Being a relatively large town with a fair-sized expat community as well as plenty of passing visitors Chiang Rai has a correspondingly wide choice of restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
Porchai Khao Soi lies towards the northern end of Jetyod Road and is a standard local cafe in the neon lighting and aluminium table-style serving up an authentic khao soi with an honest 40 baht price tag.
Further south on the same street—on the opposite corner to the wat of the same name—the basic looking Som Tam Jetyod knocks up great local specialities with an I-san twist so for example; som tam, laap and sup nom mai (bamboo shoot soup), accompanied by sticky or plain rice. They do compromise by including fried rice and surprise, surprise, pad Thai on their English language menu but we’d recommend sampling their hard to find salad, naem kuk, which consists of crunched up, crispy, fried rice balls mixed with fermented pork, lime juice, peanuts and various herbs. A delicious northern/Isaan-style dish that you don’t often come across and we see no reason why you can’t order it sans the default pork if you prefer. Dishes go for between 30 and 50 baht though, as with Porchai, they do open daytimes only and close up around 16:00.
Another absolute lunchtime fave of ours, a five-minute walk north of the clock tower and next to the main mosque, is Rosprasert Muslim Food. The friendly owners dish up a bunch of curries, biryani and oxtail soup in the morning or you can order freshly cooked dishes such as khao soi. Their large portion of khao soi goes for 50 baht, chicken biryani 60 or their particularly good beef one at 80. They do open until 19:30 so ok for an early dinner at least.
Another happy hunting ground for local fare is a strip of four or five eateries along Soi Banpha Prakarn just west of Yoddoi Coffee and the clock tower. These are all highly popular with locals and alternate between cooked to order noodle soup shops and pick your own prepared curry joints. Busy, noisy and cheap it’s a good opportunity to sample lunch where the locals go.
A fine spot for later evening dining, and more restaurant-style in their menu scope if not their decor, is the excellent old Muang Thong on the corner of Phaholyothin and Soi Sunpanad, just a short walk down from the night bazaar. This is your standard Sino-Thai eatery with zero decor and more aluminium tables but cooked to order food is of an excellent quality, copious and cheap. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to matter how busy they are you never wait more than five minutes for your food. Large servings of all your Thai faves plus a few local specialities go for between 90 and 120 baht a dish, small and large, with the latter suitable for two people sharing. They also sell cheaper one-plate, over-rice, dishes such as spicy curry or fried chilli and basil and conveniently open from 07:00 until 03:00. (They used to open 24 hours but the owner says she’s getting too old for that now.)
Albeit with a much more limited range, another good source of cheap and authentic local nosh is the food court in the famous Night Bazaar. Well, there is a wide choice but that’s mainly in the beer snack range and the default dinner option—hugely popular with locals, so a good sign—is the cook it yourself hot-pots. Vendors will place a bubbling pan of stock on your table, (spicy or mild), to which you add vegetables, noodles and fish or meat as you wish accompanied by dipping sauces. Prices vary according to the number of persons and which ingredients you select but go from a very reasonable 100 baht for two people up to around 150 baht for large sets. A cheap and fun dinner and if it doesn’t taste good you’ve only got yourself to blame.
Moving up a level—in terms of decor, sophistication and of course price—then Barrab, at Chat House and Tong Tung on Sanarmbin Road, are two very good addresses specialising in northern Thai food. The former has a simpler setting but receives very good reviews while the latter has a classy cadre and includes nightly traditional dance shows. If you haven’t yet tried them in Chiang Mai, then there is a lot more to local food than khao soi and both present fine opportunities to sample the northern, gingery, pork belly curry (gaeng hanglay), spicy sausages (sai hua) and dips such as nam phrik num and nam phrik ong. Tong Tung’s mains weigh in between 100 and 150 baht up to 350 for whole fish dishes.
Also of note for Thai specialities is the famous Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant run by the PDA, (Population and Community Development Association) next to the hill-tribe museum. “C and C” was originally set up to promote and provide funding for family planning projects, initially among lowland Thai but later for hill-tribe communities as well. They now have nearly 20 outlets all over Thailand including Pattaya, several in Bangkok, and even now two branches in the UK. (There’s another in Chiang Rai’s Wiang Pa Pao district on the way to Chiang Mai plus a couple more local branches at Ban Du and Mae Chan.)
First opened in 1978 we believe the Chiang Rai city branch is one of, if not the, oldest, (it definitely looks it), but we doubt it’s the most popular. It’s a cavernous, gloomy hall with rows of wooden tables aimed at large tour groups and—a recurring theme in Chiang Rai—somewhat over-inflated prices. Yes, their Thai food is generally of reasonable quality and it is all in a good cause but we have seen other places that manage to combine good value for money while helping to fund associated aid projects.
