sitting at the foothills of what are among thailand’s highest mountains and boasting a milder climate than most of the country’s other prominent cities, chiang mai is fast becoming a popular destination for travellers to the land of smiles. love bangkok’s diversity but weary of its unavoidable congestion and frantic pace? been to hua hin, phuket and the outlying islands, and had enough of beach massages and motorcycle tours to last a lifetime?
chiang mai is the ideal middle ground; there is more than enough to satiate your wanderlust and taste for off-beat encounters, wrapped up and delivered on a zen platter of laidback surrender. you can do as much as you want or as little, and still have a finger on its pulse.
walking around the city, you will find plenty of reasons to sit down for a breather from the many wats and linger over coffee, cakes and local bites. here are five favourite cafes to do just that.
khagee natural yeast bread cafe
you have to keep your eyes open to spot this gem of a cafe as it’s housed in the unlikeliest location: in a three-unit, double-storey building that’s over a century old, with its upper level wrapped in a wooden facade. the street front cafe is diagonally across nawarat bridge that connects to chiang mai’s old city, and looks out to the promenade of the river ping.
the cafe’s name is printed in small white letterings on the glass windows, its existence as inconspicuous as its interiors are minimalist, with a decidedly japanese vibe that would place it well within the pages of monocle or kinfolk. white-washed walls make a clean backdrop for a mixed bag of furniture pieces in soft tones with vintage edges, while slender steel fittings complement the sleek wooden counter that smacks of scandinavian flair.
its aesthetics reflect khagee’s owners, the strapping khame who is of thai origin, and his japanese girlfriend gee (khagee is a portmanteau of their names). gee was a hairstylist in tokyo before she took up a short course in bread-making, not knowing then that it would lead to her current vocation. she single-handedly bakes everything that’s served at khagee, which explains its small menu of sandwiches and cakes.
the pork pastrami baguette sandwich is close to porcine perfection, with tender slices of the cured meat nestled between layers of crisp vegetables, gouda cheese, a slap of mayonnaise and mustard. holding them together is gee’s claim to fame: a baguette that’s so airy on the inside that the sandwich is practically as light as a feather, while its crust is satisfyingly crunchy.
for a sweet finish, the berry banana bread is a short stack built from two pieces of toasted bread sandwiching a generous layer of cream cheese, with more piled on top, then drizzled with a berry compote and finished with a sprinkle of chopped pistachios. what you get is a winning combination of textures and flavours, ideal for washing down with a cup of local asama coffee.
29-30 chiang mai-lumphun road tel +66 82 975 7774 opens 10am-5.30pm, wednesday-sunday www.facebook.com/khageecafe
diff home bakery and kitchen
wannalah suwannapoo, or mei, and her husband was running diff as a coffee takeaway kiosk at a mall before expanding to this full-fledged cafe opposite the gymkhana golf course. decked out with leafy plants out front and rain boots converted into flower pots, diff stands out like a modern country home. inside, that quintessential english outlook is tempered with doses of eclecticism, like cushy armchairs upholstered in polka dotted pastel fabric while a light bulb sign spells out the word ‘sweet’ on one wall.
it’s an appropriate description of diff’s specialties, a variety of cakes and cookies all baked by mei, and includes options that are friendly to those on gluten-free and vegan diets. start your day here with a cup of freshly brewed single-estate organic arabica beans supplied by doi chaang, an independent coffee company set in the hills of northern thailand and owned by hill tribe families.
diff also stocks an extensive range of regular and organic teas, displayed on their counter like badges of honour in between bags of coffee beans. for breakfast or tea, choose your cuppa and pair it with thick slabs of french toast, waffles and a selection of pastries. more substantial meals can be had for lunch and dinner, with pastas and grilled sandwiches among their more popular offerings.
17 rat uthit road, t wat kate, muang district tel +66 89 850 3845 opens 8am-5pm daily www.facebook.com/cafebydoichaangcoffee
a short walk from diff and facing an old tree with heavy branches, this cafe is practically hidden in plain sight. like khagee, it’s a 100-year-old wooden house with the main road running right by it.
a small signage announces its presence, in thai, which will undoubtedly be lost on foreign travellers but if you find your way here, you will be rewarded with owner somnuek tanapornpirom’s signature kopi (that’s coffee in thai) brewed the old-fashioned way using a cloth filter. he is often invited to ‘pop up’ at hotels and serve his aromatic beverages. dressed in a khaki ensemble that’s reminiscent of planters’ uniforms, complete with a domed hat, somnuek will turn up with his trusty vintage bicycle that’s specially outfitted to function as a mobile coffee bar – just like the good old days.
befittingly, his eponymous joint is like a time capsule of thailand past, reeking of nostalgia with every nook and cranny crammed with antiques and retro collectibles. the layout recalls a coffee shop in parts and a cosy home in others, while a semi alfresco seating area towards the back is a picture of serenity, perched over the river and decked out in overhanging greens.
besides kopi, the other thing to try here is the very simple but satisfying toast with condensed milk, browned pieces of thick hainanese-style bread cut into triangles and drizzled over with the sticky syrup.
176-178, chiang mai-lamphun road, mueang tel +66 81 575 4338 opens 10am-6pm daily www.facebook.com/somnuekkopi
fat turmeric-spiced sausages, spicy-savoury pad kra pao moo (basil pork) with rice, mangoes with purple sticky rice, zesty papaya salads...there is no end to the variety of lip-smacking good food to be had in chiang mai. but on days when you know you’ve really overdone it and your body is calling out for some clean eating, head to this vegetarian eatery that’s just around the corner from the landmark wat chedi luang.
part of a semi-outdoor complex of retail and food outlets, beetroot stories beckons health-conscious diners with colourful cushions and a vibrant spiral wall mural that reflects its bohemian leanings. fully supportive of local and organic farms, they take the freshest seasonal produce and turn them into wholesome all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, juices and a smattering of thai dishes.
kad krang wieng, 71 rachadumnern road, t. phrasing a. muang tel +097 949 5561 opens 10am-9pm daily
lhong-pa coffee bar and home cooking
an hour outside of chiang mai city and home to high-end resorts such as the four seasons, the district of mae rim is where nature and wildlife lovers will feel right at home, with attractions that range from elephant camps to insect zoos and a tiger kingdom.
this is also where you’ll find this restful jungle cafe that has its roots as an art gallery. as popular among locals as it is tourists, lhong-pa serves thai coffees, milk tea and fruit-infused sodas alongside a menu of local and fusion grub. chill out within the air-conditioned comfort of its indoor dining area or sit tatami-style at the outdoor pavilion adjacent to its ‘zoo’, a small enclosure inhabited by gibbons.
bring a good appetite and tuck into dishes like kao pad nam prik num, which is fried rice with a spicy chutney, grilled pork, kep moo (pork scratching), a soft-boiled egg and vegetables. it’s a complete meal on its own that bursts with the authentic flavours of northern thailand.
soi nam tok mae sa 1 (mae sa waterfall), mae rim district, samoeng road tel +88 80 501 3028 opens 9am-6pm daily www.facebook.com/lhongpacoffeebarandhomecooking
this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail