Traditional and trendy influences marry well, writes Stephanie Holmes.
Northern Thailand is known for its amazing authentic food, a mix of Laotian, Burmese and traditional Thai influences. In Chiang Mai, the capital of the province, these traditional foods are becoming increasingly infused with new influences — resulting in a food scene rife with hipster cafes and fine-dining restaurants on a par with big cities around the world.
Here are seven places to check out when you visit.
Air's Thai Culinary Kitchen
What better way to get a real taste of Chiang Mai than with a cooking lesson from an expert local chef? Chanrat Karatna, otherwise known as Air, is a former tour guide and bistro owner, who now runs private cooking classes in a purpose-built kitchen and dining room on his family property. Many of the ingredients you cook with are freshly picked from the surrounding herb and vegetable gardens, and Air is an excellent teacher. His class was full of fun, and a reminder to not take cooking so seriously. "Keep smiling when you cook," Air advises, "and they can't tell if you're doing it right or wrong." His classes are bookable through Airbnb Experiences, a relatively recent addition to the accommodation-booking website, where locals can become tour guides, teachers, and hosts on anything from walking tours to photography lessons to environmental projects. We learnt how to make authentic green curry, clear tom yum soup and pad thai, getting to eat our hard work afterwards, and taking away Air's cookbook so we can recreate the magic at home.
Ginger and kafe at the House
Situated in the heart of Chiang Mai's Old City — which dates back to the 13th century —
has two restaurants, a cocktail bar and local crafts shop on site. Ginger and Kafe is a casual restaurant/bistro, with a menu featuring traditional twists on Northern Thai classics. Dishes include kaeng som goong, a sour curry soup; hor mok talay, a steamed curry served in a young coconut; and khao soi, a traditional Chiang Mai noodle soup with chicken, coconut milk and crispy noodles. There's a western menu as well . . . don't order from it; you'll really be missing out if you do. Oh, and another hot tip, the cocktails are exceptional.
The Baristro at Ping River
Set on the banks of the mighty Ping River, The Baristro is hipster coffee shop perfection. The unpolished concrete walls, bare lightbulbs, simple wooden tables and tattooed baristas are like something you'd see in any cafe worth its salt in New Zealand. The menu looks like a style magazine and there are all kinds of variations on a caffeine-fix theme, including cold brew, iced coffees and matcha lattes. The food menu is great too, with home-baking worthy of your Instagram feed. There are two other locations around the city, including The Baristrotel, which offers stylish rooms as well as stylish coffees and snacks.
Ploen Ruedee Night Market
You can't go to Thailand without experiencing a night market and Ploen Ruedee is a good place to start. It's relatively touristy — the night we were there they were playing late 90s Britpop hits, but that could have been because the Football World Cup was happening at the time — but it's a chance to sample a variety of traditional Thai street foods, all at exceptionally reasonable prices. It's also within walking distance to Chiang Mai's famous Night Bazaar, where you can pick up all kinds of souvenirs and shopping bargains. Plus, it's licensed and a refreshing Singha beer will cost you less than $3.
Woo Chiang Mai
This is one of the most stylish cafes in the city, found in the popular Wat Ket neighbourhood alongside high-end hotels, bars, restaurants and boutiques. Across the road from the Ping River and the Wat Gate temple, there is also an art gallery and design store on site, where you can pick up swoon-worthy kitchenware for incredible prices. The cafe serves food all day and is styled to perfection — the cakes and cabinet food seem designed for Instagram.
The River Market
Turn up hungry to this riverside restaurant, because the menu is made for feasting. The open-air dining room faces the river and the Iron Bridge, a new structure built to look like an old bridge demolished in the 1970s. The owners say it is customary to order more dishes than there are guests at the table, so don't be shy to ask to take the leftovers home. The menu is full of Thai classics with modern twists, like satays, curries, fresh salads, noodles and soups. Don't miss the northern Thai spicy sausage, the tamarind glazed ribs, and the massaman curry.
For a fine-dining fix, head to Italics at the Akyra Hotel. The menu is mostly Italian-inspired, which can offer a nice alternative if you've had your fill of khao soi and you can choose from a range of pizzas, pastas, risottos and salads. Or, if you only want to eat traditional food while in Thailand, there's a Thai Tastes menu as well, including larb, curries, tom yum koong and pad thai. After dinner, make your way to the rooftop Rise Bar to drink cocktails as you take in the great views across the city. Visit during the day and you can take a dip in the infinity pool.