The ultimate food guide: Phuket edition

Having visited Phuket, Thailand twice in a span of six months we can safely say that this island paradise is not just about beach lounging, turquoise waters, trips to Phi Phi islands, strolling past strip bars and shopping streets. Phuket is also home to some very interesting local cuisine—this mountainous island located in the Andaman Sea has its fair share of tourist traps as well as hidden spots for every kind of holidaymaker—so, forget about calories and think Pad Thai, delectable curries, stir fry everything, mango sticky rice and…drumroll….hand churned coconut ice-cream.

How we got dirty while she turned 30 – Thailand — Series 1

Chantelle and I met in 2012 whilst working in the United States and we instantly bonded over our love for food, our crammed basement living space and our insatiable desire to travel the world. One too many travels later, our time together had concluded and we were ready to move back to our respective home countries. Fast forward to six years later, we’re now cross-continental best friends that still brood over dreamy boys,  fancy foods and countries we wish to explore. Then came the time to meet mid-way and the chosen country was (*drumroll*) Thailand—because where else can you get down and dirty when you gotta turn 30? Read on for our adventures

Grab Your Globe presents Thailand island hopping in 12 days: Series 1 – Phuket

Day trips from Chiangmai

The scent of delicately basted meat being grilled over charcoal fire and the sharp, intoxicating trail of freshly brewed coffee is hard to ignore – old city Chiangmai is littered with meat stalls and petite coffee houses. I like low-key holidays with long lunches and easy living as much as the next girl… so days strolling through the old city and evening bazaars were perfect. But just outside the city lie wonders of a different kind, and I put my explorer shoes on (Dora, who?) and headed out.

Up, up and away
Endless views of Chiangmai city (if the sky is clear), a national park to trek through and of course, the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, to appease your inner devotee. The Doi Suthep mountain is 40kms from the city and worth making a day-trip for. My companion and I picked a bike, but make sure you invest in a heavy-duty bike that can handle the winding uphill roads, because ours started over heating after about 20 minutes on the highway.

The weather is pleasant in Chiangmai in January when we visited (and tends to get cooler as you get higher), so make sure you’re well covered. Head to the Bhubing Palace first, if you’re a botany or flower enthusiast – it’s all about the well-manicured gardens, stopping to smell the roses and appreciating the finery that you’ll probably never have. The next stop was of course the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, which I found way too crowded to enjoy. The views from the wat are sublime (they’d better be, after the endless stairs you have to climb up to get there) but the temple itself was too crowded to buckle down and enjoy the space.

That’s why our next stop was the (shockingly) isolated Monta Than Waterfall at the Doi Suthep National park that is en-route the wat. Quiet, remote and cut off from the cacophony at the wat and the touristy rush in Chiangmai city, we loved the 40-50 min trek that brought us right back to the waterfall we started at. Carry a swimsuit and a change of clothes if you intend to take a dip and snacks to make a day out of it (no alcohol is allowed at the park). Tents pitched a few metres from the waterfall are where you can camp out if you choose to stay overnight. (Check details in advance on the park’s website)

 Doi Inthano(t)

The highest mountain in Thailand. The popular Kew Mae Pan that offers endless views, the promise of waterfalls, cloud forest and a vigorous workout. We were super excited about our day trip to Doi Inthanon. About 104kms away from Chiangmai city, the day trip seemed doable on paper.

However, we stopped midway to the destination because our bike was overheating, and we realised belatedly that we needed a much more powerful (read reliable) vehicle for the long/uphill journey. Don’t make the same mistake we did and rent an able car or engage a city tour group to organise your trip – you’ll find agents scattered all over the old city. There are a couple of hotels around the park (still quite far) and you can camp overnight, so make sure to plan your day trip as soon as you land in the city, so you have enough time to plan correctly. While we were disappointed at this development, we stopped over at the Grand Canyon Water Park where you can drown your sorrows in food, drink, zip-lining and other water-based adventures. It’s no Doi Inthanon, but for us eternal children, there’s no place more fun than one you can cannonball into the water at! A word to the wise, while Chiangmai old city’s incredible food, exciting night life, endless bazaars and touristy vibe might tempt you to sleep in and saunter around at leisure, give the great outdoors a chance, set the alarm earlier than you’d like to… and we’re promising rewards of the best kind. Sunrises, sunsets, waterfalls gushing, viewing points with soul-stirring coffee, the wind in your hair and lots, lots more. Get set, go.

