I am finally getting around to finishing up my Thailand posts (more than a year after our trip!). After ringing in the new year in Hong Kong with family last year, we spent 5 days each in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This was the last leg of our trip, and we didn’t have a whole lot planned. Many people go to Chiang Mai for trekking and elephant riding, but the thought of bringing a squirmy toddler along on a long ride in the back of a truck out to the wilderness did not quite appeal to us (not to mention getting him through the hiking and riding part :).

Instead, we situated ourselves in a small hotel near the city gate within the city walls. We visited a lot of markets. We took turns doing a solo activity (my husband got a foot massage, and I took a cooking class). We drank a lot of fresh fruit smoothies and ate a lot of noodles. We took naps. :)

Chiang Mai was a bit tougher to navigate because there isn’t any public transportation. (In the past few years I’ve come to realize that good public transportation, or having a car, makes a big difference when traveling, since being able to get around on your own just allows for much more flexibility and independence, especially when you don’t know the language.) A lot of the getting around in Chiang Mai is done in the back of these covered trucks, and you can negotiate a price with the driver. The old city within the walls is very walkable, but once you get outside of the city walls, distances are much farther between places.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy many leisurely strolls through the old quarters, at various markets around the city, and even to a few farther out places. We also enjoyed getting to try some northern Thai flavors and new dishes. It was in Chiang Mai that I discovered my new favorite Thai food, which I was lucky enough to taste in our very first meal in the city, so that meant I had the next five days to eat more of it. :)

That first meal was at Huen Phen, a popular restaurant specializing in northern Thai food. Stepping into this restaurant feels something like you’ve arrived at a dirt market. The place is packed to the brim with antiques, knick knacks, Buddha statues, and plants. During the daytime, food is served more casually in the front room, but in the evening, you walk through the pathway and eat in the dining room.

We were at a bit of a loss as to what to order, as I am pretty unfamiliar with northern Thai food. We decided to try a northern style curry, which is more like a soup and does not contain coconut milk (sorry, not pictured). We also got a few small dishes, including one that I was surprised to find featured steamed pork sausage that I grew up knowing as cha lua in Vietnamese cuisine (top right photo below). It was tossed along with some onions and herbs in a sort of cold salad starter.

The highlight of this meal, though, was the nam prik num. Nam prik, or chili dips or relishes, are the Thai version of Indonesian sambal, and like sambal, there are many different variations. Nam prik num is particular to northern Thailand and is made of roasted green prik num chilies, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce or paste. In order to fully appreciate nam prik num, you have to understand that the dip is the whole point of the dish. The blanched vegetables that accompany it are just an excuse to eat this salty, smoky, spicy chili relish. Nam prik num is also quite pungent, reeking of fermented fish. Of course, you should know I mean that in absolutely the best way possible! :) My favorite nam prik num dipping vehicle is the pork crackling, which I later encountered at the markets. In that instance, I’m really not sure which is the star of the dish — the dip or the crackling!

Huen Phen, 112 Th Ratchamankha, Phone: 0-5327-7103, open 7:30am-4:30pm and 5-10pm [map]

Khao Soi Islam is another popular restaurant in Chiang Mai that we sought out. As the name indicates, the place is famous for the northern Thai dish, khao soi, which consists of yellow egg noodles in a coconut-based curry, topped with crispy fried noodles. The dish is believed to be of Burmese origins. The version we tried in Bangkok tasted a lot to me like Vietnamese curry, but this one at Khao Soi Islam was distinctively more Indian in flavor. The dish is served with lime, shallots, and pickled mustard greens on the side, which really add a nice tang to the rich coconut soup base.

Just as good as the khao soi is the restaurant’s goat biryani — fork tender juicy goat meat served over perfectly cooked biryani rice. These two dishes are just some examples of the diversity of Thai cuisine and how it’s absorbed influences from neighboring cultures.

Khao-Soi Islam, 22-24 Soi 1, Th Charoenphrathet, Phone: 053 271 484, open 8am-5pm [map]
A night bazaar and a Friday morning market also take place on this street.

