There is no such thing as ‘bad’ food in Thailand. While it's true that there are both tourist-Thai and local-Thai restaurants, even the tourist ones serve up pretty exceptional food. One week into our trip and we were still expecting disappointment every time we opted for a sit down meal rather than a take-away local meal from a market, but every time we were shocked by the results. Whether we ordered pandan-wrapped fried chicken, a classic curry, or some cashew chicken cooked on an open fire, there was no such thing as a bad meal.
Our first meal in Chiang Mai set the stage for the rest of the trip, and somehow the quality barely took a dip through till the end. Right after we landed, we beelined for the famous Cowboy Lady and her Khao Kha Mu, a deliciously fatty braised pork hock served on rice with a boiled duck egg. In our experience, many “famous” places suffer from a huge drop in quality following their sudden rise, but the Cowboy Lady’s recipe is uniquely well suited for scaling and we walked away super impressed.
As we were leaving, we couldn't help but notice the stand beside the Cowboy Lady masterfully frying up some pad thai over a roaring jet-engine of a burner. While we're normally of the opinion that pad thai is good but not great, you just can't pass up anything that's cooked with that level of skill. It had some great wok hay, that hard-to-produce flavour of a well seasoned wok over high heat, and it was beautifully wrapped in a thin egg. On the other side of the market, we finished our meal with the best mango coconut sticky rice of our trip.
The rest of the trip followed similarly, with only a couple meals here and there that were merely “good”. This is something that is seriously unique to Thailand - neither of us can remember a single other country in the world where we had such consistently good food at such reasonable prices. Even other countries that are huge foodie destinations like Malaysia and Taiwan generally have a higher rate of mediocre meals. Thailand is on another level.
Khao Soi Islam (Chiang Mai) - If we were more hyperbolic this would be “the best biryani in Thailand” but instead we’ll say “this biryani is very, very good and you should eat it”. Also, they have a rice noodle khao soi for my fellow glutards!
Cowboy Lady (Chiang Mai) - This lady got famous off both her aesthetic and her delicious Khao Kha Mu, a fusion of German beer hall pork hock and Thai flavours. It’s paired with a just-set boiled duck egg and a bunch of pickled greens. The rest of the market around her is also worth a look!
Cherng Doi (Chiang Mai) - Really good Isaan style grilled chicken and papaya salads
Salad Concept (Chiang Mai) - Go here when you’re craving something Not-Thai or All-Vegetable
Burmese Restaurant (Chiang Mai) - The tamarind leaf salad was a big highlight here
Laap Khom Huay Puu (Pai) - This was a highlight in Pai. We’re not normally super stoked about Northern style Laap, the idea of blood and intestine and liver all in one plate is a bit overwhelming for us, but this version really did the trick. If you only have one laap in Northern Thailand this would be a pretty good bet.
Pordee’s Chicken - Pordee was our guide on a trek in Mae Hong Son, but he was also a killer cook over a wood fire. You can organize a trek with him through Baan Mai Guesthouse.
Cheap Place (Mae Hong Son) - Check out our map of Thailand for the location of this restaurant. We have no idea what it was called and were given a recommendation to come here by our guest house. They have a lot of Northern specialties and photos on the wall to order from.
Cooking Classes! - Pea and Wee are the bomb. Wee is very busy and can be a bit hard to reach, but she lets you completely customize your cooking experience. Highly recommended for those familiar with Thai food. Pea on the other hand, is the best person to learn the basics from, though even seasoned cooks will walk away from her with new information. Both of these ladies are located in or around Chiang Mai.
Trek in Mae Hong Son - This is not like a trek back home. The paths are not well maintained and occasionally feature long drops on one side. However, you’re rewarded for your efforts with beautiful views and dozens of chickens waking you up in the morning. Paradise.
Moped between Mae Hong Son and Pai - With something like 1000 curves between the two, this drive is a bit unnerving at times, but it’s also super fun and gives you a few great lookouts. For our money, this is way better than squishing into a minibus for the trip.
Chiang Mai South Gate (Near We’s) - The scale of this market is one of the biggest stand-out features. It’s very modest and navigable, but still packs in everything you need. We loved the Sai Ua (Chiang Mai Sausage), as well as the fruit wrapped in sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled (located outside the market on the south side).
Siri Wattana Market / Thanin Market - This is a really great food-stall market. There’s an excellent duck noodle soup stand, a handful of som tam (papaya salad) spots and many more options.