The song and dance of Chiang Mai is one of great wonder and comfortable familiarity. As the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand it’s easy, for example, to confuse a stroll through the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood with one through cozy Bushwick, Brooklyn. Dreamy, calm streets are lined with cafés, bars, vintage shops and restaurants. Yet idyllic temples, elephant sanctuaries and hot springs are a short motorcycle ride into the mountains on the outskirts of town. The juxtaposition isn’t confusing though; instead it’s refreshing to see a bustling city and calming forest effortlessly coexisting.
The “Land of Smiles” mantra shouts loudly in Chiang Mai; everywhere you step, kind and smiling people wait to feed you with vats of Khao Soi along the streets. Authentic food markets line the edge of the old city, which is moated and still has remnants of the old gate. In one neighborhood you can smell the durian being sold before you see it. In another, breakfast is prepared for you by a smiling woman in a fedora. But the westernized city has managed to hold tight to its culture. Take a walk through the backstreets and you’ll find a city that is still steadily Thai.
Sit a While Café
Found by accident in an attempt to escape the humidity, Sit a While café felt like we’d walked into the host’s small apartment kitchen. Appropriately named, the snug café has a small menu of breakfast and brunch items—from coffee and teas to stuffed brioche and traditional American toast and eggs. The ambiance was quirky and surprising as we watched our breakfast being made on a hot plate next to the cash register.
6/15-16 Nimmanhaemin Road
Rustic & Blue
This charming tea shop and restaurant was another accidental stumble (this is my advice: leisurely stroll through a neighborhood of choice and pop in and out of places based on how you feel). Rustic & Blue is covered in hanging plants and boasts a wall full of loose-leaf tea, not to mention a fresh herb garden outside, where the chef regularly steps out to grab garnishes for his dishes. Our chorizo and tomato salad was sprinkled with homemade goat cheese from the Rustic & Blue farm, where the restaurant hosts monthly farm dinners just north of the city. Meals are curated based on the season and prepared and served on a farm table accompanied by live music.
Soi 7, Nimmanhaemin Road
L’opera French Bakery
On a street lined with brick or white walls, L’opera is impossible to miss in its painted bright yellow suit. Christopher Vaguener is a French baker who traveled from Los Angeles to Vietnam making pastries and bread. He now owns the shop in Chiang Mai with his wife and bakes nearly every item in the bakery himself. I had the flakiest croissant, which is no small feat given how humid Thailand is.
98/7 Sridonchai Road
As westernized as Chiang Mai is there are moments when you forget you’re in Asia; but as soon as you step into the old city and through the South Gate, smells and textures rain down. Authentic Thai street food, bright blue prawns grilling on hot coals, salt-cured whole fish, sticky rice in every booth, and organized clutter for multiple city blocks—this is an experience for all of your senses. You have made a grave mistake if you leave this market without eating Khao Soi. The spicy coconut broth, curry paste, pickled mustard greens, egg noodles and sometimes even a full chicken leg is only available in the Northern regions, and the market is crawling with different versions. The market sells fresh fruits and vegetables during the daytime, but it truly comes to life at night as the sun sets and the air cools. If you are looking to cap your day in Chiang Mai with an array of dishes there is no better place.
Chiang Mai South Gate