Every day, walking back and forth to/from our hotel, we would pass by this little local restaurant across the alley, and there would be food grilling out front. It always looked enticing, but we often already had a set destination in mind, and we figured we’d save it for an easy dinner on a night when we were too tired to go anywhere else. Then one night, we decided just to go for it.

We ordered up an array of dishes to sample, including the grilled tilapia. I don’t remember all the dishes, but there was definitely nam prik num with cucumbers, as you can see below, as well as a fermented bamboo stir-fry dish, and a few other stir-fries. It was a really delicious and satisfying home-style meal. Despite being in an alley with a ton of foreign hotels, there were actually quite a few local Thais eating at this place, and it only got more packed as the night wore on.

Lert Ros, Soi 1, Th Ratchadamnoen, 1-9pm [map]

One cannot go to northern Thailand and not eat laab. Originally a Lao minced meat salad, the northern Thai version is laden with a plethora of dried spices. This dish is not for the faint of heart. It is not the delightful little minced chicken lettuce cup you’d get from PF Chang’s. Laab can be made from a number of meats (beef, pork, chicken, fish), all chopped to tiny bits, but it also often includes animal innards and blood. And is sometimes eaten raw.

Not far from the city’s east gate, is a little local hole-in-the-wall with great laab, which I heard about through Eating Asia. We came by just to try the laab, which I must say was intense. It’s dry, crumbly, smoky, spicy, with rich layers of flavors. In Pok Pok, Andy Ricker describes how in local villages laab is eaten with all sorts of leaves and herbs simply picked off bushes on the road. Here, we ate it with the far tamer iceberg lettuce. :) And, naturally, more pork cracklings.

Sorn Chai, 23 Kochasarn Road (across from Tha Phae Gate). [map]
For further information, see Eating Asia’s post.

On completely the other end of the spectrum from laab… during our last morning in Chiang Mai, we decided to try a health food cafe in our guidebook called Blue Diamond and were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed it. This little cafe caters to tourists, but it’s a nice mix of Western-style and local Thai foods. There were all kinds of health food items on the menu, including drinks with spirulina. But they also had homebaked goods, as well as cafe food, including a healthier take on some Thai dishes. I got more of a standard breakfast, as well as a smoothie and beautiful assortment of tropical fruit for our toddler. My husband ordered the vegetarian khao soi, which turned out to be quite good. It all felt really nice and light after all the street food we’d been eating that week.

Blue Diamond, 35/1 Soi 9, Th Moon Muang, 7am – 9pm Mon -Sat [map]

Chiang Mai has some really vibrant markets, and I actually ended up going to quite a few. The largest was Warorot Market (also known as Gat Luang Market), which is also connected to Lanna Market (or Don Lam Yai). Both have a huge indoor covered section, as well as corridors and alleys in between filled with street food carts, produce vendors, and trucks loading and unloading their products. The streets surrounding the markets also have tons of stalls selling kitchen equipment, toys, clothes, flowers, and all kinds of household goods. (You can read more about the history of Gat Luang Market here.)

In Chiang Mai, we saw a lot of foods particular to northern Thailand that didn’t appear so much in Bangkok. This was especially true of Talat Ton Payom (Suthep Market), which is smaller and more rugged, more local. There was so much Chiang Mai sausage here – a thick sausage mixed with herbs, spices, and red curry paste. It tastes a rather lot like Thai curry in sausage form!

There was also lots and lots of nam prik num…

And what better to go with nam prik num than… yup, pork cracklings, or kaeb moo. I have also heard it referred to as “Thai crack.” :) One bite of these and you’re in trouble… Especially when it’s loaded with that roasted chili dip. Some of these are even fried with pandan leaves. Talat Ton Payom was just bursting in every aisle with kaeb moo.

Kaeb moo frying in a huge vat of oil:

I felt like I encountered a lot of vegetables and plants that were unfamiliar to me in Thailand, much more so than in some of the other SE Asian countries I’ve been to. Below you see some herbs (sawtooth herb and mint), galangal, and krachai, which I had never even heard of before. It’s the long, spindly bunches of roots in the bottom right, and I later learned in my cooking class that it is used in Thai curry pastes.

