From a Thai take on English breakfast to a rooftop bar where you can watch the stars, here are the places a hungry backpacker in Chiang Mai needs to know
Something that should remain off the menu in Chiang Mai is the water from the 700-year-old moat that surrounds the inner citadel of this northern Thai town. I was in Chiang Mai for the annual water festival/fight, Songkran, in April, when I inadvertently swallowed some of the wet stuff. The morning after the celebrations there was a dawn chorus of people in my hostel in the same position as myself (with their heads in buckets). When my appetite came back, it did so with a vengeance and the next step was where to go to get the most for my money.
Chiang Mai’s special dish is khao soi - egg noodles in soup with chicken or beef. Although it is also served in Bangkok, the Thais will tell you the taste is nothing like it is here in the north. The dish comes with other vegetables and seasoning, like chilli, lime, onions and bean sprouts, to add to taste. The cheapest place to find this food is Anusarn night market. Food is generally lower in price in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok and there are some beautiful places to tuck in, like the stalls around the famous monastery Doi Suthep on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, which is an hour’s drive by rented motorbike or a songthaew bus ride away.
Fill up at Smile Guesthouse’s all-you-can-eat belly-buster at its local cookery school, which is next door to the main lodge in the inner citadel. Although eating here is twice as expensive as a basic Thai meal, at 100 Baht, the huge spread is the perfect way to start the day for people who have a slightly larger appetite than the locals. I saw my first piece of bacon here in months and, although the local attempt at cooking the different components of an English breakfast looked strange, visitors can pick and mix to discover their favourite combination. Thai food is also available, as well as cereals, juices, tea and coffee and fruit as part of the price. We went here to fill up for the entire day, making sly sandwiches before the buffet closes at lunchtime. Find Smile at 5 Rachamankha Soi 2, Phra Singh, Muang. It might be easier to get there by tuk-tuk, as the guesthouse and cookery school are hidden down a small street off the main road.
Anyone craving home comforts should try O’Malley’s Irish Pub near Anusarn Market on Chiang Klan Road. Surrounded by traditional Thai shops and stalls, this place sticks out like an expat. However, backpackers craving home comforts like Sunday roast, pie and mash and English breakfast can get it here for a few extra Baht. The entertainment put on by the owners makes this venue a gem for getting to know other people, although the family atmosphere means it is not the best place to wind up drunk. Behind this pub hide several Thai bars, including the haunt of a famous kick-boxer from Thai movies and the staple town Reggae Bar, which plays such loud live music that its fish almost jump out of the tank.
Quite possibly the best backpackers' bar in the whole of Thailand is THC Rooftop Bar, opposite Thai Pai (pronounced pay) Gate along the walls of the inner citadel. However, it is very easy to be in the city and never see this place. To get to the THC Rooftop Bar, you need to go to the back of the hemp clothing shop and climb four flights of stairs (leaving flip-flops at the bottom of the last wooden ladder to the top). At the top there’s a sheikh’s parlour of cushions looking out over the city and one of the most famous temples in Thailand, Doi Suthep. The roof even retracts, so you can lie down and look at the stars. It is a truly magical place to be. Despite a run-of-the-mill menu of Thai and continental backpacker food, this place is well worth a visit for its reggae and dub beats (mostly filched from the BBC), friendly service and spectacular view.
Mike’s Burger Bar is an easy slouch-around corner joint with eat-in stools. The meal deals are everything you would expect from a small American diner-style take-away, with burgers that could fill almost any stomach. Just don’t sit here during the Songkran water festival, as it is on the corner of Chang Moi Road where pick-up trucks parade families around the citadel, hurling water from the back. Not only will you get very wet sitting here, but there is every chance you will get some moat water dressing on your burger.