Chiang Mai Eats Thailand

The Smell Guide: Sights, Scents, & Food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Smell Guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand
I‘ve been around here and there, but there’s one place that, no matter where else I travel to, will always have a piece of my heart. That place is Chiang Mai, Thailand. I studied in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a summer semester in 2012, and while travel had certainly always been a part of my life, it was this opportunity in the Land of Smiles that restructured my priorities and reaffirmed travel and exploration as my true passion. Waterfalls, stunning treks, and other adventurous delights certainly had a heavy hand in my love for Thailand, in addition to the affordable cost of living in Chiang Mai, but still, there is no greater food of love than food itself—and some of the world’s best is the incredible food in Chiang Mai, Thailand!


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. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive Chiang Mai guide, I’d recommend this list of Things To Do in Chiang Mai Thailand!

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.

Tom Kha Goong (Sour Shrimp Soup) in Chiang Mai, Thailand



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.


Headed to Thailand yourself? Check out this Thailand Visa Guide!

The Good

Hot and sour tamarind soup with prawns and acacia leaves

Hot and sour tamarind soup with prawns and acacia leaves


 There were the good smells, namely from the food in Chiang Mai, Thailandcomfortingly  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.



The Secret to Cheap Flights


The khai jiao (Thai omelette) vendor on my street

The khai jiao vendor on my street

Lunch on campus

Lunch on campus


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.

Fried roaches, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’d rather see the roaches cooked than crawling around my bedroom!

The Bad

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

Warorot Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Warorot Market

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. 


Fish heads at Warorot Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Baby turtles at Warorot Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Baby turtles


Basil, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Fragrant basil so addictive you stack it so high you lose your soup


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.

Bird's-eye view of Warorot Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bird’s-eye view of Warorot


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.

Rambutan for 20 baht at Warorot Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Rambutan for 20 baht


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.


Tom yum goong (sour shrimp soup) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tom yum goong

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.


Stir-fried morning glory, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Stir-fried morning glory


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.

Headed to Bangkok instead?

Check out this post on Bangkok Street Food and make sure to read One Night in Bangkok!

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Exploring the multi-faceted travel feast of smells, soul, and food in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from the heart-warmingly delicious to the questionably atrocious The Smell Guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand


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What’s your favorite food in Chiang Mai, Thailand?

Let us know in a comment below!

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  • Reply
    What I’ve Learned from Traveling to 25 Countries | TLVSION ØF NOMADS
    May 31, 2016 at 8:52 am

    […] in life itself. One of my favorite stories that highlights this is not my own, but of a friend I studied abroad with in Thailand. It was her first time outside of the states, and the initial culture shock kept her around our […]

  • Reply
    Matea Pichet
    May 31, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Oh wow, I’m going to Thailand in December and I cannot wait to try all these amazing dishes. Maybe not the bugs though… Do you have any tips on what to do in Chiang Mai? Thanks xx

    • Reply
      May 31, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      Oh how fantastic! I would highly recommend you put aside a few days and do a jungle trek if you have the time! As far as things more in the way of the city, Wat Doi Suthep is a must-see (there are a few little waterfalls on the way up the mountain), and Wat Umong is a beautiful hidden little gem tucked away in the foothills that I highly recommend. Wat Chedi Luang is pretty cool as well and that’s right smack in Old Town–in fact, you can wander around Old Town and see tons of different temples, but the ones I’ve named above are my favorite and (in my opinion) superior!

      • Reply
        Matea Pichet
        June 1, 2016 at 8:02 am

        Thank you so much for these tips! I’m noting this down. I’ll drfinitely have the time for the jungle 🙂

  • Reply
    May 31, 2016 at 10:32 am

    That’s an amazing experience in Thailand. I guess every traditions has it’s own root in history. The cockroach thing was really *uugghh! haha, but we have to understand also that long time ago, due to scarcity of food they opted to eat those insects to survive starvation. Now, only remnants of history are practiced, but that was still rich and simple way of living. More travels to hear from your blog.

    • Reply
      May 31, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      Thank you so much for dropping by 🙂
      And no, I have never enjoyed any of the bugs I’ve eaten, but hey–they’re actually quite healthy for you! It’s just so difficult to get over the ick factor!

