Our top new reasons to head to Chiang Mai and around in the coming months, plus a few old favorites.

CHIANG MAI

1. Great coffee

Chiang Mai is firmly entrenched as Thailand’s coffee capital, and with good reason. Now, one of its most trusted names, Ristr8to, has opened a second, more experimental branch between Nimmanhemin sois 3 and 5. At Ristr8to Lab (between Nimmanhemin Soi 3 and 5, +66 (0) 53-215-278) owner-barista Arnon Thitprasert gets free rein to show off what he’s learned from coffee-making competitions and trips around the world. That means cult drinks from the world’s largest coffee hubs such as Melbourne and San Francisco, plus boozy offerings like the Ethiopian Monkey (hot mocha with creme de menthe). Elsewhere in town, more and more cool micro-cafes are popping up. Our picks are the street-side, Scandinavian-style One Day Drip (Sriphoom Soi 4, +66 (0) 86-554-2473) and the cozy Mix Kaffee (29/2 Arak Rd., +66 (0) 81-568-7203). For photo opps alone, the world’s first Lanna-style Starbucks has just opened at Kad Farang mall (225 Moo 13, Chiang Mai-Hod Rd., +66 (0) 53-430-552).
 
Ploen Rudee Night Market

2. Visit outdoor markets

Chiang Mai seems to welcome new open-air markets every month. The latest is Ploen Rudee Night Market on Chang Klang Road (open every evening from 5pm-midnight), where you’ll find vendors selling handmade wares, accessories and clothing. The highlight, though, is quite possibly the large food zone with its country-style seating and food trucks selling sushi, pizza, burgers and more. Another new night spot is Hako Town (6/5 Moo 1, Thakradat Rd., +66 (0) 97-975-5975), a Japanese-themed community mall located right by the Ping River that’s home to an array of reasonably-priced street stalls and restaurants. It also hosts Japanese fairs and outdoor concerts.
 

X2 Chiang Mai Nimman
 
Akyra Chiang Mai
 
Hotel Yayee

3. Stay in Nimmanhaemin’s new hotels

You’re never short of cool cribs in Chiang Mai, but the past 12 months have seen a flurry of activity in arguably the city’s hippest quarter. Among the new arrivals are the luxurious all-suite hotel Akyra Chiang Mai (2212 Nimmanhemin Soi 9, +66 (0) 53-216-219), the first five-star hotel in the ‘hood, and the design-centric X2 Chiang Mai Nimman Villa (36/6-7 Nimmanhemin Soi 11, +66 (0) 91-808-4257), a huge mid-century modern style villa that sleeps up to 14 in seven bedrooms. Another neighbor is well-known Thai film actor (from the movie Shutter) Ananda Everingham’s Hotel Yayee (17/5 Sainamphueng Rd., +66 (0) 99-269-5885), a four-storey shop-house whose 14 casual but luxurious rooms are decorated with Lanna handwoven shawls and carpets from the actor’s mother’s homeland, Laos. The rooftop terrace boasts great views of Doi Suthep, too. 
 

4. Experience the craft festivals

Chiang Mai’s most vibrant craft festival, NAP (Nimmanhemin Soi 1), returns for its 16th year from Dec 5-10 under the theme “Les Pops.” It will see more than 100 shops gather around the Nimmanhaemin area, including leading Thai craft brands like Ginger, Inclay Pottery Studio, Things Called Art and Chabaa. On the same dates, the small community art village Baan Khang Wat (opposite Wat Ram Poeng, +66 (0) 95-691-0888) will host its first ever craft fest, called Sawasdeecraft Chiang Mai, with stalls and workshops from Thai craftsmen. Baan Khang Wat will hold its second Nang Khang Wat film festival from Dec 24-28, too. 
 
Thapae East
 
Gallery Kang Wat

5. Observe the local art scene

Speaking of Baan Kang Wat, the art community has just unveiled its Gallery Kang Wat, which aims to promote Thai artists through monthly exhibitions. It also sells handmade stuff like postcards, notebooks and ceramics. Art meets cold pressed juice at the new Arttitude Gallery (Nimmanhemin Soi 5). Aside from regular galleries, all the drinks here are named after famous paintings, like the Monet Sunrise (carrots, passion fruit and pineapple). With its unfinished barn-like appearance of bare brick and exposed beams, Thapae East (88 Thapae Rd., +66 (0) 81-765-5246) is another intriguing addition to the art scene, hosting everything from experimental music to poetry nights.
 

