Chiang Mai – what’s it all about…
Rose of the North, backpacker heaven, destination for Westerners looking for fun… which is it? The answer of course, is all of these things and more; a lot more.
Chiang Mai panorama – from Doi Suthep, click to view larger image (opens in a new window).
Chiang Mai is a big city, with a resident population of about 160,000 in the central area and about a million if you count the outlying areas. The city draws in over 5 million visitors a year – including many Bangkok residents who come here for the Christmas/ New Year period to enjoy the ‘cold weather’. Increasingly tourism is coming from China, some of it fuelled by a Chinese film featuring Chiang Mai – Lost in Thailand – which just after release was the biggest grossing Chinese film ever. That’s a lot of people and they need a lot of entertaining, here’s a few ideas… The city divides in to 4 principal areas:
- Nimmanheimin Rd
- The Old Town
- The Night Market
- East of the river
On a first walk down this road you might wonder what all the fuss is about, its certainly not as smart as some of the publicity would have you believe. The problem is that much of the activity is time based (evening) and even day based, if you are here at the wrong time you will miss it. The other issue is that, probably more than anywhere else in Chiang Mai, this is an area of Soi… Soi are side streets, and in Nimmanheimin they are where most of the action is – so don’t think of it as just the main road, but rather the area. Nimmanheimin is also the closest bar area to the Chiang Mai University and gets that crowd too. Start with Soi 9 (which seems to be coffee central) 11, 13 for restaurants and bars.
Old Town/ within the moat
The old town is surprisingly large, and completely enclosed by the moat. The fact that this structure is 700 years old gives you some idea how big the city must have been even back then; you don’t build unnecessarily large structures as they are harder to defend. Some of the oldest and most important temples are in the old town, including Wat Pra Singh, but the area is very varied with a mix of residential, schools, shops and hotels. Tourist facilities (hotels and restaurants) are scattered across the old town, bu there are concentrations around the southern side of the old town – just inside Chiang Mai Gate (where Wualai Rd meets the moat). The bottom right hand corner (inside the moat) has a few late night bars and eating places too, several of these are very popular with Thais – local or otherwise. On the north east side of the old town is Moon Muang Soi 6, which has a local market and is a bit hippie/ backpacker. There are some very good and reasonably priced restaurants here. Late night bars for a similar crowd can be found nearby at Rathviti Rd – start with Zoe in Yellow. One of the most popular nights in the old town is the Sunday Walking Market held on Rachadamnern Rd – which is essentially the night market (see below), but on a one night a week basis…
There do seem to be some different traders at the Sunday Walking Market, and the atmosphere is more ‘market like’ – probably because of the temporary nature. Lots of food stands can be found at the start of the street – in the square just outside the city wall, as well as several spots along the road – notably, in the temple complexes.
Special mention to the ladies at Wat Sum Pow, who operate a massage parlour just inside the gates (many temples do). This bunch are great fun, and you will not escape their attentions once you have caught their eye. The temple across the road from here turns into a food court as well, so you can wander about snacking and ringing bells and banging gongs to your hearts content; this is a working temple though and respect should be afforded – many people seem to overlook this fact.
The area from the old town to the night market area is stuffed with cheap hotels and backpacker facilities; nothing wrong with that if its what you need. Loi Kroh at the moat end, is the centre of the ‘hostess bar business’, and it calms down as you head away from the moat. By the time you have passed Chang Clan (night market central) you are in to theme bars: Bavarian (complete with Thai staff in Bavarian outfits) and English pubs. Press on a bit further towards and you get to the Rasta bar; Loi Kroh is certainly eclectic.
The night market is exactly what a far eastern street market should be: everything from fake designer goods to pirate DVDs for about a quid (and yes they do work fine) – with everything in between. You need to know your prices, because this lot certainly do, and the usual haggling laws apply.
At the centre of the night market is a food court which is actually quite good, and exceptional value; plates are available from about 30 bht up to 60 bht depending on your choice, and a couple of these dishes is a meal. They operate a voucher system, buy some at the cashier desk and hand them over to the individual stalls instead of money. Surplus vouchers can be cashed in, but only on the same day. Each stall has its own speciality so go ahead and mix and match.
East of the river
On the east side of the river Ping there is a slew of fashionable bars, restaurants and galleries; mainly based along the riverside road (Charoen Raj) between the Nakornping and Nawarat bridges. I have given more coverage to this part of town as its where I stayed longest and so I know it best. Whilst it has some of the more pricey restaurants they are very good value for money. This area is also very popular with locals and visiting Thais. If you visit Chiang Mai you should come to this area at least once, as it will completely change your perception of what the town is about.
Gallery Restaurant – Thai/ Western. Charoenraj Rd. Voted best restaurant in Thailand a few years ago and still very good. Of all the places along this strip this would have to be my favourite. Looks like a shop when you first go in (for there is indeed stuff for sale), but press on through and you get to dining rooms and a garden going down to the riverside. Really good selection of menu items, with some Thai traditional dishes that I didn’t see elsewhere. Staff very friendly, food excellent and fairly priced (this is one of the more expensive places, but worth it), highly recommended.
