Oyster salad (too hot for me), raw garlic cloves and fresh birds-eye chillis, I don’t eat.
Eating at Khao Soi Khun Yai one misses out on the khao soi cultural experience that one gets at the larger open-air places along Charoen Rat Road beside the river. These are Khao Soi Lamduan Fah Ham on the right (the owner used to cook for royalty) and a few hundred metres up on the left the Smer Jai Khao Soi.
Calling Khao Soi Khun Yai the best khao soi in Chiang Mai is a big call. I think their khao soi is better than the two big places on the river mentioned above, but one misses out on the whole experience.
Khao Soi Khun Yai is also easier to reach for most tourists, because it is within the walls of the old city of Chiang Mai. However, there are hundreds of family run khao soi places in Chiang Mai and the locals swear to the ones they like.
I mentioned Mike took us to the excellent Khao Soi place Humkrun on the highway at the end of the airport in my 2017 update but that only lasted a year. Ron and Toy (see above) recommended a place in the Muslim quarter not far from our hotel, but we didn’t quite make it.
The hotel we always stay at is the Sakorn Residence near Wat Ket Karam, across the river from the Wararot market. (We discovered several restaurants which were new or that we hadn’t been to in walking distance of our hotel.)
Phing Phing on our last trip in 2018 recommended a couple of other khoa soi places too.
One warning though, if you are in a Thai restaurant with a large menu that has khao soi as one choice, it is unlikely to be as good as khao soi from a restaurant that specialises in khao soi.
French and Italian Restaurants
French and Italian Restaurants
I am having to revise my views on restaurants in Chiang Mai. There are many more Italian restaurants in Chiang Mai than when I started writing. I always meant to go to Da Antonio which is still open but never made it, perhaps slightly more expensive than those I did recommend.
Of the four I have discussed only Giorgio has closed, which I am not disappointed by as I always had mixed feelings about Giorgio.
Arcobaleno means rainbow in Italian and is meant to imply the colour of taste. Arcobaleno is still going strong. What I like about it is that the food is always good and what you expect. I like the owner, the slightly grumpy but kind head waiter, the staff the atmosphere and the overall ambience of the place. It is very popular with expats, those working in Chiang Mai at NGOs and with wealthy Thais.
In particular, I like that it is only a five minute walk from Sakorn Residence where we stay. We found several new options and places we’d missed previously all within a few minutes walk of Sakorn, can’t imagine why anyone would stay anywhere else.
City Life says of Arcobaleno:
An incarnation of Chiang Mai’s oldest, and for decades most famous, restaurant Babylon, Arcobaleno is run by the late Babylon’s descendants and serves up some of Chiang Mai’s favourite Italian dishes.
The family-run vibe makes for a casual and friendly restaurant which values its clients, many of whom return year after year, decade after decade.
The handsome Italian chef on the wall is the father who owned Babylon. After his death his daughter opened Arcobaleno and still runs it. It is an institution.
We ate there twice and had two lovely meals with wine. Prices have gone up in general in Chiang Mai and our meals for two with wine cost us $66 and $48 AUD (1500 and 1100 Baht). The difference was mainly a larger carafe of wine but probably more expensive dishes too.
I read a negative review while researching what others think of Arcobaleno, which said the food didn’t match up with other Italian restaurants in the city (which I assumed meant near the walls). The head waiter asked if they had a reservation and seemed put out when they didn’t (he does that to me also, but always welcomes me back, even after five years). They didn’t like this and found the staff unfriendly. I’ve always found the opposite though most of the young staff and trainees don’t speak English. They found the decore tired and the food ordinary or not the Italian style they expected.
I can’t say I can disagree completely with any of this. The food is unique, different from other Italian restaurants. It is not flashy but is well-made and well-thought out. The decore is the same as its always been but has been smartened up a little recently. The head waiter is an acquired taste. And, like me, hundreds of others have been coming here and enjoying the ambience for decades.
Pulchinella da Stefano and La Fontana
We also ate at Pulchinella da Stefano but not at La Fontana, though we ate across the street from La Fontana. Stefano was as expected and I’m sure Fontana was as well.
I’m sure that there are better Italian restaurants in Chiang Mai but these are reliable old favourites. The latter are also in the central area within or near the walls and probably convenient for many tourists.
The French restaurants appear to have fared little better. Chez Daniel (the owner was old and had been talking of closing for years) and Cote Jardin (marginal for a long time) have closed.
Chez Marco hasn’t changed. It is the best mid-range French restaurant in the city. The food is terrific. It is always good. We had a wonderful meal here with wine and I’ll always go back whenever I am in Chiang Mai.
La Fourchette slightly more up-market is also an excellent French restaurant with slightly more classic dishes. We went past a few times, but didn’t have time to go there this trip. But, I’m sure it is the same and certainly worth going to.
We were diverted from the Franco-Thai Place, which is a few soi behind Wat Lok Moli, by the Chang Phuak street food night markets. The Franco-Thai Place is still going strong and is really a pub with a pleasant courtyard and cheap but good French style food.
Le Coq d’Or is a fine dining French restaurant in lovely surroundings. I wrote about it originally but it is among several expensive up-market French restaurants in Chiang Mai that, as explained above, I rarely feel like going to and am no longer interested in writing about.
