Where to stay
Chiang Rai Hotel Compact and modern city-centre hotel which is comfortable and extremely convenient for nightlife, and within sight of the gilded clock tower. Doubles from £20. 519 Suksathit Road, Wieng Muang, 00 66 053 711 266, thechiangraihotel.com
The Mantrini Hotel Smart, contemporary hotel with spacious rooms (some with balconies) and panoramic windows. Quiet location, 2km from the city centre. Doubles from £54. 292/13 Moo 13, Robwiang, Muang, 00 66 53 601 555, mantrini.com
The Palm Garden Hotel Budget lodgings with good facilities, 2.5km from the centre. Doubles from £21. 375/1 Pao Khun Road, Soi 8, Muang, 00 66 53 742 252, the-palm-garden.gochiangraihotels.com
Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort Delightful, discreet, beautifully designed and constructed complex of luxurious cabins on the hillside. Cabins are dotted around the central restaurant and terrace area, and do not contain television sets or electronic alarm clocks, so you can rise to the sound of an awakening forest. Doubles from £98. 142 Moo 8, Ban Mae Salons Nok, Mae Chan, 00 66 53 910 500, phu-chaisai.com
The Riverie Large, luxurious hotel complex set in a beautiful location on the river bank just outside the city centre. Guestrooms are decked out in a neutral palate with pendant lighting. Being modern and spacious makes up for a slightly corporate vibe. Doubles from £68. 1129 Kraisorasit Road, Vieng, Muang, 00 66 53 607 999, theriverie.com
Chiang Rai lies in the far north of Thailand in the Mueang Chiang Rai District, 40 miles south of the Thai border with Myanmar (Burma). It is the gateway to Myanmar and Laos. The time is 6 hours ahead of GMT. The currency is the Thai baht (THB). In November the average high temperature is 28C and the average low temperature is 17C.
British Airways flies non-stop from London Heathrow to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. From there Chiang Rai is a 1 hour 20 minutes flight away with Bangkok Airways. britishairways.com bangkokair.com
Thai Airways flies the same route. thaiairways.com
Tourism Authority of Thailand is the official tourist board and its website is packed with tips and suggestions for what to do during your trip to Chiang Rai, as well as important dates. tourismthailand.org
The Food of Northern Thailand by Austin Bush (Clarkson Potter, £30) is an essential purchase for those after serious detail on the gastronomy of Chiang Rai and the whole of Northern Thailand.
Baan by Kay Plunkett-Hogge (Pavilion Books, £20) is a lighter mix of recipes and anecdotes by the Thai-born British food writer, who is soon to commence cooking courses at Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort Chiang Rai.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Chiang Rai, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London to Bangkok produce 2.63 tonnes of CO2 meaning a cost to offset of £19.70.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with half a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Cabbages and Condoms One of the first restaurants in a small chain founded by a birth-control charity. Adorned with bizarre figures made of condoms. Good food, made with local produce. From £12. 620/1 Thanalai Road, Wiang Muang, 00 66 53 740 657, cabbagesandcondoms.net
Chivit Thamma Da Coffee house and bistro in an early-20th-century house
with veranda beside the river. Coffees, drinks, light meals and a shop.
From £4. 179 Moo 2, Rim Kok, 00 66 81 984 2925, chivitthammada.com
Lab Sanam Keela Traditional Lanna food in a large, open-sided restaurant. Specialises in grilled meat platters served with big bunches of fresh herbs. From £12. 151/3 Naarsanaarmkeera Road, Muang, 00 66 87 1732 498
LuLum Large, buzzing restaurant – one of the oldest in Chiang Rai – set on the banks of the River Kok. Huge range of local and regional Thai dishes, all pictured on the menu. From £13. 188/8 Kwae Wai, Muang, 00 66 53 748 223
Por Jai Simple, open-fronted canteen noted for its ambience and quality of dishes.
