Sep 06, 2012|
From Khun Churn and Goodview to Vieng Joom On and Let Them Eat Cake by W Wanlamun, the arrival of Chiang Mai’s biggest names in Bangkok is giving us a taste of the North while sparing us the airfare. But we simply couldn’t resist the urge to head back to uncover the next wave of happening places to eat, drink and stay.
While Bangkok’s coffee scene is defined by ubiquitous Starbucks outlets, cutesy start-ups and fairly grungy street carts, there’s a far more sophisticated coffee culture brewing in Chiang Mai. After enough cups to get us shaking, we deliver our picks of the best cafés to get your caffeine fix.
Sat right at the opening of Nimmanhaemin Soi 3 is Doppio Ristr8to (15/3 Nimmanhaemin Rd. front of Soi 3, 053-215-278. Open daily 08:08am-11:08pm), arguably the most happening coffee shop in town thanks to owner Arnon “Tong” Thitiprasert’s appearance as a por-kha-zaap (hot vendor) on the Toey Tiew Thai TV program. They may be drawn in by the pretty face but the café’s customers return for the fine coffee blends and Tong’s dab hand at latte art. After six years in Sydney, where he won several coffee-making awards, this Trang-born barista decided to relocate to Chiang Mai to open Ristr8to in 2011. Ristretto means a short shot of espresso, but Tong ranked 6th at the last World Latte Art Championship, so you can’t really not order a hot latte. After selecting your coffee beans (we like the Ethiopian offering), grab a seat at the counter and watch as Tong skillfully pours milk over your steaming espresso shot to create beautiful patterns, talking enthusiastically all the while. We asked for a phoenix and it came out wonderfully (too bad their iced coffee isn’t nearly as nice).
Akha Ama (1/F, Mathan Apartment, 9/1 Hussadisawi Rd. Soi 3, 086-915-8600. Open Thu-Tue 8am-8pm) offers a somewhat different experience. Tucked away in the middle of nowhere, the small baan-baan café uses fresh coffee beans produced by the Akha hill tribe community in Mae Suay, Chiang Rai. The story started back in 2010, when Lee Ayu Chuepa, who was educated in Chiang Rai, decided to open up a small café to expand the market for his village’s coffee products and raise local living standards. Aside from a three-day barista course, Lee hasn’t had any formal coffee schooling—rather he learned everything he knows from his mother. “I’ve lived with coffee since I was born,” he says. And this provides the explanation for the café’s name: “Ama” means mother in the Akha language. There are no fancy decorations or showy latte art here, but every single cup of coffee is made with loving attention to flavor with beans that have been certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe for three years running. That warm feeling? That’s the knowledge that the café’s profits are returned to the community.
Head back to Nimmanhaemin, the district with the highest number of cafés in Thailand, where there’s a new kid on the block. Set in a 60s-style house with its own courtyard, just like other cafés in the neighborhood, what sets Librarista (Nimmanhaemin Soi 5, 053-895-678. Open daily 10am-9pm) apart is that it’s the first here to couple a coffee shop with a proper library (not a bookstore). Guests who buy a cup of coffee are authorized to use the well-stocked library for two hours. If you find yourself out of town in Mae Rim then Sala Café (same entrance as Four Seasons Resort on Mae Rim-Samoeng Rd., Mae Rim, 053-860-996. Open daily 8am-6pm) is a cute option, set in a two-story wooden house complete with garden, surrounded by verdant hills.
While Bangkokians are all aflutter about the chic new somtam joints opening up around town, Chiang Mai residents recommend Somtam So Lao (Sirimangkalachan Rd., 089-635-5848. Open Thu-Tue 10am-8pm) for a tasty spicy papaya salad. Try the signature So Lao (B40) which mixes together everything from papaya to deep-fried pork skin and plaraa (fermented fish sauce), or the kai tod nam pla (fried chicken with sweet-and-salty sauce, B48). But we also discovered a newer even better place that many locals don’t even know about: Somtam Luang Prabang (Pa Tan Rd., 053-211-670. Open daily 10am-10pm) is tucked away down the same soi as the famous Huan Soontree restaurant, close to Zensala Resort (see below). This small place sells Lao-style somtam, which is slightly different from ours. Try the somtam Luang Prabang, which combines slices of papaya mixed with herbs and plaraa (B40), or opt for the somtam Vientiane (B40) if you feel like a more traditional variation on somtam plaraa. As the owner is the station manager of Lao Airlines, and brings in cooks from Luang Prabang, do expect authentic tastes.
One of the freshest lodges in Chiang Mai is Zensala (168 Patan Rd., 053-225-888. www.zensalaresort.com), which is hidden away to the north of the town center on the bank of the Ping River. This edgy 11-room boutique hotel was designed by IDIN Architects, famous for their boxy, minimalist structures with raw-cement surfaces. Local teak furniture adds a bit of warmth to the rooms, while the location is heartwarming in itself: not only is it riverside but the other side of the river is nothing but lush forest. If you can, book a pool-access room. Opening rates start from B2,000.
If you’re after a more classy ambiance, 137 Pillars House (2 Na Watgate Rd. Soi 1, 053-247-788) has just officially opened near to the charming Wat Gate community. The renovated old teak house which once belonged to British merchant Louis Leonowens is now home to a library and restaurant surrounded by 30 spacious suites decked out in a British-colonial theme. Opening rates are from B5,355.
A more affordable option is Nimman Mai? (Soi Sukkasem, Nimmanhaemin Rd., 053-400-567), located down a small lane close to Wawee Coffee and Ristr8to. The rooms are themed according to different continents, from traditional Thai to European. The place is not yet fully complete so rates are currently B1,400 for every room. Right opposite Tamarind Village is a new budget hotel, The Sculpture (9/1 Ratchadamnoen Rd., 053-277-020), which occupies a renovated Victorian-style townhouse. It’s currently B500 for a room decked out with an ensuite and eye-catching wall graffiti (don’t worry, it’s clean).
Further into Mae Rim, Proud Phufah (97/5 Moo 1, Maerim-Samoeng Rd., 053-879-389, 053-879-286) has just unveiled its new “Phu Zone,” which goes to show cute design need not cost a fortune. The modern-looking building houses 10 cozy rooms fitted out with ivory-colored terrazzo and basic furnishings—think Index Living Mall and IKEA. Opening rates are from B5,500. Nine of them have either a pool or Jacuzzi in-room so you can take a tub and enjoy the mountain views. And while doing so, you might just start planning your next visit to Chiang Mai.