The vegetable on the left in the photo below I have tried in Beijing and now know as the wing bean. The one on the right below is a vegetable I’ve eaten several times in Vietnam in the past few years — I have no idea what the name is, but our family friends call it a mushroom green because it tastes a lot like mushrooms. They tell us that this is a new plant that they’ve only seen in recent years in Vietnam (perhaps because it’s migrated there?).

Below, you’ll see some ingredients already bundled for tom yum, I believe.

And here’s the inside of Warorot Market:

Curry pastes!

Thailand is street food heaven, and the street carts surrounding the markets were just incredible.

Warorot Market (aka Gat Luang Market), between Thapae Road and Chang Moi Road [map]
Ton Lamyai (aka Lanna Market), Wichayanon Rd. 
Talat Ton Payom (aka Suthep Market), behind Chiang Mai University [map] – Interesting but not worth a special trip if you’re not going out that way. Many of the northern Thai specialties here can also be found at the other two markets. 

Near the entrance to the Ton Lam Yai Market is a stall I heard about via Austin Bush’s blog that sells kanom jeen nam ngiaw. This noodle soup is often overshadowed by the better-known khao soi, but it is eaten all over northern Thailand (read more about it here). My first impression of this dish is that it tastes a lot like Vietnamese bun rieu! It involves pork, tomatoes, and similar noodles, which in Thai is known as kanom jeen and is made of slightly fermented rice flour. There are many versions of this dish, but the one we had at this market stall was topped with dill, blood cubes, and pork cracklings. It was most excellent, and as you can see below, the stand is extremely popular.

Khanom jeen stall, near entrance of Ton Lam Yai market, Th Wichayanon. [map]
I followed Austin Bush’s directions from his post here. I’m not sure if I ended up at the exact same stall, but it was definitely good nonetheless!

I mentioned that my husband and I each took some time alone to do something. I chose to do a cooking class because I really wanted a chance to work with some of the local produce and ingredients, which I would have a hard time finding back in Beijing (or even in the US). There are a ton of cooking schools geared toward tourists in Chiang Mai, so there’s no shortage of options. I simply picked one that was shorter and took place at a time convenient for me, so I ended up going with Baan Thai Cookery School.

I learned how to make som tam, pad thai, tom yum, and green curry. We actually squeezed our own coconut milk and pounded our own paste for the curry, both of which were new experiences to me. Tuition includes the meal as well as a booklet full of recipes.

Baan Thai Cookery School, Soi 5, 11 Th Rachadamnoen, Phone: 0-5335-7339 [map]

Last but not least, just like in Bangkok, we ate noodles every opportunity we could. :)

On our last night, we had noodles at a stand near one of the markets, and I ordered a duck noodle soup. This was not the first time that I tried a Thai dish and found that it reminded me a lot of instant noodles I’d had at some point! (That is not to diminish the dish in any way — it is really a compliment to how well the instant noodle manages to mimic the real thing!) In this case it reminded me of Mama duck flavored instant noodles. Appropriately, Mama is a Thai brand and also happens to be my favorite brand of instant noodles. :)

There were two places that were closed when I tried to go that may be of interest to anyone visiting Chiang Mai: Pun Pun Restaurant [map], an organic vegetarian restaurant run by the Buddhist temple, Wat Suan Dok (I had wanted to try the edible flower salad there!); and Pochanaa [map], a pristine local eatery across from the city’s east gate that serves central and Chinese Thai.

Overall, I definitely feel like we just scratched the surface in our encounter with Thailand. Someday it would be nice to head to some of the lesser-visited spots to the northeast. In the meantime, I would love to try my hand at a few of the recipes I’ve been looking at in my Thai cookbooks. Some nam prik num, perhaps? :) I’ll be sure to report back if I do.

In addition to all the resources mentioned in my Bangkok post, I also used the following in planning our time in Chiang Mai:

Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai – As with the Bangkok one, this is much cheaper to buy locally, but you might want to have it on hand when you arrive. Otherwise, it is available at bookstores or tourist stands.

Eating Asia – A longtime favorite blog of mine. There are quite a few posts devoted to Chiang Mai.