We recommend planning these day trips on weekdays as weekends at any of the above involve dealing with long queues and large crowds (both locals + tourists) 

Fact file
Location
: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Other attractions: Elephant sanctuaries (Elephant Nature Park; Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary; Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand), San Kamphaeng Hot Springs

Read more on our adventures in our complete guide to Chiang Mai

The complete guide to Chiang Mai City

Blustering leaves and pirouetting streaks of sunlight—ethereal love children of the ripples of water and pale morning sun make the Chiang Mai city moat in the am quite an arresting sight. Gently jerking me out of the stupor that the creaky night bus from chaotic, hot Bangkok to the ancient city had put me in. Bleary to bright-eyed, I go (courtesy my 7/11 iced-coffee).

As the songthaew rasps towards my hotel from the slowly awakening bus stop, the backdrop of the cool morning air, emerging sun and moat is captivating—I’m nearly oblivious to the line of local coffee shops and international chain outlets that dot the route to Villa Oranje, my home base. For a moment, I’m transported to erstwhile Chiang Mai city , founded in 1296, surrounded by a protective moat and a defensive wall. And while the invaders are long gone, and the wall decrepit, it still stands as testament to the city’s strength—straddling the past and present, at peace, with ease.

Villa Oranje Chiang Mai, in the Hai Ya neighbourhood, walking distance from the moat and the South side of the walled old city is tucked away from tourist madness thanks to its quiet residential by-lane location. And over the next week, as I strolled through the streets from one wat to another, trekked through national parks, thumbed through everything from traditional and ancient handicrafts to modern gizmos at buzzing night markets, and sampled everything – from tingling, curry-based Khao Soi to fusion pizza (Basil chicken doused with chilli vinegar), it became a home away from home. Come away with me as I revisit my favourite stops…

Wat when where

On foot, discovering sights, smells and sassy sign boards is my go-to way of getting to know a city… and it’s the nest of wats within the walled city that I try to unearth first. Exploring the area close to the hotel, I first stumble upon a tiny 600-year-old temple – Wat Muen Ngoen Kong. Isolated and featuring a jolly laughing Buddha, if you’re into quiet contemplation, this is where you get your Om on. The next and my favourite, was the 14th century Wat Phan Tao, south of Ratchadamnoen road. Beautifully decorated and featuring a teakwood viharn (shrine), I spent ages gazing wistfully at the reflection of Buddha in the pond, under the warm midday sun and returned at nightfall to find it bathed in a cascade of fairy lights and chilly night breeze (Chiang Mai city’s staple weather during my time there).

The temple is within walking distance of my next stop, the better-known, 14th century Wat Chedi Luang. The current temple grounds originally housed three temples — Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin, and as you wander through you will find gilded Buddha statues, immense prayer halls and monks exchanging existential chatter with civilians. My trip would have been incomplete without visiting the most famed of Chiang Mai’s Buddhist temples; Wat Phra Singh – one of the most revered, dates back to 1345 and is dominated by an enormous, mosaic-inlaid sanctuary, glistening gilded buildings, manicured lawns and influx of tourists and devout locals. My favourite part? The loosely-translated words of wisdom scattered on signboards all over -“if there is nothing that you like, you must like the things you have.”  Finally, I went up to the Doi Suthep mountain to the celebrated Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 15km away from Chiang Mai city. Rent a bike and make the most of the winding highway road, filled with the most law-abiding drivers I’ve ever seen. I fought off the dawn and dusk chill with a thick jacket and hot coffee paired with chicken satay from the stalls en route, situated at strategic viewing points. Once at the wat, you have to climb a seemingly endless flight of stairs and wade through countless devotees to access the main sanctuary.

While the temples in Chiang Mai city seem limitless, and with your patience perhaps waning, give the smaller temples a try, for a moment of mindfulness and uninterrupted quiet, and the larger temples an unbiased look for their spectacular design, intricate detailing and impeccable maintenance.