We only went to Airport Plaza once on this trip. The mall seemed smarter than my memory and has been smartened up. There were a few empty spaces but the shops hadn’t changed much. Although Asia Books has closed (and appears to have moved to Maya Mall) and there didn’t seem to be any English bookshops.
I checked all the restaurants mentioned in my blog and they are still open and seem much the same and I suspect that they are. We dipped into the Kad Luang food hall in the basement but only for a drink and some fruit. It had had a big makeover. Nevertheless, though there were less stalls the food looked good and reasonably cheap and I’m sure it is.
Airport Plaza remains a good place to hang out, especially in hot weather. On the way out we went to a very Thai and thus weird dog expo in the large events hall to the left of the main exit.
We discovered a few other restaurants during our stay, most not far from our hotel near Wat Ket Karam, which are worth a visit. We were sick with a cold for five days, which limited our meeting with friends and getting out and about.
Wat Ket Karam area
Punn Toh a new northern Thai fusion restaurant in the old teak company area, where our textile friends stay, was very good and I look forward to going back. Kitchen Hush a Japanese Restaurant in an old teak house has been there for sometime and was pleasant (and Arcobaleno, of course).
Eddy’s coffee was good as usual. Forest Bake and café are next door, where Hinlay curry house used to be and are worth a visit. Bake and Bite is still going strong and is good for breakfast and lunch (a bit expensive if you are price sensitive). Ton Wah is worth a visit but was shut whilst we were there. There are a couple of small places in the muslim area including the good family khao soi recommended by Ron, but we lacked the time to visit.
We went to the Ban Rai Steakhouse but it was ordinary, though inexpensive. We also went to Good View for a drink one night, but it’s not our scene. Good View is mostly a music venue for young Thais.
Further along the river between the pedestrian bridge to Warorot Market and the Nakhon Phing Bridge are several eating drinking spots on the river. There are a couple of alleys to get down to them, but until you are on the walkway along the river you don’t know they exist. They are pleasant places to be in the early evening for a drink and a reasonable meal.
If you are walking down the river road from the pedestrian bridge just before you get to the Nakhon Phing Bridge there is a Thai place called Ancient Fried Pork on the left. It is popular with Thais for eating and drinking. It is cheap and cheerful and worth thinking about.
There is also an upmarket Italian restaurant along here called Patus Pasta, but we’ve not been.
Phing Phing and Phennapha, our Akha friends, took us to At Khua Lek (named after the iron bridge in the photo) a large but very pleasant restaurant on the River opposite Rim Ping Supermarket. It is very popular and we had a terrific northern Thai meal there at lunch.
I wouldn’t normally recommend a vegetarian restaurant but the Payod (or Paa Yawd) Shan restaurant is an excellent tribal Shan endeavour (from Burma) with good food.
Similarly, I’m not a huge fan of genuine Lanna food (often a bit-rich or over-the-top for me). Hence I’ve never been a fan of the Huen Pen Restaurant. A much better restaurant for such Lanna food in an old teak house is Laab Kai Meuang Waen on Bumrung Buri Soi 3 not that far from Chiang Mai Gate inside the old city (see Google maps).
And, a confession. As we recovered from our colds we felt we needed a hamburger. Rather than one of the usual American hamburger places we decided upon Fatimah Burger House near Kalare night market. Fatimah is in the middle of a small muslim quarter just up from the river on the city side. Coincidentally, our recovery was on a Friday and there were food and other stalls lining the soi and in the grounds of the mosque. The atmosphere in the street was pleasant and friendly. Fatimah burger House was a real find. The restaurant is a small open-fronted shop and the burger was excellent. More of an Australian burger than an American one. The patties were home made and served with salad.
Key Words: Food, Chiang Mai, Update, Restaurant update, 46th annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival 2023, Ron and Toy, Antique Textiles, Hmong, Miao, Phennapha and Phing Phing, street food, khao soi, Khao Soi Khun Yai, Khao Soi Lamduan Fah Ham, Smer Jai Khao Soi, Hainanese Chicken 1957, Arcobaleno, Pulcinella da Stefano, La Fontana, La Fourchette, Chez Marco, Airport Plaza, MK Restaurant, Oisho, Fuji, Kad Luang Lanna Food Hall, Wat Ket Karam, Punn Toh, Eddy’s Coffee, Forest Bake and café, Bake and Bite, Kitchen Hush, Ancient Fried Pork, Fatimah Burger House, At Khua Lek, iron bridge, Payod Shan Vegetarian, Laab Kai Meuang Waen, Nakhon Phing Bridge, Narawat Bridge, Wororot Market
The photograph of khao soi from Khao Soi Khun Yai is from Justgola because we missed the chicken khao soi.
We discovered Payod and Laab Kai Meuang Waen on a Chef’s tour of Chiang Mai. More about this later regarding street food.
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 8 March 2023
Posted in Canberra
Oh my goodness Tony. Such a cruel post to read just before our dinner of leftovers. Now I have to get to Chiang Mai to explore all these places. I wonder if the dog will still be in the backpack?
A very interesting read Tony, thanks.
Good to see you both ,pity we were all suffering after effects of colds/flu. Hopefully more things to see and do next time. Influenza A has been very active here, still lingering for some.