Last but certainly not least, and though situated a bit out of town, well worth a trip if you have your own wheels, is the oddly named Chiang Rai Beach. As Kok River waters recede after the rainy season sandy beaches appear along the river bank where wooden stilt salas or tethered floating rafts offer a choice of mat on the floor for some rustic barbecue and beer joints. Many Thai towns have a nearby lake or riverbank providing similar set-ups—Chiang Mai’s Huay Teung Tao for example—but Chiang Rai’s version seems to have a more ramshackle air about it.
Grills, ice-boxes and woks are set up along the promenade by the carpark with staff scurrying across the sands delivering orders to punters, who, in low season, can be some distance away. (If that’s not far enough you can even take a small boat to the opposite bank where a limestone outcrop and small cave temple overlook the dunes.)
Prices are cheap and offerings include whole fish in hot and sour orange curry, sun-dried beef or pork, laap, grilled chicken, dancing shrimp, (live baby shrimp) and so-on all washed down with lashings of iced beer. Though popular with the town’s expats it does cater primarily to locals so don’t ask for a green curry or pad Thai! Vendors with baskets also roam from sala to sala hawking nuts, fruit and quail’s eggs. You can stuff yourself for less than 200 baht per person but careful taking a dip if you’ve eaten or drunk a lot! Chiang Rai Beach lies around four kilometres out of town to the west and can be reached by either following the river lanes from Mae Fah Luang Bridge or continuing to the end of San Khong Noi Road. Riverside or floating seating areas close down around 22:00 but carpark vendors claim to carry on serving all night long.
Map of eating options for Thai
Barrab c/o Chat House, 3/2 Soi Sangkaew, Trirat Rd; T: (053) 711 481; https://www.facebook.com/9LannByBarrab/ Mo–Sa: 11:00–20:30.
Cabbages and Condoms 620/25 Thanalai Rd; T: (053) 719 167; https://www.facebook.com/candc.cr/ Mo–Su: 10:00–00:30.
Chiang Rai Beach Around 4 kms west of town on the riverbank; Mo–Su: River rafts 10:00–22:00, promenade stalls 24 hours .
Muang Thong Phaholyothin Rd, corner of Soi Sunpanad; T: (053) 711 162, (081) 952 1151; Mo–Su: 07:00–03:00.
Night Bazaar Food Court Night Bazaar, Phaholyothin Rd; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:00.
Porchai Khao Soi Cafe 1023/3 Jetyod Rd; Mo–Su: 07:00–16:00.
Rosprasert Muslim Food Soi Isaraparb; T: (053) 715 296, (089) 633 7660; Mo–Su: 07:00–19:30 .
Som Tam Jetyod Jetyod Rd opposite Wat Jetyod; T: (053) 701 400; Mo–Su: 09:00–16:00.
Tong Tung 9 Soi Sanarmbin; T: (053) 716 162, (053) 756 403; Mo–Su: 10:00–14:00 & 16:30–22:00 (dance show 19:00–21:00).
In the coffee shop/bakery department Chiang Rai presents a wide selection of excellent addresses. Of course the province is a prime Arabica growing region but there are above average bakery options around as well.
Starting in the centre and working our way out, Nangnon on Jetyod was one of our faves and they percolate a fine home-blended brew and the homemade brownies are particularly good. If for some reason they’re closed then Maejantai Coffee next door competes with a pleasant terrace out front, a nicely decorated, varnished wood interior finished off with a few Akha style handicraft items and some cracking cheesecakes.
At the end of Jetyod, around the clock tower is another clutch of coffee shops with cute all-wood decorated Yoddoi on the northwest corner serving up what we reckoned was one the best brews around plus the larger Pangkhon directly opposite with an air-con interior and also a couple of outdoor tables for those recalcitrants who enjoy some nicotine with their caffeine. Both have good little bakeries too, offer up a range of breakfasts plus some Thai standard lunch dishes and come with friendly service. On the south side of the clock tower is the attractive, Thai retro style Koffee Hub which also serves up a decent brew but lacks a Western-style bakery.
There are plenty more coffee shops in the area; dotted along Phaholyothin plus the more restaurant style Baan Chivit Mai and Connect Cafe mentioned in our eating section close to the bus station but perhaps the star of Chiang Rai’s bakeries is the very fancy, riverside Melt in Your Mouth. The restored old villa setting is sumptuous with a choice of seating in their attractive interior or on the riverside deck. The main brick house and manicured gardens give it something of an English country home feel without the scones although the sweetness of the bakery and cake selection is presumably a nod to local tastes.
