Chiang Mai is the second city of Thailand but it is a small city and as different from Bangkok as one can imagine. The population is about the same as Canberra where I live about 350,000 but this is notional depending on where one draws the boundaries and no one can agree on this. Chiang Mai is much more interesting than Canberra however and has much more to offer. The northern Thai or Lanna people are proud of their heritage. They are not as poor as the people of Northeastern Thailand near Laos, but also have in the past been much less affluent than the people of the central plains of Thailand or the South.
To get around Chiang Mai I always use Nancy Chandler’s map and the accompanying booklet, which is a mine of excellent information, as do all tourists in the know and ex-pats. I usually don’t carry my old map with me and buy a new one each time I come back to Chiang Mai, but then I usually stay two weeks or a month, sometimes two months or more. I’d stay longer but for the visa requirements (another story for another day).
Lanna cuisine (the local kingdom was called Lanna) is similar to but also distinct from other northern Thai cooking. Chiang Mai is considered a centre of gourmet food. Thai Lanna cuisine is influenced by the surrounding hill tribe regions (e.g. Akha food) and all Thais are enamoured of ‘jungle food’. Part of the tradition of Lanna food dates from times when food was scarce and you ate what you could get. Lanna food is also highly influenced by Yunnanese food from China to the north (Yunnan) and by Burmese and northern Lao food among other things.
Before my Khao Soy lunch I made an expedition to the Warorot Market (the largest food market in Chiang Mai; more in a later article) in China Town. Fon at the Sakorn Residence, a boutique hotel I stay at across the river, had told me how to find the seamstresses at the market. Warorot markets and China Town are a bit of a maze when you first experience them, but the area really isn’t that large.
I had a polar-fleece lined skin jacket and the zip had started to go in Bologna, which was awkward because Bologna in December is really freezing. I couldn’t get it fixed in Italy so I’d brought it to Chiang Mai. The lady said she’d do it today but I wasn’t in a hurry, so I arranged to pick it up tomorrow. She put in a new zip, which was actually better than the original one. It cost me 150 baht or AUD $5. You can’t get a pair of jeans taken up for under $30 in Australia (usually by Vietnamese or Thais).
Anyway having completed my task, I rode my motorcycle upstream along the river and crossed back over at the Nakorn Ping Bridge (the one above the Nawarat Bridge).
By the way the last two times I’ve been in Chiang Mai, I’ve been pulled up frequently for a licence check, usually just over the Nawarat Bridge on Tha Phae Road. If you have a licence (just my Australian one for a motorcycle), they let you go. If you don’t have one they fine you, a good money raising exercise. This never used to happen in Chiang Mai or anywhere else in Thailand, but the world has changed.
However, I would never recommend to anyone to ride a motorcycle in Thailand or anywhere in Asia without experience, because it is dangerous. My ex-pat friend Mike who lives in Chiang Mai keeps complaining about the increase in traffic and it is much worse than it used to be. Mike also complains about the Bangkok drivers who don’t know the rules. I’ve found that it is harder to get around in Chiang Mai and that you have to be more careful than in previous years. I’ve seen and heard of too many casualties to be blasé. Besides, your travel insurance is void, if you have an accident without a licence.
Enough lecturing! I turned left over the bridge onto Charoen Rat, the river road and followed it past one more bridge (Rama 9). There are three famous Khao Soy (or Khao Soi) places here Lamduan Khao Soy on the right (the owner used to cook for royalty) a little further on the right the Khao Soy Fa Ham (I’m less familiar with this) and a few hundred metres up on the left the Smer Jai Khao Soy, a longstanding favourite according to Nancy Chandler. I prefer the last because the staff are more comfortable with non-Thai speakers, but all are excellent and I would recommend them highly, if you have the transport to get there.
I only discovered Khao Soy last trip though I’ve been to Chiang Mai many times. I suppose it is just another of those intangible things about Chiang Mai that is you discover something new every time you go. Khao Soy is not just a dish. It is a type of eating experience, a type of restaurant and an array of other street food type dishes. In some ways it is similar to the famous Indonesian Rijjstafel (rice table) a medley of small dishes adapted by the Dutch, from food presentation of the Padang region of West Sumatra.
The Thais love to eat Khao Soy as a communal lunch, with fellow office workers, colleagues or family. I remember once going to Lamduan Khao Soy and being halted on the road by a junior policeman who was stopping traffic so that three vehicles of senior police could back into the parking area across the road. Then he helped me to cut across the traffic into the same parking area.