Riverside and CR12 (across the road) – Thai/ Western. The branch on the riverside features live music starting off with Eagles style covers and then getting a bit pop/ rockier as the night progresses. Weekend nights (especially Sunday) can get very loud and packed with a young, predominately Thai crowd – swilling Jack Daniels or Absolut something or other. The food is good, but the place does suffer from the perennial eastern problem of dish timing – anything you ordered can come at any time – and frankly it shouldn’t, not in a place like this; on more than one occasion I had to cancel dishes I just didn’t want any more.
Good View – This place is currently holding the crown for busiest place in the area (probably in CM). It is a restaurant but with very much the feel of a bar. Live entertainment every night and its loud, very loud… I stay about 500m away and I can tell every song. On weekends and in peak season you will need to book to get in, queues outside are frequent at busy times. The food here is OK, nothing great, but that’s not what this place is about – it’s a party bar and best attended with a crowd. To be honest I find it a bit exhausting.
Vieng Joom On – A little further on from the Gallery and the Brasserie is this tea house. Open in the morning until about 7.00pm. Although very much aimed at tourists and quite expensive (some prices outdo London) this is a real treat, lovely tea shop at the front, leading through to gardens on the riverside where afternoon tea, cakes and tropical fruit dishes are served.
Arcoba Leon – Italian. Soi 1, Kaeo Nawarat. (First road back from the main riverside drive). Unlikely location, but popular with locals and visitors, I’m never sure what Italian food is anyway (500+ regional cuisines looking for an identity), but they did a passable Caesar Salad (American) and some nice grilled fish. Reasonable wine prices too.
Hinlay Curry House – Soi 1, Nha WatkateRd, (Next door to Sakorn Residence). Another unlikely location, but a great little restaurant in what seems to be someone’s front garden. Small menu, but with good vegetarian selection. Good prices, friendly staff, highly recommended.
Comedara – Thai/ Northern. Charoenraj Rd, not far from the Nakornping Bridge. Round the back of the Colonial House Art Gallery and slightly hidden; although not hidden quite enough as far as I’m concerned… Poor service and food. Spring Roll starter was definitely from the freezer ‘Value Range’, I can’t comment on the main course, because it never came. The accompanying spinach and rice would probably have been alright if warm, as warm as the beer perhaps… Lots of staff running about, but chaotic. No apology or anything like that. Summary: avoid or AYOR.
Other places on the east of the river
Hiding in plain sight – Further north from the places above (heading towards the Nakhorn Ping bridge) there are some riverside local Thai restaurants. Food and prices are great, but they are tricky to find as they are accessed via narrow and unlit alleyways. One such alleyway is opposite Sop Moi Arts, you will scarcely believe what you find when you get to the riverside after such an unpromising entrance: 4 or 5 restaurants packed with locals at weekends. Some of the menus are only in Thai, so a Thai speaking friend is useful, but the staff are all friendly and helpful. Highly recommended, one of my favourite areas.
On the south section of the riverside, between Nawara Bridge and the Iron Bridge are a good selection of lunchtime bars (fast food but oriental), these are very popular with Thai business people and good value. There is also a US style restaurant (Dukes’s, there are a few in CM) which features Pizza if you need one. There is a Rimping supermarket by the Iron Bridge on the east side of the river – sells just about everything you could need, bit like Waitrose.
Other areas in Chiang Mai
Central Airport Plaza – Toward the airport is this large mall, its fine if you need western stuff, they even have a Boots Chemists. The Aeon bank in here avoids 150 Bht transaction fee that other banks seem to charge – hardly worth the trip, but if you are going anyway look out for it on the 3rd floor.
Warorot – real Thai market. You may not be the only westerner there but there won’t be many. Quite chaotic, but great fun (I spent hours wandering round here) and you can get anything from clothes, to herbs, to flower arrangements, to fresh fruit – loved it.
Malls, Malls, Malls… Chiang Mai is going mall crazy; over the last year Central Festival and Promenada malls have opened (to the east) and Maya is due to open January 2014 (corner of Superhighway and Huay Keow). The attraction of a mall environment is obvious: air con, modern setting etc, but you could be anywhere in the world… When I first visited Central Festival it was like a weird flashback to Birmingham England, they even have a Marks & Spencer. Some of the malls have quite spectacular settings and design and the cinemas are good – up to you I guess… they have some benefits, but it’s a shame to see the world become so uniform.
Sakorn Residence was my home on a few stays (some for months), however you should pick based on length of stay, facilities and location. I was happy to be slightly out of the centre when I was here for months, but if your stay is short a more central location might suit better. If you are planning a long stay then a serviced apartment might be a better bet – there are lots available and excellent value can be found (good selection from 6,000 Bht, for 9,000 expect pool etc).
Lila Thai Massage – excellent prices and you will be helping society; run by ex convicts… Fah Lanna Massage – 2 venues, I frequent the Night Market branch, great prices and service. The staff always seem happy here, so they must be being looked after, this is important to me as some places are downright miserable and it does put a downer on the experience if that’s the case.
And finally (for now), I make loads of web Posts whilst in Chiang Mai; have a look under the Category ‘Chiang Mai’ over on the right hand side above and these supplementary pages: