Insider’s guide to Chiang Mai

Author, speaker and storyteller Stu Lloyd has called Chiang Mai home for the last 10 years. Today, he shares his insider tips to the best food, coffee and things to do in the largest city in northern Thailand.

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1. What to see
They say if you haven’t visited Doi Suthep, then you haven’t been to the city of Chiang Mai, so venture up the windy mountain road to the ancient temple. Go a little further along the ridge and take in the Phu Ping Summer Palace with its rose gardens. The Ratchphruek Royal Gardens are also beautifully landscaped and lovely to walk through. The Sunday Night walking street market might be your thing, a place to check out the local woodcrafts, weavings and paintings.

2. What to avoid
April and May are deadly hot (you get no change out of 40ºC most days). The only redeeming feature is a very lively and active Songkran water festival in April which goes on for about a week. The other thing to avoid is the Rin Come Intersection (near Maya Shopping Mall, Nimmanheiman) because traffic has been a growing concern in Chiang Mai over the past five years.

3. Best time to visit
The winter is wonderful. December to the end of February. Wake up to crisp mornings of 12 to 15ºC, and the temperature’s in the mid-20s by 9am, with a beautiful blue sky all day. It cools down in the evenings; cool enough to throw on a jacket and a beanie. Some lodgings actually have logfire places or campfires going. Wonderful time of year!

4. Best coffee
Take the Route 1169 road south of town, out toward Samoeng. A couple of kilometres in, and on your left, you’ll see Banok Roasters. They roast and grind on the premises, and have lots of quirky stuff in-store. Or, you can just sit outside in the back, with your feet in a stream of cool water.

5. Best breakfast
Oh, that’s tough, because there are many contenders. Favourites would include Kwan’s Kitchen on the Canal Road, or Danissa Bakery & Cafe at Ratchaphruek, or Origin Cafe, in the Nong Kwai area. All of these are near the Night Safari, south-west of town.

6. Best cocktail/bar/pub
Head to the Anantara Hotel on the riverside. Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar serves up swanky cocktails in a chic retro secret service setting. The quaint building was once the British Consulate in Chiang Mai, now beautifully preserved. Sit inside or out, and view the river.

7. Best restaurant/eatery/local food
By reputation, the best local northern Thai food is the Huen Phen restaurant, with one outlet in the old town, and another near Rathaphruek. Try kao soi (spicy chicken coconut noodles) or sai ua (spicy sausage). For atmosphere and a fine meal, the Nakara Jardin Bistro and the Salon de Thé has you sitting under willow trees along the river, gorging on fine European food or fresh pastries.

8. Best local view
Find your way to Phu Fin Doi (behind Grand Canyon) and you’ll find a very rustic coffee/eatery perched on a hill among fruit orchards, with a great panorama of the entire Chiang Mai valley ringed by blue hills. Best of all, no traffic, no tour buses … and very chilled.

9. One fun thing you can do for free
Go for a walk to Huay Tung Tao Lake or Rama 9 Lake. Burn off some calories, then put it back on with an ice cold Singha at sunset. The sunset view across the lake from seafood shack on Rama 9 Lake is the money shot in Chiang Mai.

10. Something only a local knows about
And those are the horse races at Kawali Army Officers Club, Chotana Road, each Saturday afternoon. A surreal experience with lots of fun and a stunning mountain backdrop.

11. Favourite things to do in and around the city/region/town
Motorcycle touring is popular in northern Thailand. There are some great loops, such as Samoeng Loop (a day trip) to Mae Hong Son Loop (from three to seven days). Or, head up to the Golden Triangle about four to five hours away, to the great mountains and tea plantations of Soi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai.

Note: wet season from July to October and take care – world’s worst drivers out there.

12. Why do you love this town?
The northern Thai culture is quieter, softer, gentler than central and southern cultures. That’s part of it. But, generally, because it’s big enough yet small enough, Chiang Mai has everything, including good medical facilities, if that’s a priority for you. You miss out on very little. There are creative vibes, good music scenes, amazingly affordable restaurants. And we now have excellent direct air connections to every capital city in Asia.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? How was it? Would you recommend it to our members?

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Written by Stu Lloyd

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