      • Reply
        May 31, 2016 at 12:20 pm

        Nahh. I will never dare to try one of those cockroaches. Ugghhh ha ha. It triggers me to goose bumps even just thinking about it. But Congratulations, you already eaten a bug lol

  • Reply
    May 31, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Such an interesting post! Great read:)

  • Reply
    June 1, 2016 at 10:31 am

    This post made my mouth water. Your descriptions, those pictures, all heavenly!

  • Reply
    June 8, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Oh wow, this post captures EVERYTHING that I remember about Thailand so beautifully – the good, the unique, and the pungent! You make me want to go back there just to experience it all again!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      June 8, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      I’m glad you think so! Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  • Reply
    June 13, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    Wonderful post! Absolutely love this really interesting piece! 😀 I only wish there was a way I could like it on WordPress 🙁

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      June 13, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      Why thank you!

  • Reply
    June 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Thank you for making my mouth water. I am off for some panang curry!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      June 18, 2016 at 9:31 pm

      Mmmmm, Tanja! Enjoy it for me!

  • Reply
    June 22, 2016 at 3:34 am

    I’m Thai-American (born in the US) and your post has made me “homesick” for a place I’ve visited extensively but never actually lived. I never realized that the “rambutan” you mention is the Thai luc noc — an absolutely favorite to eat and to play with! Thanks for a wonderful post; my mouth is watering.

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      June 22, 2016 at 8:04 am

      What a wonderful comment! Hopefully you can return soon!

  • Reply
    Vicki H
    June 25, 2016 at 1:59 am

    Great blog, your writing style is wonderful. I have a lot to learn about brevity in my writing style. Thanks for liking my post at

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      June 25, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      Thank you so much, Vicki!

  • Reply
    Michelle | michwanderlust
    July 9, 2016 at 11:21 am

    I’d like to make one suggestion for eating with chopsticks: don’t leave them sticking out of the bowl and try to lay them down flat across the top of the bowl instead. In Chinese culture it’s considered rude / bad luck to leave them sticking out of the bowl as they resemble joss sticks, and given the large numbers of Chinese in Thailand, they may have a similar view. Personally, I’m not superstitious, but I stick to the norms to avoid offending other people. If in doubt, I’d recommend just not doing it 🙂

    That said, I’m sure the Thais didn’t hold it against you as they knew you weren’t aware. I thought very long about whether to comment or not since it’s all in the past (I’m not sure how Koreans feel about it), but in the end I figured I may as well just for your future reference. I loved this post and your photos of the food, but there was something jarring about to me and it took me a few seconds to realise why. Please understand it’s just a visceral reaction for those of us who’ve been brought up to never do it.

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      July 9, 2016 at 11:38 am

      Thank you so much for your comment, Michelle! Yes, I have since learned of that custom of resting your chopsticks on the bowl rather than in it, but I definitely wasn’t aware of it 4 years ago when these pictures were taken. Still, I really appreciate you stopping by and spreading cultural awareness! Food etiquette and table manners can be such an important part of culture, and it’s often difficult for an outsider to know what they’re doing wrong without some help, so thank you!

  • Reply
    July 12, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Love your pics of Thailand. My friends were missionaries there for 8 years and loved it! They still miss it and have found a Thai food restaurant here in Austin that they say is the best Thai food they have had since leaving. I think the food must make a great impression!

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      July 12, 2016 at 11:59 am

      It truly does, Kristy! How lucky your friends were to be able to have lived in Thailand and enjoy the incredible food for 8 years!

  • Reply
    Karan Mathur
    July 19, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Nice post. Enjoyed reading it, you need to do one for Myanmar as well…

    • Reply
      Lauren West
      July 20, 2016 at 7:44 am

      We have yet to visit Myanmar, but if/when we get the chance to visit, we most certainly will write one!

  • Reply
    September 6, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Baby Turtles!! :O

  • Reply
    September 12, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    Makes me want to go!

  • Reply
    Visiting Chiang Mai and the Loi Krathong Festival - Erika's Travels
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  • Reply
    Dave T
    November 21, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    This is a nice article. My only correction is the fried bugs are not cockroaches which really aren’t eaten here. I think they’re probably MAENG DAA, a kind of beetle which has a very medicinal taste to it. Delish!

  • Reply
    Television of Nomads
    March 23, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    […] The Smell Guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand […]

  • Reply
    Television of Nomads
    April 9, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    […] The Smell Guide: Sights, Scents, & Food in Chiang Mai, Thailand […]

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