The blurb on their very fancy menu—which manages to render a plate of chips into gourmet cuisine—makes the generous claim that the Thai owners’ “humble beginning started with an idea that (they) wanted to share the ambience of the backyard…with everyone…)”. Some backyard although they also apparently wanted to share up to 135 baht a cup coffee prices with everyone too. Certainly a picturesque spot to splurge on a juice or caffeine-based creation though or for those who prefer their dessert served with a fork rather than spoon.
A final and very popular coffee shop address worth mentioning, with presentation case after case and a bank of fridges full of seriously creamy concoctions is Grace Bakery down on Soi Singhakhai. Convenient if you’re strolling around one of the town’s more scenic areas and again a choice of interior air-con or terrace seating.
Grace Bakery Soi Singhakhai; T: (087) 184 4643, (085) 033 3090; Mo–Su: 07:00–20:00.
Maejantai Coffee Jetyod Rd, Chiang Rai; T: (090) 475 9288; Mo–Su: 07:00–19:00.
Melt in Your Mouth 268 Moo 21, Koh Loy; T: (052) 020 549; https://www.facebook.com/meltinyourmouthchiangrai/ Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00.
Nangnon Coffee Jetyod Rd; T: (087) 661 1477; https://www.facebook.com/nangnoncoffee/ Mo–Su: 07:30–18:00.
Pangkon Coffee: Corner of Phaholyothin and Suksathit by clock tower; T: (085) 576 2558; Mo–Su: 07:00–19:00.
Yoddoi Coffee Corner of Ban Pha Prakan by clock tower; https://www.yoddoikafaedoichaang.com/ Mo–Su: 07:30–22:00.
As far as foreign fare goes, you can choose from a bit-of-everything menus which offer Western comfort food choices alongside the local classics, as well as a clutch of specialist foreign restaurants.
In the first category, Siam Corner and Easy House are two of the best-known addresses. Long-standing Easy, on the corner of the massage soi leading down to Wangcome, has a strategic location, airy seating area and extensive and competent array of dishes while the equally well-located Siam, directly opposite, has also been around for some time and proposes a similarly eclectic menu. The former isn’t cheap—there’s nothing much under 100 baht, even fried rice—while burgers and sandwiches go for between 130 and 190 and main courses 120 to 150. Siam Corner has better deals for a reasonably authentic range of Thai and Western classics including burgers, steaks, salads, pasta and sandwiches. Local mains are from 60 upwards and burgers for example, cost between 120 and 160.
A couple of relatively new and smarter looking pretenders in the same category, also on the Jetyod block, are the adjacently situated Heaven Burger and Oak and Awe cafes. Both receive excellent reviews and once again propose both Western and Thai fare. The latter compete with Heaven’s admittedly top-draw burger choices with pizzas and possessing one of the widest drinks menus in these parts, is a popular drinking hole with local expats too. Heaven also include a few Thai options on their menu such as—you guessed it—pad Thai, though a better than average one for 90 baht if we remember correctly. Both have on-the-ball English speaking staff and well-prepared, reasonably-priced offerings across the range so they’re understandably popular though we can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that, with wonderful Thai food abounding, the town’s most highly rated eateries online are ones that specialise in burgers and pizzas.
Ban Chivit Mai Bakery (in English something like ‘New Life House’) is a non-profit organisation helping under-privileged youngsters from local hill-tribe communities. Once more it’s bakery, coffee shop and restaurant combined, with local and western breakfasts, lunches and snacks available and their bakery section is particularly good. Prices are again high (e.g. fried rice for 100 baht) and however worthy the cause, if they’re running a cafe, they do need to ensure value for money since a casual passer-by, just perusing their menu and unaware of the background, may well just do that and—pass by.
A highly acclaimed address for pizzas, burgers and steaks is the western-run Hungry Wolf’s down on Kraisorasit Road. Popular with foreigners as well as better-heeled locals it may be a bit of a hike to get down there and it isn’t exactly a budget address but you do get value for money once there. They have a wide-ranging menu specialising in the steak and burger field and this is one of the town’s best addresses for such Western fare.
Last but certainly not least is another out of centre spot well worth mentioning before moving onto the more specialist, in-town eateries, is Chivit Thamma Da. Chiang Rai’s classiest restaurant address (and that includes those belonging to the 5-star resorts) with a delightful, riverside, garden terrace and lovingly restored period villa gets a nod in our bar section as well but is a top lunch spot if you have a few baht to spare.
