chiang mai city guide
While the words Chiang Mai may stir up the image of elephant print harmen panted travellers and a disturbing animal cruelty tourist trade, what it can and should stir up is thoughts of being lovingly stretched, squashed and pummelled by a thai massage therapist, the smell of lemongrass, of ginger and lime. It should make you think of eating fresh, fragrant and cheap vegan food and riding across town in a red songthaew (pick up truck taxi) as if the words ‘delayed service’ on platform 19 means nothing to you.
Last time I was in Chiang Mai I was 10 years old. I had my hair braided (let me tell you that was an excellent look for a pale little redheaded kid) and spent most evenings lusting over useless market goods like those wooden frogs with the ridgebacks you can run a stick up and down to make a ‘chirping’ sound (I never got one because I was too scared to bargain for it and my parents wouldn’t do it for me.)
This year, I had slightly different intentions for my Thailand trip namely to do with the above image of food eating and lemongrass smelling and massage therapists kneeling on my butt and corkscrewing their thumbs into my shoulder blades.
Here’s where we ate and hung out and got massaged in Chiang Mai. We were here for a week so I’m by no means an expert – you’ve got literally hundreds of random dancergal223’s on trip advisor for that – this is just the stuff we liked, before I forget.
Chiang Mai may be one of the easiest and cheapest places for vegan travel - perhaps due to one particularly annoying vegan named after the most offensive smelling of the fruits a few years back. All odours aside, there is an endless amount of vegetarian and vegan cafes where the meals don’t seem like an afterthought. Here is where we ate more than once. All cafes have wifi cause I know you wanna post a story of your lunch.
Okay so Aum is in an old wooden house and upstairs you can sit around low tables on cushions and its dangerously cute so I’d probably reccommend it even if the food wasn’t great. But the food is amazing!! The menu is stupidly big but get the gyoza, the som tam (papaya salad), fresh rice paper rolls and a smoothie. Oh and watch out cause some of the sushi is made with fruit.
Food is fine but mainly you want to be here for the vegan bakery section. Cinnamon scrolls! Coconut cinnamon scrolls! Banana bread! Cookies! You’re on holidays so go wild, eat a whole days worth of sugar in one snack. And balance it all out with a green juice, or some herbal teas from the shop, if you like.
Atmosphere here is a little public swimming pool chic (you know that blue colour? And how like tiled floors can even be a little soggy? Yep.) but vibes aside food is good! All the Thai basics plus western style salads. Apparently the burger is a good one.
I never thought Sydney had a food culture until I realised the only way to describe the menu here was Sydney-ish. Nice outdoor seating. Good coffee with all the milk options. Smoothie bowls. Get the avocado toast with a side of sweet potato or the vegan nachos.
I’m pretty sure Reform has snuck up on me as an unassuming favourite. Everything was really, really good. I’m from a small coastal town so basically my intro to non western food was spring rolls. I love them and these ones were so, so good. I'm still thinking about them. So order them. And the khao soi (a northern thai dish) or the massaman curry. Vegan burger enthusiast boyfriend says this was the best one in Chiang Mai. Oh and get the mango sticky rice too if it’s in season... just wear a loose dress or something so you can fit it all in.
Similar to Japan, many of the speciality coffee shops in Thailand do not offer soymilk. You can always remedy this by bringing your own single serving to the café, but don’t make the same mistake we did – the most common brand of soymilk in Thailand, lactasoy, contains 2% milk powder (I mean duh, lactasoy.) If a café does offer soymilk it may actually be worth checking what brand they use. We didn’t have a problem finding good coffee in Chiang Mai. It’s everywhere.
Café, roaster and social enterprise. I read this interview with the founder when I was back home and am so upset I didn't buy any take home beans!! His story is freaking amazing and inspiring. Read the interview even if you have no plans to go to Thailand. If you're going to Thailand, drink this coffee. There are two different locations.
Another café in a tiny wooden house just outside of Old City. Very instagram friendly. Cold pressed juices. Matcha lattes. Air con.
Pranom Health Massage in Old City was our Chiang Mai second home. 180 bhat or $7.50 will get you a one hour thai massage or foot massage. Or be like us and do both every single day. There’s no liability form. There’s no questions. You lay on a thin mattress on the floor, and try to relax into where ever the hell they're taking you today. It's kinda like the workout version of a massage but still with a good dose of relaxation. If you're into yoga it will feel familiar.
If you're set on something more luxurious and relaxing, the Tamarind Village signature massage was incredible, particularly after a long flight. It’s a combination of hot oil massage and hot compress and you can eat a vegan meal in the hotel restaurant afterwards if you can't quite manage to roll yourself back out into the real world again straight away.
Bringing back souvenirs from overseas holidays is a little passe now what with Air Asia carting people by the thousands daily over South East Asia and the souvenirs never changing from one decade to the next.
Most online research on shopping will lead you directly to any number of night markets held in the city. If you're after chirping frogs, imitation handbags and lanterns, it might be your thing, if not, I wouldn't recommend it so much.
There is a big natural beauty and spa focus in Chiang Mai and perhaps Thailand as a whole. If you want local luxury beauty brands check out this post. I picked up a few things from a local organics brand called Pure Naturals. Thai pharmacies carry some Japanese skin care and make up brands if you’re into that too. .
Mai Kaidee’s Vegan Cooking Class
We did the express two hour cooking class and learnt an overachieving, chilli paste I can’t wait to make, tom yam, tom kha, pad thai, massaman curry and sticky rice. As someone who cooks a lot but has never been taught cooking in my life I genuinely found it confronting to be told what to do, but I got over myself and learnt a lot (mainly that I have no idea what I'm doing.) A word of warning - arrive very, very hungry (and remind them you're vegan to avoid pad thai with egg.)
You may have to hire a driver like we did to take you about an hour out of town but it’s worth it. Crawl / climb down into the caves to statues, shrines and offerings of all different sizes. It’s quite special and something that would be easily lost if very popular or crowded. May be difficult for those with limited mobility due to the steep steps and crouching.
A note on the elephants…
To cut a long rant short – from my over enthusiastic research, the only place guaranteed to care for elephants ethically is the elephant nature park, no matter what all the signs around the city say. It sells out forever in advance, so book as soon as you buy your flight if you’re set on hanging out with them (we missed out.)
I loved Chiang Mai and can't wait to go back. For visuals of many of the places I've mentioned, check out my story highlights on instagram. Let me know where I missed!