Sights, Scents, & Food in Chiang Mai, Thailand
There’s so much I love about Thailand: the people (some of the most generous and unconditionally helpful I have met), the cultural sites, the stunning natural scenery, and the food. MY GOD, the food in Chiang Mai, Thailand is heaven for my taste buds. But right now, we’re here to focus on something specifically: the smells.
Consider this the Chiang Mai Smell Guide.
Note: These were all taken on our Canon Rebel and iPhone 4s, but we have since upgraded to the Canon 80D, GoPro, and iPhone 6s Plus and are in love with them. Make sure to check out our Best Budget Travel Cameras to Improve Your Travel Photography guide for more info.
During my time studying in Chiang Mai, my classmate tried to explain to me the different classes of Thai street smells. I didn’t particularly like this fellow, and found his assessment to border on derogatory—but he had a point. Chiang Mai was certainly filled with smells. And of many varieties, at that: the good, the not so good, and the bad.
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There were the good smells, namely from the food in Chiang Mai, Thailand—comfortingly garlic and saltily sour, and (much like the Vietnamese food we have also written about) generously dosed with galangal and lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves: the pad see ew (stir-fried noodles), the savory barbecue, the tom yum goong (sour soup with shrimp), the khai jiao (Thai omellete) vendor I’d limp toward after every wild night out. Chiang Mai may not have the kinds of lovely beaches you’ll find in Hua Hin, but it certainly has one heck of a culinary sea to dive into.
And there was more than just the food in Chiang Mai, Thailand—the temples’ incense clouds, the delectable mango sticky rice I had dreams about, the devilishly sweet and sinfully delicious pa thong ko (Thai donuts), or one of the many cafeterias on the Chiang Mai University campus that I’d wander around ogling at the steaming broths, the fragrant cooked vegetables, the unidentified things on sticks, the liquid-filled bags with straws in them—so many things I wanted more time to devour with my eyes and my nose and my stomach.
For more yummy smells, try these local Thai dishes!
The Not So Good
And then, beyond the delicious food in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there were the not so good smells of Chiang Mai—bags of old Chang beer cans, scavenging cockroaches, the heads of some unidentifiable animals roasting, their eyes peering back with the slightest hints of smiles. Thailand’s not-so-great, but entirely manageable smells.
Finally, there were those pungent, unutterable smells of Chiang Mai. Now, this last class of smells is highly contestable, and some are certainly more sensitive to them than others. I, myself, am not entirely sure this class of smells is fully distinct from the last class—but, I am only one person, and I represent only one opinion. Thus, my categorization of this class of supremely bad smells in Thailand relies heavily on my observations of others.
These are the smells that, no kidding, seem to raise a violent and visceral bodily response like one elicited from a corpse brought back from the dead, unhinging gag reflexes and churning stomachs. From where these last class of smells in Chiang Mai comes is a mystery—they often waft in like an incubus in one second and then they’re gone, while other times they coddle and enslave you like an overprotective boyfriend. These are the kinds of smells that, when you confront them, you don’t just smell them—you feel them. In the pit of your stomach, on your skin as you step past Thailand sewage vents, hot, thick steam swallowing you. “Dirty, stinky…smelly, bloody NAAASTY ASS!” another classmate of mine once screamed through the streets of Phuket, Thailand, describing the deadly odors you couldn’t escape at night in the city. No, these are nothing like the yummy smells of the food in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
(Or, maybe you’re not affected by the smells at all and you just sit back and laugh at the silly farangs who can’t handle it. I’m almost inclined to believe they’re of the farang imagination.)
The Smell Triumvirate in Chiang Mai
One of the best places for all smells in Chiang Mai is the Warorot Market in Old Town. People of all walks of life, ages, everything, tunnel your entrance, a dash of images appearing between their limbs or lack thereof: buckets of slivering eels here, baby turtles there, a little flash of bloody fish heads, mouths hanging open like they’ve watched the finale of Project Runway Season 8, and, like the rest of the sane world, simply couldn’t fathom the blatant robbery Mondo endured.
The Chiang Mai market rows take you through mounds of spices and fresh herbs, things you want to buy so you can stuff your face in them, sausages twisted into swirls, bags of sinister fungus, vendors assaulting you with eager eyes and desperate pleas. “Cheap-cheap” they all say, “just for you! Beautiful lady!” It’s local markets like these from which talented hands buy the ingredients for making the yummy food in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The sulfuric steam of durian fruit beckons you further, through pyramids of dragon fruit and sticky mango rice. Try the rambutan. Peel its urchin-like skin, the soft spurs that tickle your fingers. Slurp on its sweet fruit, swirling your tongue ’round and ‘round, slimy and juicy and soft like a peeled grape, nibbling it off the seed. You can buy a kilo because it costs 20 baht in Thailand, less than one U.S. dollar.
Outside the main area of the market, red trucks, or songthaews (shared taxi trucks) honk in eternal cacophony, a sound grating further against the notes of howling tuk-tuks hailing you for their services, against the whine of whizzing scooters—there are no crosswalks so you have to run across with a leap of faith that no one will hit you. But it’s worth the risk—one of my favorite food vendors in Chiang Mai stands on shaky legs across the street.
It’s nothing special on the outside, but my oh my if it isn’t bursting with soul. You walk past it and you see nothing more than some little make-shift shack with patio furniture that the flies never leave alone, faded grainy pictures of the food they offer peeling off the windows, laminate yellowed with weather and time. But if you stop, if you walk in and point to one of those faded pictures and you sit and you wave away those pesky flies and you steady the shaky plastic patio furniture while you wait and watch your food be made before you by some loving hands and then you take a bite—you will realize you’ve found a gem. A shaky, dirt-cheap, hole-in-the-wall, but glistening, gem.
The Soul of Thailand
The Chiang Mai eatery was run by three of the kindest women I came to know in Thailand, and they would always greet me with beaming smiles and recognition. They are the purest symbols of the glorious food in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of them was a young girl about the same age as me, perhaps a year or two younger, maybe 18 or 19. She wore her dark silky hair in a low pony tail, so straight and tidy compared to mine. “Sawatdee ka,” we’d exchange, as I stood at the counter clutching my beginner’s Thai Language textbook, trying to order stir-fried morning glory or tom kha (coconut milk sour soup). She’d giggle politely at me trying to pronounce “mai sai nua,” asking for my dish to have no meat, standing there in my university school-girl uniform, the dark pleats in my skirt a little wrinkled from the bumpy songthaew ride over, hair curling wildly in the humidity. I learned this young girl’s name was Hom, and I’d go visit her almost every day after class, though more of our conversations were exchanged with hand gestures and laughs than words. I’d hand her my 30 or 35 baht, settle into one of those shaky plastic chairs, and wait for whatever incredible savory dish I had picked at random that day.
Inside that little restaurant was the heart of that first category of Thai smells—the delicious food in Chiang Mai, Thailand cooked with caring, speedy hands and smiles. The incredible, wholesome smells that make the other classes worth it, the smells of richness and spice and bursting flavor, and, lastly, the smells that make impressions so deep because they come from the warm souls of the Thai people and their unforgettable, infinite kindness. These are the smells I live for.
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What’s your favorite food in Chiang Mai, Thailand?
Let us know in a comment below!