It is expensive, (simple fried rice goes for 200 to 250 baht for example) but at least here you can see what you’re paying for with a great location, well-prepared and presented selection of local and international dishes and professional service so even if you’re not considering lunch, at least pop in for a coffee or juice to have a peek. The stunning teak buildings also house a billiard room, library and conservatory as well as croquet lawn so you can imagine the ambience.
Onto more specialist kitchens, and back on Jetyod, with a splendid, spacious, garden seating area you’ll find the Indian restaurant Accha. It’s a sensibly restrained Anglo-Indian menu, including some Jain—Indian vegetarian—options and everything we tried was very good quality and reasonably priced. Accha’s original outlet is a tiny affair on Chiang Mai’s Nimmanhemin Soi 9, but they’ve made a bit effort with decor at this address and the highly agreeable setting is open daily for lunches and dinners.
One block over, on Phaholyothin Road, Chef Sasa Restaurant now provides some much needed competition to the longer standing neighbours Da Vinci’s. The only thing wrong with the latter’s wood-fired pizzas and traditional-style pasta offerings were the prices, with some of the highest outside of a 5-star resort. The equally authentic and cheaper fare offered up by Sasa has, we’re guessing, been responsible for what appeared an appreciable lowering of price-tags at Da Vinci’s since our last visit two years back. Both now serve up good food in pleasant Italian bistro style surroundings with Da Vinci’s around the 350-400 baht mark baht per pizza and 120 baht for a glass of house wine and Sasa’s 220-320 for a pizza and 250-280 for most pasta main courses.
A couple of other addresses offering admittedly something for everyone menus yet again, but specialising in vegetarian and vegan fare are Yoddoi by the clock tower and Full Moon Wellness Cafe on Sang Khong Noi Road—location of the Sunday Walking Street market. The Yoddoi Restaurant, directly across the road from Yoddoi Coffee and opened apparently by the latter owner’s younger sister employs organic products to create a range of somewhat fusion-styled vegan and vegetarian dishes. Full Moon Wellness, as the name suggests, also serves organic, vegetarian and vegan light meals with gluten free options and a range of smoothies and herbal teas. Muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit are listed from 129 to 179 baht. A particularly friendly owner and agreeable setting and they stay open until 20:30 on Sundays for the street market trade.
Accha (Jain food) Jetyot Rd; T: (052) 055 223, (099) 291 155; https://www.facebook.com/acchachiangrai/ Mo–Su: 11:00–15:00 & 17:00–22:00.
Baan Chivit Mai 167-8 Prasop Sook Rd; T: (053) 712 357, (089) 191 3034; https://www.bcmthai.com/the-bakery Mo–Fr: 08:00–18:00 Sa–Su: 08:00–17:00.
Chef Sasa Restaurant 882-884 Phaholyothin Rd; T: (084) 837 3389; https://www.facebook.com/Chef.sasa57/ Th–Tu: 15:00–22:00.
Chivit Thamma Da 2 179 Bannrongseartean Soi 3, North of the Kok River; T: (053) 166 967, (099) 465 3554; http://www.chivitthammada.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–21:00.
Connect Cafe 170-171, Prasop Sook Rd; T: (053) 754 181; https://www.facebook.com/connectcafechiangrai Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00.
De Vinci 879/4-6 Phaholyothin Rd; T: (053) 752 535, (086) 656 3363; Mo–Su: 11:30–23:00.
Easy House Jedyod Rd; T: (097) 979 8636; Mo–Su: 09:00–00:30.
Heaven Burger 1025/5 Jetyod Rd; T: (094) 617 1923; https://www.facebook.com/Heaven-Burger-267960770294662/ Mo–Fr: 09:00–20:45 Sa–Su: 06:00–20:45.
Hungry Wolf’s 1131 Kraisorasit Rd; T: (081) 764 6768, (094) 717 6165; https://www.facebook.com/hungrywolfs Mo–Su: 11:30-22:00.
Oak and Awe 1021 Jetyod Rd; T: (097) 925 5302, (081) 023 4164; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oak-Awe-Coffee-Bar/1453472574957095 Mo–Sa: 09:00–22:30.
Siam Corner 1017 Jetyod Rd; T: (089) 560 2644; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:30.
Yoddoi Restaurant Ban Pha Prakan by the clock tower; https://www.yoddoikafaedoichaang.com/ Mo–Su: 07:00–00:00.