Mother Nature’s cry

On the way down from Doi Suthep, within a sharp left turn that you’ll likely miss with a blink of an eye, sits the Montha Than Waterfall in the Doi Suthep National Park. Bring swimming trunks, walking shoes and explore the trail (a moderately difficult 1 hour walk) – if you fall in love with the lush foliage and quietude, rent a tent and stay for a night (be warned, alcohols are not allowed). Sitting by the waterfall, far removed from the madding temple-touring crowd, as the cool wind played hide and seek with the tendrils of my hair, I let the soft sound of the water lull me into a meditative calm. And it was chasing this sanctity that lead me 29km away from the city to Huay Tung Tao Lake where rows of restaurants and stilted huts made from straw & leaves and endless views of the lake & mountains await – inspiring even the unlikeliest into poetry.

Another example of picture-perfect beauty in Chiang Mai city? The Grand Canyon aka the quarry. Previously freely open to the public, the man-made canyon was the erstwhile site of cliff dives and day-long picnics but by the time I made my way there, I found a new Grand Canyon Water Park – that charges admission and offers you the chance to zip line, dive in and lounge under techni-coloured sun umbrellas (and a slight umbrella of consumerism).

Happy ever after in the market place

 Skip the mall-ratting in Chiang Mai city, instead, explore its bazaar culture like I did – head down to Wualai Walking Street – the site of the Saturday night market (which luckily for me was right opposite my hotel). From extensive food courts (Alligator meat anyone? Fried crickets perhaps?) to stalls selling everything from durian candy to leather briefcases, you’re not going home empty handed. The mother of all markets –  the Sunday Market, starting at the Tha Phae Gate and extending for a km along Ratchadamnoen Road, was choc-o-blocked. Make like the locals and stop over for an open-air foot massage as you make the mass of market revellers your live entertainment. Also on my list was the international food park Ploen Rudee and Kalare Night Bazaar, both of which deserve at least a full evening dedicated to them. So, it was with happy feet (temple runs and nature trails #ftw), full stomachs (hi, Khao Soi) and bulging souvenir bags that I reluctantly readied myself for goodbye.

Chiang Mai is a curious land. Like the rest of the developing world, it’s straddling the line between holding on to its rich past and propelling towards a starkly different future. But instead of the obvious conflict tourist-friendly cities exhibit, the city reeks of quiet acceptance – it’s proud of its heritage, its wall, and legacies but it’s happy to create new relics. Here, you can meditate in a centuries-old temple, traipse through a national park and make the most of its consumer-friendly 7/11 culture without worrying about the effect of development on age-old culture. Chiang Mai appears at peace … both the city and its inhabitants hospitable and harmonious –  and whether you’re here for a day or a month… inspires you to claw for your peace. Just don’t let your calm be as ephemeral as your vacation.

Fact file

Location: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Other attractions: Bhubing Palace, Elephant sanctuaries (Elephant Nature Park; Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary; Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand), San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, Doi Inthanon (A full day trip—rent an able car or a powerful bike to survive the 100-oddkm, uphill drive, engage a local agent for a tour or camp overnight)

For our food trail through Chiang Mai city, follow this link

 

 

The foodie’s guide to eating it all in Chiang Mai

Deep fried crispy egg noodles delicately mingling with boiled egg noodles, seasoned with pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and spicy ground chillies fried in oil, and your choice of succulent meat, doused in a tangy Massaman curry-like sauce containing coconut milk—Northern Thai Khao Soi, served on every street corner and most restaurants in Chiang Mai city, is one of the most popular dishes in Northern Thai cuisine. And one of the most delectable, if cooked-well, setting the bar high for our culinary expectations of the city. As you can tell, I’m quite invested (and picky) in food – on holiday, and at home. Luckily for me, Chiang Mai fulfilled every craving – from incessant yearnings for noodles, the hunt for the perfect meat on a stick, to the longing for a good-old Western snack to the sudden, and unprecedented yen for pizza. The best part? The food in Chiang Mai is extremely budget friendly, be it at the markets or any of the restaurants suggested below. So if you’re planning a trip, on need a reason to, read on for our round-up of the supper stops you have to make.