The signature khao soi gai – curry noodle soup with chicken – comes with the
option of extra Thai chili to make it spicier. From £2.50. 1023/2 Jetyod Road
Sawaddee Traditional Popular dark-wood, medium-range restaurant on the first floor, overlooking all the action of the night market. From £12. Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, Jad Yod Road, 00 66 89 850 4449, thaisawaddee.com
Phu Chaisai The restaurant of the Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort. Beautiful, tranquil setting, polished service, with an excellent range of authentic Thai and international dishes, including pizza cooked to order in the wood-burning oven. From £6. 388 Moo 4, Ban Mae Salons Nok, Mae Chan, 00 66 53 910 500, phu-chaisai.com
- Akha cookery
- Staples include salt, chilli, potatoes, tomatoes, Chinese onions, garlic chives, coriander, and green kale
- Bitter tomato
- Bitter yellow fruiting plant, somewhere between a tomato and an aubergine, often used in curries and stews
- There are many different varieties of chilli used, principally phrik thai sot (bird’s eye chillies), phrik khi nu sot (longer chillies), and prik sot (chillies of up to 10cm, endemic to the north). All varieties are consumed both fresh and dried
- Large catfish in the far north, near the Laos border. Otherwise, smaller pond and river fish, including mud carp, pomegranate fish and snakehead, which are grilled or made into soups and curries
- Bamboo worms, fresh in wet season and kept dried in jars during the dry season, and small red ants – both served deep-fried. White ants’ eggs feature in omelettes, steamed in banana leaf
- Khao soi
- Rich curry broth with chilli, spices and egg noodles, served with beef, chicken, seafood or pork. A Chiang Rai staple
- Finely chopped fresh meat, ideally by hand, with herbs, served raw or fried. Pork most common, buffalo most prestigious
- Fresh blood, usually from pork or beef, features in very popular dishes. Solid cakes of steamed dried blood pop up in others
- Monosodium glutamate – maligned outside Asia, common here
- Nam prik
- Combinations of dips made of pounded chillies, salt, garlic, tomatoes, shallots and meat
- Half a dozen varieties, from thin, round rice noodles to the flat wheat and egg noodles used in khao soi
- The most common variety is sticky rice, which is served with savoury dishes or pounded by pestle and mortar and fashioned into balls sweetened with fruit extracts
- Sai ua
- Pork sausages, with curry, garlic, lemongrass, chilli and prawn
- Tam mamuang
- Green mango salad
- Tin som
- Minced fermented pork and pork skin, mixed with garlic and wrapped in leaf. Left to acquire the tart taste of fermentation
- Unique varieties of arcane items include galangal shoots, luffa (from the cucumber family), Japanese and pea eggplant, ivy gourd, forest mushrooms and mustard greens
Food and Travel Review
A cool mist clings to the lush mountains surrounding my bamboo hut. Awoken by the evocative morning salutations of a nearby cockerel and the hum of quotidian life in the Akha hill tribe village of Ban Apha Pattana, it’s hard to believe that a mere 24 hours ago I was ensconced amid the urban bustle of the city of Chiang Rai. The eponymous province, in the far north of Thailand, is prized for its mountaintop views, cool green hills, peaceful lakes, colourful flowers and the remote hill-tribe villages that straddle the borders between Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. It also hosts the Thai part of the Golden Triangle – a name coined by the CIA for the world centre of illicit opium during the 1960s. The drug-dominated era has all but gone: since the Nineties, terraces of leafy organic oolong and arabica – planted to replace opium at the request of the Thai royal family – have brought the province to the attention of tea and coffee connoisseurs.
‘Chiang Rai province, in the far north of Thailand, is prized for its mountaintop views, cool green hills, peaceful lakes, colourful flowers, and the remote hill-tribe villages that straddle the borders between Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos’
I’ll return to the city, abuzz with its street-food stalls and vibrant
night market, in a couple of days. But first, I leave the River Kok
behind and set out towards the Golden Triangle to immerse myself
in Akha life on a homestay. Steep green hills with remote tea houses
hide strange attractions, including the Doi Tung Royal Villa, the
former residence of HRH Princess Srinagarindra – a crazy
architectural blend of giant Swiss chalet, traditional teak Lanna
house and corrugated bungalow in the style of the one lived in by
the 1960s opium warlord Khun Sa. En route, I stop at the lovely
vegetation-covered Phu Chaisai Mountain Resort, the brainchild of
one of Thailand’s leading interior designers, Sudavdee Kriangkrai.
There, chef Ato trials a new Akha menu on me: dry fish curry, pak
choi salad, sautéed mushrooms and stir-fried chicken. ‘Akha food is
simple and natural, like health food,’ says Kriangkrai. ‘But the Akha
are naturally talented cooks. Ato does a Lanna pizza with northern
sausage and Chiang Rai pineapple. Followed by a wonderful French
lamb fricassee. Would you like some?’ Alas, I must decline the
additional course. I need to push on to Ban Apha Pattana, and don’t
want to spoil my appetite for the tribe’s staple – bamboo worms.
Ban Apha Pattana is one of around 50 Akha villages, home jointly to a population of around 60,000 people who began arriving from Hunnan in China in the early 1900s to occupy the remote and vacant hills. Because of the isolation, many still retain their own language and customs. Though some have become Buddhist or Christian, the Akha were originally animist, believing that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.
Half-hidden in the foliage on the edge of the village is the old wooden spirit gate, a sort of animist scanner which used to guard the community from malevolent beings. Other beliefs, such as the ghostly quality of twins which required them to be killed, are now history. As is opium, except among a dwindling number of old folk deep in the hills. For the most part, the Akha grow corn, rice, pineapples and vegetables in the little fields dotted among the hills, rear livestock, fish and, increasingly, offer B&B homestays to trekkers. My host, Amoe Chermu’s four little rooms, each with its own adjoining concrete and corrugated metal shower and toilet, bring in almost half the family income, while 10 per cent of the income goes back to the village community.
