• Stroll through the rice fields outside Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai, in the north-west jungle highlands of Thailand, offers a cool change from the rest of the country. With its history as a trading route, its cuisine is influenced by Burmese, Malay and Shan cooking. Cookbook author Kirsty Manning-Wilcox discovers its dishes are meatier and quite different to the rest of Thai cuisine.
By
Kirsty Manning-Wilcox

1 Aug 2013 - 7:31 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Where

Chiang Mai lies 754 kilometres north-west of Bangkok between Laos and Burma.

 

Why go?

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern hub – a cosmopolitan mix of international trade and agriculture. Visit the ancient walled city and temples, and day-trip into surrounding mountains and rice fields. Chiang Mai residents are very proud of their Lanna (northern) culture.

 

Must eats

Lanna-style food is less hot and spicy than southern Thai cuisine, with strong influences of both Shan and Burmese cuisine. Chicken and pork are key ingredients. Crispy pork skin is a common accompaniment to curries, salads and nam prik: a series of hot spicy dips served with a platter of fresh seasonal vegetables and herbs. Many darker curries have a gamey flavour and often contain chunky pieces of pork offal and black sausage.
Kao soi is a mild pork/chicken curry with coconut milk served with yellow fried egg noodles. It is a popular street food and available at the Anusan Night Market, Night Bazaar, or the Saturday and Sunday Walking Markets. Try thick Chiang Mai sausage: pork mince mixed with local herbs and spices and served sliced over rice.

Most meals in Chiang Mai are served with sticky rice (khao niew) that can be squeezed into balls. A dessert version (kao niew ma muang) features mango and coconut milk.

Many of the local organic herbs, fruit, flowers and vegetables are the product of The Royal Project Foundation. The “King’s Project” aims to break the cycle of poverty, deforestation and narcotics cultivation for Thais and Hilltribe people, providing alternative crops, infrastructure and technology. Visit the wholesale Muang Mai or the Sompet markets for fresh produce.

The locally grown coffee is excellent. For a quiet coffee, cocktail, modern Lanna cuisine and funky crafts and fashion, try Ginger & Kafe located at The House.

 

Best food souvenirs

Lanna-style silver tableware and cutlery, ceramic/wood dishes and platters.

 

Best time to visit

June is the best month to enjoy ripe Thai fruits such as mangosteen and giant lychee.

 

How to get there

Many airlines offer cheap one-hour flights from Bangkok, or fly direct from Asian hubs. Catch a train (sleeper carriage or seat) from Hualamphong Station, Bangkok. It takes about 10 hours. Or buses leave from Mo Chit station in north Bangkok. Be prepared for squishy seats and unreliable air-conditioning for an average 11-hour trip.

Where to stay

The Chedi Chiang Mai Hotel is central. Basic Deluxe rooms start at THB 6,777. Book a room facing the garden or river as roadside rooms are noisy. The gift shop showcases quality Lanna crafts, clothes and books.

 

Recommended books

Lanna Style: Art & Design of Northern Thailand by William Warren with photographs by Ping Amranand.

 

Don't miss Luke Nguyen's Greater Mekong on Thursdays at 8pm on SBS ONE as he travels through Thailand. Here's a taste of his chargilled Chiang Mai pork belly recipe.