 

  • Kanjana restaurant: “Eat here and never die”, proudly exclaims a sign in the quaint Thai restaurant established in 1997 – while we’re not sure if they’re promising hygienic food or imminent immortality, their extensive menu and beyond delectable food sure were life-giving. The Khao Soi is well made, and a nice way to introduce yourself to the peculiar dish that can take some getting used to, while our favourite dishes included the cashew chicken, stir-fried morning glory and fried noodle kee-mao (hot!). While the ancient Thai ice cream dessert featured not-so-ancient oreo flavoured ice cream, we give it high points for its mix of peanuts, rice and fruit. Full disclosure, we went back the next day to make the most of this Chiang-Mai gem’s immense menu.
  • Chilled Coffee House: We stumbled upon this chilled little coffee house a few hours after we landed in Chiang Mai … a short walk from the old Moat, its doors were thrown open and it was the scent of spicy soya noodles that lured us in – a pork-based broth, a lush plate of morning glory and of course, the seductive soy noodles made our first meal in Chiang Mai a very memorable one.

    The food court served us well at Kalare Night Bazaar
  • Kalare Night Bazaar
    While its range of product stalls is fascinating enough, the Kalare Night Bazaar food court in Chiang Mai is a thing of beauty – a melting pot of cultures, from Little Istanbul to Naina Indian Food, it’s range of cuisines is remarkable, but the winner remained the local Thai stalls. Meander through the market, and pick your poison based on the stalls favourited by locals – that’s where you’re likely to find the most authentic local food. Pair your meal with a local brew (Changs, Leo, Singha) and enjoy locals singing under the hundreds of lights in the bustling market. Don’t miss their chicken and pork satays – which make convenient and easy-to-carry snacks as you meander through the markets.

    Mint chocolate chip at Ploen Ruedee to end a long evening of bazaar-hopping
  • Ploen Ruedee night market
    Down the road from Kalare, Ploen Ruedee night market can be characterized by its more Western-suited offerings – the international food park has a range of fancier (therefore pricier) stalls, along with cool cocktail bars on wheels and fancy ice cream parlours. We had our meal at Kalare, and washed it down with decadent Mint Chocolate Chip and Swiss Chocolate ice cream at Ploen Ruedee, Chiang Mai.

    Over ordering? What’s that? My spread by the lake.
  • Huay Tung Tao Lake eateries
    With a view of the mountains in the distance, straw huts on stilts and of course, the soft ripples and endless views of the silent lake, Huay Tung Tao Lake, a 20-minute drive away from Chiang Mai city, is an urban utopia and an ideal way to spend a day like the locals. About 20 or more restaurants surrounding the lake serve well-priced food and drinks, including fresh fish in little huts made of bamboo and grass – carry along your speakers, a book and make no plans for the day – you can easily while away a sleepy afternoon making the most of this serene locale, not-so-often-frequented by tourists (yet.) Try and get there earlier than lunch time on a weekend as the huts fill up quickly.

    Carrot cake of my dreams
  • Angel’s Secrets
    A vintage-style bakery of our dreams, stop by after you’ve had enough time to recover from a big meal because you’re going to want to make the most of their incredible bakes and desserts. Set aside an hour or so to make the most of their cutesy furniture and vintage-vibe, screen doors and cushion-covered seats et al. Our pick is the #bestselling Carrot Cake paired with their homemade vanilla ice cream (ordered separately). And if that doesn’t get your sugar fix sorted, take home some of their double chocolate cookies for a Chiang Mai-style midnight snack.

    Basil chicken with chilli vinegar #easyonthechilli
  • Lucky Too
    If you’ve had your fill of authentic Thai cuisine (can you really have enough?) whilst in Chiang Mai and are craving good old pizza, this is the place for you. Designed for a more Western palate, its Thai specials are palatable but low on the seasoning and spice while its fusion pizza (Basil chicken, doused with chilli vinegar) and classics, including fries and sandwiches hit the homesick hunger-spot.
  • Special mentions: When in Thailand, do it Thai-style… and make sure you stop over at the 7/11s that are conveniently located every few metres, try the frozen-bottled fresh juices (Orange FTW) and tiny, local breakfast places in Chiang Mai city that serve up the most fulfilling breakfast broths for the hungry soul.

 

Fact file

Location: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Things to do: Visit Buddhist Temples, National Parks, Night Bazaars
Recommended eateries: The Good View, Tong Bar & Restaurant, Khun Kae’s Juice Bar

A version of this article was previously published on Vogue.in