Meena
 
Graph Table

6. New bites

It’s been a pretty low-profile year for Chiang Mai’s dining scene, but there’s still plenty to be excited about. The new, semi-outdoor restaurant Meena (Baan Mon Moo 2, Soi 11 +66 (0) 87-177-0523) adds a new twist to Thai and Asian dishes by substituting some of their staple ingredients with rice. Try the tempura shrimp, which is battered and deep-fried in rice rather than breadcrumbs, or the rice-based roti and ice cream. One of the city’s most checked-in and reputable coffee makers, Graph Cafe, has also branched out with a bigger food-focused venue. With its dark-hued wooden façade, window boxes and hanging plants, Graph Table (Moonmuang Soi 6, +66 (0) 86-567-3330) certainly makes a pretty picture, while the kitchen specializes in homemade Italian dishes made from organic ingredients.
 
The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar
 

Beer Lab

7. New bars

The team behind uber-popular Bangkok establishments Charcoal and Above Eleven has unveiled The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar (123-123/1 Charoen Prathet Rd.) at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. Reimagined as a hidden stronghold of the British government’s secret intelligence service, the venue is filled with fictitious spy paraphernalia, vintage lamps alongside colonial-style cabinets, leather armchairs and couches. Food spans contemporary Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, while drinks pack lots of Asian twists. Closer to town, Beer Lab (Nimmanhemin Soi 12) has taken over the old space that belonged to HOBS on Nimmanhaemin Road to serve an even wider variety of brews. 
 

8. Drink local craft brews

Small-batch craft spirits are all the rage in Bangkok, but Chiang Mai beat them to the punch, with Maa Jai Dum. Founded in 2007, the original Maa Jai Dum, also known as “flower spirit,” is made from distilled sugar extracted from coconut flowers. They’ve since expanded with other lines made from distilled potatoes and bananas. Four other brands generating buzz are Mana, Manee, Piti and Choojai. Choojai is a rice wine, while spin-offs Manee and Piti are made with the addition of jasmine and roselle for the former, and tea and tea leaves, for the latter. Both brands can be found at specialty bars across Chiang Mai; our picks are Living Machine (Nimmanhemin Soi 7, +66 (0) 89-192-4314) and Ma Nung (Nimmanhemin Soi 2, +66 (0) 88-269-2086).
 
Baan Mae Kam Pong. Credit: Flight of the Gibbon

9. Exploring the countryside

Baan Mae Kam Pong (+66 (0) 82-699-2296) is a peaceful village 49km outside of Chiang Mai town that’s drawing more travelers for its alluringly slow pace of life. The single narrow road through the town is lined with homestays, a small cafe overlooking the valley and a coffee cottage next to a small stream. On top of nearby Flight of the Gibbon (Huay Kaew District) activities, you can also undertake a small trek to Mae Kam Pong waterfall, too. 
 

Doi Chiang Dao

10. Trek up a mountain 

Looking to combine magnificent views and a proper workout? Doi Chiang Dao in Chiang Mai province should be the next destination on your wish-list. A steep and grueling eight-kilometer trail leads you to Thailand’s third tallest peak, standing at 2,225 meters above sea level. The trek (upwards only) takes approximately 4-5 hours. The sunset, in particular, is stunning. Camping is allowed, but this is the real deal: no electricity or bathrooms. They also limit visitors to 150 people a night. Book at +66 (0) 53-456-623, reserve@dnp.go.th.

 


UDON THANI

Dose Factory

11. The hipster side of Thailand

Udon Thani, long dismissed as a final outpost before you hit Laos, is finally forging a reputation as a hip destination with cool cafes, restaurants and guesthouses. Leading the charge is Naowarat Kuwajanakul’s popular cafe Dose Espresso, which just opened a spin-off called Dose Factory (112/1 Naraesuan Alley, +66 (0) 97-313-4222). The new restaurant puts more emphasis on Western dishes made with organic ingredients—but you can still find a killer cup of coffee, thanks in part to the owner’s close connections with Dose Espresso in Sydney (where she used to work as a barista). Other local hotspots include Samuay and Sons (133/125 Phon Phisai Rd., +66 (0) 86-309-6685, +66 (0) 83-056-0380.), run by two chef brothers who trained at top kitchens in San Franciso, including Commonwealth (which just lost its Michelin star) and San Francisco's Thai restaurant Osha (which now has a Bangkok branch), and the charming cafe Wolf’s Den (43 Srisuk Rd., +66 (0) 85-221-0330, +66 (0) 83-357-2287). Read the full story about hip Isaan here.
 