Khao Soy places are only open for lunch. As a lone Westerner (or sometimes as a couple), I usually miss out on the range of food available. But, occasionally when seated at a table with a group of Thai strangers, they’ll often offer you a taste of everything. It’s a great way to eat. The restaurants along Charoen Rat are in large open sheds with cooking at the front. This is typical of Khao Soy restaurants. They are fast and unpretentious, catering to many sittings for lunch.
Khao Soy or Khao Soi (even Kao Soi) the dish is a very Chiang Mai dish or street food with the signature dish stolen or modified from the Burmese, but done better. I’m not a big fan of Laksa, I think it is an over-powering, derivative and invented for Westerners; but Khao Soy is slightly similar. Khao Soy is usually chicken (but not always), a couple of small legs or other pieces with bone, in a mild curry soup containing coconut milk with soft noodles, but also with slightly larger diameter crisp noodles sprinkled on top. It is served with a garnish of vegetable, onion and lemon on the side and is delicious.
With Khao soy one eats a range of other side dishes, such as sate, Chiang Mai sausage, grilled meats, cellophane noodle salads, vegetables and other things. You eat sitting at stainless steel tables on plastic stools.
Today I restrained myself and only had the Khao Soy, some pork sate (absolutely delicious) and asked for a Coke and ice. They brought me a Thai cola called est but I couldn’t tell the difference between it and Coke or Pepsi. It was closer to Coke than Pepsi. Business Insider explains in an article dated 12 March 2013:
For years, Pepsi was the No.1 soda in Thailand, with a 48 per cent market share. Coke was only the second most popular drink there, with 42 per cent. But all that changed late last year when PepsiCo failed to renew a distribution contract. Pepsi’s main retail distributor withdrew all Pepsi products from its shelves and replaced them with “Est,” its own Pepsi-lookalike brand.
By the end of the year, it became difficult to find Pepsi in Thailand, Reuters reports.
Now, Pepsi has only a 15 per cent share of the market. Coke is No.1. Est is probably the No.2 brand, with a 19 per cent share, and something called “Big Cola” had a 16 per cent share at the end of 2012, according to The Bangkok Post.
It just goes to show one should never take the Thais for granted.
All up my lunch cost me 80B about AUD $2.70, but I left a tip so it cost me $3.
On other days when also alone I usually have the chicken Khao Soy and pork satay or pork grilled (moo tord), or as I had recently grilled chicken (gai yang). They introduce a smoky flavour into the grilling. I don’t know how and I don’t want to know, because it is unbelievably delicious. Sometimes the flavour isn’t as intense as others but it is still amazingly nice.
The chicken Khao Soy, with grilled chicken on the side and a Coke cost me a few cents over AUD $3.
Some more convenient Khao Soy restaurants for tourists are Just Khao Soy on Charoen Prathet (on the river) between the back of Anusarn Market and Loi Kroh, which is set up for first timers to have a taste of Khao Soy in more salubrious surroundings.
Inside the walls of the old city Mae Pah Sii Khao Soy on Ratchamanka is just down from Samlarn near Coffee Lovers. It not the most wonderful food but it is a friendly place and convenient. The food is honest. There is another Khao Soy place at the end of Ratchamanka near the Tha Phae moat, but I haven’t been there. Other noodle restaurants called Kuay Tiew are scattered around but I haven’t any to recommend.
Further down Ratchamanka from the Mae Pah Sii Khao Soy and Coffee Lovers and just down from Gade’s Elliebum Guest House is the Heuan Pen.
In the opposite direction, if you turn left into Samlarn is a place called hanging legs in Thai, because it has holes on the verandah that people hang their legs through. It’s interesting as a spot but the food is nothing special.
The walking gourmet tour, Gade from Elliebum does with her husband Paul (more about Gade and her tours in another article), ends at the Heuan Pen for lunch, which serves a form of Khao Soy and similar street Lanna foods. In the evening the fancier Heuan Pen restaurant next door serves more sophisticated Lanna food in an antique house, full of quirky antiques. It has a good atmosphere.
My nephew Paul who lives in Bangkok and I have been to both Heuan Pen restaurants several times, but we’ve never been that impressed with the food. Perhaps it’s just us. Others swear by the Heuan Pen.
Another interesting place that offers both Thai and Lanna style food is the Hong Tauw Inn, Nantawan on Nimmanhaemin just down from Huay Kaew. It is also authentic, atmospheric and popular with locals, but again the food is nothing special. There are a couple of huge open-air barbecue places (though not really Lanna) not far away, under high warehouse-style roofs, that are very popular with the locals in the evenings. You generally select your food and cook it yourself. You are fined if you do not eat it all, that is, if your eyes are larger than your stomach. But, it is much better to go here in a large group.