There’s nothing like a night in the hills to bring home the attraction of the Chiang Rai countryside, deliciously fresh after sweltering Bangkok. Pulling up the blanket on my first morning, creaking sounds indicate movement on the hut’s bamboo decking and the ladders which connect the jumble of stilted buildings among the thick foliage of the slope. Up at ground level in the big dark kitchen my hosts are lighting the fires for breakfast and the puppies and chickens are starting to wander hopefully among the furniture.
Chermu brings me black tea and his wife and sister smile hello, both in their embroidered indigo dresses and silver metal head ornaments. Akha ceremonial dress isn’t worn just for tourist shows, as I’d cynically suspected. Indeed Chermu’s two daughters away studying at college both keep their traditional clothes ready at home.
It turns out there’s a party in a nearby village. ‘One of our girls is marrying one of their boys,’ Chermu tells me. Soon the village tannoy is blaring out departure arrangements and the pickups are revving up in the hard-earth village square, tailgates down to allow jolly partygoers to embark. ‘There’ll be lots of laap’, says Chermu. To a European used to a comforting plate of pad thai, laap could be unnerving – raw minced meat, herbs and fresh blood. Buffalo? No, pig. Only the rich can afford buffalo, and the skulls decorating everyone’s walls are memorabilia from a time when every family had its own buffalo, alongside the pigs and fowl ubiquitous today.
Insect bites and other courses
Come evening, Chermu opens beer, but only for the guests. Those Akha who drink favour lao khao, the cheap, potent rice whisky distilled at home or sold in tiny general stores like the one in the village centre. With the beer, the insect aperitifs start to appear: crispy fried ants and bamboo worms – actually moth larvae – bought at market rather than collected when out of season. During the rainy season, the larvae eat the bamboo. ‘You can hear them chomping in the woods,’ says Chermu. Another delicacy, though not hugely flavourful, are tiny white ants’ eggs, which are stirred into steamed omelettes. Next is a grilled chicken curry, served with pulverised aubergine, sticky rice and the ubiquitous naam prik – a dip of chillies, salt and bitter tomatoes pounded by pestle and mortar. Akha food is, by and large, simple: a dozen main vegetables, salt and chilli being the main condiments. Rarely seen are the fish sauce and coconut of southern Thai cuisine. There are more exotic ingredients, though, in addition to the visceral laap – dog, for example, which Chermu tells me he likes a lot.
After dinner, a special thrill. We walk down to the crossroads beside the spirit gate, where the giant swing is erected for the annual pre-harvest games, another hill-tribe speciality. Around the flaring wood fire, 20 women in ceremonial dress dance slowly in a circle, singing a suite of traditional songs with hauntingly repetitive choruses, talking of Akha customs and sentimental life. Afterwards, the performers sit chatting on the bench outside the shop with cartons of mango juice and packets of rice snacks.
‘Around the flaring wood fire, 20 women in ceremonial dress dance slowly in a circle, singing a suite of traditional songs with hauntingly repetitive choruses, talking of Akha customs and sentimental life’
The following morning, those who haven’t gone to the engagement party get on with wielding big iron graters to prepare shredded banana stems for the pigs’ food, cleaning and perusing the goods on the back of an itinerant trader’s van, which arrives amid a blast of luk thung (Thai country) music. I drive out to Chermu’s fields and fish pond for an alfresco lunch, first pouring a little libation on the ground by some small spirit effigies hidden in the grass. The food is cooked entirely with bamboo, from the slim frame erected over the fire to hold the spatchcocked chicken to the big vertical tubes thrust into the embers containing rice and water. Giant banana leaves act as both tablecloths and plates. A bamboo trough turns out to contain tasty boiled potatoes, and I remember too late my intention to request mashed potato, which the Akha prepare with salt, chilli and herbs. Afterwards, black tea is brewed in lengths of bamboo while we talk fishing.
Small river fish, trapped in little pebble dams, along with pond-reared carp and pomegranate fish are the Akha staples, and there’s no sign in the hills of the giant catfish of the Mekong or Kok rivers, which in any case are disappearing as fast as their invasive cousins are proliferating in Europe and the USA. We feed pellets to the fish in the pond, one of which Chermu catches with a bamboo rod and wraps to take home for soup. Back in the village, we ready our gear for our return to Chiang Rai, while Chermu squats whittling bamboo placidly by the big water jar at the doorway. As I bid farewell, he offer me with the object he’s been fashioning, a neat, bright-green bamboo cup.