Samuay and Sons

LAMPANG

Ban Pa Miang village. Credit: www.facebook.com/PaaMiang

12. A quiet retreat

Ban Pa Miang village in Lampang’s Pan district has recently found a small slice of fame among Thai travelers seeking an ultra-quiet escape. Tucked inside Jae Son National Park, the town has been compared to what the small town of Pai used to be like 10 years ago. A small stream flows throughout and villagers eke a living from tea and coffee plantations. Head there from late December to early January to catch the blossoming wild Himalayan cherry flowers from the Kew Fin viewpoint. For stays, contact +66 (0) 54-263-235.

PHA YAO

Phu Lang Ka by Jakrapong Sombatwattanangkool

13. Amazing scenery

Phu Lang Ka in Pha Yao province is famous for its breathtaking views, where limestone cliffs appear like islands peeking through a sea of mist at sunrise. Phu Lang Ka Resort (+66 (0) 86-191-0291) offers rooms with terraces which lets you take in the whole stunning scene. Rooms get booked out every winter, so be quick.

 


MAE HONG SON

Su Tong Pae Bridge by Chrisgel Ryan Cruz

14. Thailand's iconic Bamboo Bridge

Stretching for 500 meters across rice fields and the Mae Sa Nga River in Mae Hong Son, Su Tong Pae Bridge is one of the North of Thailand’s most iconic sights. The best time to visit is during winter, particularly in the early morning when Buddhist monks accept alms from locals. Our pick for stays is Ban Ja Bo Homestay (+66 (0) 80-677-5794, +66 (0) 81-289-0128), whose terrace offers a great view of the valley shrouded by morning mist.  UPDATE: On Oct 28, a section of the Su Tong Pae Bridge collapsed while thousands of Buddhists were offering alms to monks to mark the end of Buddhist Lent. Repairs are currently under way. 
 

Doi Mae U Kho. Credit: John Shedrick

15. See flowers in bloom

Late November is the best month to visit Doi Mae U Kho in Mae Hong Son province when it becomes completely covered in blooming dok bua tong (Mexican sunflowers). Another must is Doi Hua Mae Kham in Chiang Rai’s Mae Chan district. Though visually less stunning, the area offers more in the way of interaction with Thai locals, most notable in the form of visits to tribal villages and their tea plantations. For stays at Doi Hua Mae Kham, contact +66 (0) 95-675-1124 and +66 (0) 53-918-101. 

 


Expert Picks

Travel pros tell us their favorite Northern destinations

16. Viang Pa Pao, Chiang Rai 

This mountainous district, where temperatures can dip as low as 4 degrees Celsius, is the ideal spot to get an insight into the lives of Thai coffee farmers.
 
“Here, you can meet locals who are true coffee experts. MiVana Coffee is a social enterprise that helps support organic coffee growing as opposed to deforestation. The harvest season runs from November till January, when I advise taking a small trek into the gorgeous forest.”
Silp Pimolwattana, Editor, Barefoot Magazine

Credit Photo: TAT Ubon Ratchathani

17. Ubon Ratchathani Road Trip

The first place to see the sunrise every morning in Thailand, this large province is home to some amazing, otherworldly landscapes, especially along Highway 2112 which snakes along the Mekong River.
 
“I really enjoy driving along the Mekong in Ubon Ratchathani. The giant cliffs offer magnificent views. I also recommend you stop at the neon-lit Sirindhorn Wararam Phuphrao Temple in Sirinthorn district, which is incredible at twilight.” 
Narisa Leelathawornpanya, Assistant Editor, Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine

18. Wat Phu Tok, Bueng Kan 

Perched on a sandstone hill surrounded by dense forest, this temple is a must-see. Make sure you make the pilgrimage to the peak of Phu Tok Noi, a sandstone hill inside the temple grounds.
 
“The 360-degree views are really stunning. A rickety wooden walkway with seven stops takes you on a heavenly path that’s aimed at teaching Buddhists all about nirvana. It’s high, it’s thrilling and it’s beautiful. There’s also some very yummy grilled chicken that you need to try.” 
Anurak Hutasing, Executive Editor, Anywhere Magazine
Credit Photo: Vyacheslav Argenberg

19. Kew Mae Pan, Doi Inthanon

For new and experienced trekkers alike, the highest peak in Thailand offers some of the most stunning views in the country.
 
“The Kew Mae Pan route may be my favorite place in Thailand; a wonderful mountain walk in the only cloud forest in this part of Southeast Asia. It only takes about three kilometers and there’s so much to see. It’s a must for nature lovers.” 
Stephane Junca, Managing Director, Secret Retreats 
 

Essentials

SilkAir offers the best rates for a direct round trip at $455
AirAsia has a cheaper, indirect, flight that starts from $334
Currency: $1 = about B25
Singaporeans do not require a Visa to visit Thailand, but nationals from certain countries do. For the full list, click here.

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