Another place worth mentioning at the bottom of the Airport Plaza shopping Mall is the Kad Luang Lanna Food Market. It is a quirky place full of small stalls offering Lanna food and other things, including Khao Soy, fresh fruit, and food to take away for cooking at home. It is a lovely place, full of teenagers after school, but little English is spoken.
There is also excellent local food utilised by the shop owners at the bottom end of Anusarn Market away from the big restaurants for the tourists. I never pay for this food as Phennapha and Phing Phing won’t let me, but it is authentic and very cheap.
There are other Lanna food places everywhere. I’ve mentioned only a few other than the Khao Soy places.
Another Lanna experience is the Khantoke dinner show, which was set up originally in a serious way to showcase Lanna culture and food. I suppose they still do! Unfortunately, though I hate to admit it, I’ve never been. Perhaps one day.
March 2016 Update
I returned to Chiang Mai for 3 weeks in March 2016. Some things have changed significantly. The traffic has got worse, I feel a bit more vulnerable on a motorcycle especially on the superhighways. The police have become more insistent in stopping motorcycles, International Driver’s Licences are now supposedly required (in contradiction of a previous bilateral agreement with Australia), and they are seemingly looking for any excuse to solicit a bribe. It made my visit less enjoyable, trying to avoid police road blocks. Next trip I will have an International Driver’s licence but I suspect it will not prevent the need to bribe the police for supposed infringements.
The other major change is the Chinese. There are signs in Chinese everywhere; planes, buses and wagons ferry Chinese tourists into town. In tourist markets, the good massage establishments and other places they can tend to be overwhelming. The locals and expats say around Chinese New Year is absolute chaos. They also say that unlicensed or poor Chinese car drivers are a menace and that they are a danger to themselves on motorcycles and bicycles. I don’t know how true this is.
Other changes, which may deter young Western tourists, are that the bars and nightclubs must cease at midnight and there is also a ban on selling alcohol in shops between 2pm and 5pm.
Nevertheless, my favourite restaurants and many of my favourite places haven’t changed at all.
I visited most of the Khao Soy establishments and other restaurants mentioned and they are the same.
Two long-term residents mentioned a Khao Soy place not far from Sakorn Residence that has been popular for thirty years. It is on Kaew Nararat on the left hand side between Nakorn Ping Bridge and McCormick hospital. I searched but couldn’t find it for the life of me. However, I’ve just noticed on Nancy Chandler’s map that it is probably the Halal Khao Soy and Phing Phing has promised to show it to me next trip.
Another place Sirichai Khao Soy Restaurant has been recommended but I haven’t tried it. Sirichoi is in the old city in a strip of cheap places to eat favoured by locals on Inthawararot. Inthawararot runs up one side of the Cultural Centre behind the three kings monument and the strip is directly behind Wat Intuakin Sadue Muang, a beautiful part of which juts right into the street (see Nancy Chandler).
Sirichai Khao Soy is on the corner of Intrawararot and Jabhan and seems reasonably popular. It either has been ripped off by a copy (normal in Chiang Mai) or more probably been misspelled on TripAdvisor, judging by the sign in the photograph. Further down towards the Wat is the much more popular Hainanese Chicken Place ‘since 1957’ whose Hainan chicken and pork satay are quite good.
Phing Phing has also promised to take me to her favourite Khao Soy places next trip where the ‘chicken is soft’.
However, there are hundreds of Khao Soy places in Chiang Mai scattered everywhere. If you ask around I’m sure you can also find your own favourites.
Further useful information
The Blog Live Less Ordinary gives his view of the top ten Lanna foods.
Three cooking sites give you their version of how to cook chicken Khao soy: Bonne appétit; Rachel cooks Thai and Poh’s Kitchen. Although why would you bother, when all you have to do is go to Thailand. Poh Ling Yeow’s food career began in the first season of MasterChef Australia in 2009. After coming runner up in the final, her charm and potential were recognised and she was offered her own cooking show by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission).
Key words: Khao Soy, Chiang Mai, Lanna Food, Northern Thailand, Nancy Chandler, est cola, Pepsi, Warorot market, Lamduan Khao Soy, Khao Soy Fa Ham, Smer Jai Khao Soy, Just Khao Soy, Anusarn Market, Mae Pah Sii Khao Soy, Elliebum Guest House, Heuan Pen, Hong Tauw Inn, open-air barbecues, Airport Plaza, Kad Luang Lanna Food Market, Khantoke