Bar-wise in downtown you’re a bit limited to the generally uninspiring selection on and around Jetyod Road which are split between half-hearted hostess bars (see Rose Bar, Lamyai Bar etc) with their expats, backpackers joints competing for the cheapest vodka red bull buckets and a couple of reggae themed bars run by dreadlock-topped southern Thai lads. There are several crossovers between the two—particularly those with live music—and some bars can get very lively later on a Friday or Saturday evening with both short and long-term visitors as well as a scattering of locals. Note that Chiang Rai’s finest keep a very strict 00:30 closing time rule.
What Jetyod lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity and there is one bar after another along its central stretch. Many of these are just single frontage, narrow, thin buildings, so usually just one or two small tables outside and dingy interiors and certain of these frequently long–standing establishments would be helped by a good scrub and a coat of new paint. We found prices, atmosphere and service to be highly variable even if at first glance it can be difficult to differentiate one from another. After extensive and dedicated research though, we’ll give it a try.
The owner of Cats Bar struck us as particularly friendly and they do have a decent pool table plus nightly live music while the tiny Dragon Breath right next door goes for the decoration prize with a quite astonishing wall recreation of what we think is a dragon’s lair all lit up in blue, pink and purple hues. It’s worth an evening drink just for a peek but the bubbly owner is also one of the friendliest on the stretch.
Across the road with pleasant street-side tables, a small first-floor balcony and a wood-clad interior the curiously named (though it may be a business-card typo) Chleeky Chicken Bar was another pleasant little watering hole, especially early evening. They offer a few simple Thai dishes to soak up your beer too.
Chiangrai Rastafarai (sic) Peacehouse Bar, next door to Dragon Breath, is one of the larger and more popular addresses and extends into a secluded yard out back. Long-term visitors often give it the heads up for the best live music in the area though we have noted the peace and love vibe doesn’t necessarily stretch to the bar bills and we’ve been seriously overcharged in here in the past.
Continuing the red, yellow and green flags and Bob Marley poster decor the more recently added Reggae Bar struck us as a convivial spot with a location on what is named Soi Thai Vivat which connects the east side of the Wangcome Hotel to Phaholyothin Road. The non-stop reggae backdrop and interior design may not be to everyone’s tastes but at least an effort has been made and when we visited the low-key, relaxed atmosphere was attracting quite a lot of custom. The large bar next door—whose name escapes us—is one of the few with late night permission around here which may have something to do with the owner’s police connections.
One block over, so also on a small lane linking Wangcome to Phaholyothin, the Norn Nung Len Cafe, downstairs from the guesthouse of the same name, caters more specifically to a backpacker clientele with cheap drinks, buckets, “Stupid Drunk Sundays” and something called “Hypnotise Tuesdays”, while Friday and Saturday evening live music can attract quite a mixed crowd.
For something a bit different and aiming at a better-heeled as well as more family market Aye’s, around the corner on Phaholyothin, propose no less than two pages of beer brands, two of wines and three of cocktails and liqueurs. The spacious seating area includes wooden tables inside and cane chairs out. That’s the same spot that sells the 300 baht khao soi and drinks aren’t cheap either.
For cheap and cheerful the food court in the Night Bazaar, just across the road, is a hard act to beat. As mentioned, their signature food offering is the cook-it-yourself hotpot but there’s also a tempting array of snacks and nibbles on offer including tempura, whole whitebait-style fried fish, spring rolls, sate and the full gamut of deep-fried insects interspersed with beer and drink counters. Prices are as cheap as you’ll find and eclectic entertainment goes from traditional Thai dance to Hotel California to a big screen TV for football games. The huge court crammed with yellow tables can get lively on a weekend and we’ve had some fun evenings here notably one when the local derby, Chiang Rai United versus Chiang Mai, was being screened.
Cat Bar 1013/1 Jetyod Rd; T: (095) 450 4044; Mo–Su: 13:00–00:30, live music 22:00 onwards .
Chleeky Chicken Bar 1016/2 Jetyod Rd; T: (087) 305 2818; https://www.facebook.com/Chleeky-Chicken-BAR-1376824829218073/ Mo–Su: 14:00–00:30.
Dragon Breath Jetyod Rd; Mo–Su: 17:00–00:00.
Night Bazaar Food Court Night Bazaar, Phaholyothin Rd; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:00.
Norn Nung Len Cafe 869/108-109 Pemavipat Rd, opposite Edison shopping mall.; T: (061) 928 2626; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00, live music Fr & Sa: 20:00–22:00 .
Reggae Home Soi Thai Vivat; T: (095) 680 0672; https://www.facebook.com/Reggae-Home-Bar-1223775444352050/ Mo–Su: 12:00–00:00.
Travelfish.org, Mark Ord.