A return to city life
Chiang Rai itself, spread over a broad plain on the banks of the River Kok, is a busy urban hub of low-rise buildings. A handful of the structures that make up the city date from when the region was capital of the Lanna Kingdom, founded in the 13th century by King Mengrai the Great. Glancing over the city, here and there is a monument, park or a vividly decorated Buddhist temple. Thrusting itself from the shadow of its historically rich neighbour, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai has blinged itself up, with striking instillations designed by the local artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, whose denim-clad figure appears on billboards around the city. One structure, in particular, the White Temple, a white-and-silver psychedelic ‘Disney’ Buddhist temple, Wat Rong Khun (so-called because it channels Disney World’s Magic Kingdom), has put the city on the map. Kositpipat’s most recent addition, a golden clock tower, adorns Chiang Rai’s central roundabout, stopping passers-by in the evenings with hour-long sound-and-light shows, complete with mechanical lotuses.
The popularity of northern Thai food is fast turning Chiang Rai into a gourmet destination. Among the bustling cafés on Prasopsuk Road in front of the clock tower, Sujin Mooyor, a sort of mini Fortnums, stocks local delicacies including sausages, fermented pork patties wrapped in leaves, and light and crispy khaep mu (pork scratchings). ‘Nobody goes back to Bangkok without a few packets of khaep mu,’ says the shop’s manager.
There are other northern Thai specialities that do pose a bit of a challenge to the taste buds of Western visitors. Take laap. Our guide – who also happens to be an excellent cook – describes how you typically scrunch up basil, coriander and shallots in the animal blood to filter out its odour. The same is done with raw tripe, bile and other assorted offal, mostly bovine. And to wash it down? Copious shots of fiery home-distilled rice whisky.
On the other side of the scale, the most famous northern Thai dishes are irresistible. Khao soi, though principally associated with Chiang Mai, is a delicious rich curry broth made with mild chilli, fresh egg noodles and coriander, topped with soft, poached chicken and crisp fried noodles. I try one of the best in the bright, open-fronted premises of Por Jai canteen. I ask owner Jinda Nanthawat the secret of her success. ‘My mother’s recipe never changed in 60 years – it calls for good chicken, no poor cuts or skin,’ she says. Later, in the nearby Khao Soi Islam restaurant, I tried a hotter halal version. This one is made by Mr Waiwit, a boisterous former GI who peppers his conversation with vintage American slang. ‘It’s my grandfather’s recipe, from 1929. We use simple, good ingredients, and charge a fair price. No rip-off.’
‘In the food court, with its exquisitely displayed ingredients, I eat a delicious fondue-style hotpot of chicken, fried paddy frogs and noodles’
People in Chiang Rai will constantly tell you their cuisine is simple. They also say it is influenced by Chinese Yunnan to the north, and uses many ingredients from the south, replacing coconut and fish sauce with chilli paste and salt. But on inspecting the food on sale at Chiang Rai’s two huge markets, I would say their cuisine is anything but simple once you start to delve in.
By day, a huge, dimly lit hangar in the centre of the city spills over with stalls selling everything from frogs and eels to bamboo worms and ants’ eggs. An interpreter, or a copy of Austin Bush’s excellent book The Food of Northern Thailand are indispensable if you want to identify the unique vegetables on display.
The vibrant night market is crammed with brightly lit stalls, some manned by members of the Akha, Hmong, or Karen hill tribes, selling textiles and artefacts. Neither goods nor stallholders are guaranteed to be genuine, despite the latter’s tribal garbs. There’s also a buzzy, open-air food court with exquisitely displayed ingredients. I eat a delicious fondue-style hotpot of chicken, fried paddy frogs and succulent noodles in red curry sauce. A folk group and traditional dancers provide entertainment. More raucous amusement can be found at the enormous Tawandang Mahason cultural hub. Here, waitresses distribute northern cuisine while groups bash out a crazy mixture of Thai country and American light rock. The songs are mostly schmaltzy ballads about village girls who have fallen into prostitution in the city – a theme that sadly resonates with hill farmers who, not that long ago, might well have been forced to give up a daughter to pay off any accumulated debts.
The best eating places in Chiang Rai are unsophisticated. One of my favourites, the riverside LuLum – whose walls are covered with signed photos of Thai soap stars – serves delicious deep-fried catfish and water mimosa with spicy papaya salad, and an excellent pork and tomato curry. Its menu offers a huge range of laaps. As a bonus, there are some classic dodgy English translations on the menu: starter of bitterness gristle soup, anyone?
Days in Chiang Rai, from spending time with the hill tribes to exploring the diverse street eats of the city, are in part defined by the food – some of it adventurous, and most of it explosively tasty – and in part, by the colours, the aromas and the noise. But mostly, days spent in Chiang Rai are defined by its people.
Philip Sweeney and Gary Latham travelled to Chiang Rai courtesy of Hayes & Jarvis. hayesandjarvis.co.uk
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