Here’s what I did learn from my head-first eating experiences. First, if you’re serious about street food in Thailand, it’s best to break in your stomach slowly by eating small amounts of fresh fruit and spicy foods at the start of your trip. It’s also wise to always stick to bottled water and stay away from ice. The cheap prices – a basic plate of pad thai fried noodles usually runs a whopping $1 – may encourage a dangerous all-you-can-eat streak. But new flavours, ingredients, and microbes require some getting used to. After a few days you’ll be ready to tackle the more mysterious local specialities. (I never did work up the courage to practice what I preach by “participating” in the crispy insect fritters, though.)
Second, I became wary of Western-style restaurants, which may rely on imported ingredients and refrigeration. (One of Chiang Mai’s oddest must be Bierstube, which serves German beer and schnitzel alongside Thai favourites.) We know someone who ate a poorly-frozen chicken burger and was laid up for three days with serious diarrhoea and a fever. When you’re ready to dive into the diverse dining scene of Chiang Mai, Heuan Sontharee is an enchanting first stop. Here you’ll find regular Thais alongside a scant supply of farang, all enjoying northern delicacies like nam, which are strong pork, rice, and garlic sausages, and steamed Ping River fish in fermented sauces. Local celebrity and folk singer Sontharee Wechanon owns the multi-tiered riverfront establishment on the town’s northern outskirts. Glowing lights and haunting traditional Thai music make for a memorable evening.
It’s here that I notice the irony of my diehard travel mantra. In their effort to blend in, the foreigners wear the vivid, hand-woven jackets and sarongs of the mountain folk. But the locals have long since shed their traditional attire, preferring Western dress shoes and button-down shirts.
In the same neighbourhood is Khao Soi Samoe Jai, where natives outnumber the brave farang 20 to 1 and no-nonsense waiters serve up some of the city’s best khao soi (egg noodles with meat in a curried coconut soup) and satay (grilled meats). Rumor is, the chef was once noodle maker to the king. Heuan Phen, in the centre of the old city, is also little known to tourists. An informal street-side eatery during the day, it has a suite of antique-decorated rooms open only in the evening. Just thinking now of their local dishes like laap khua (minced-meat salad) makes us miss Chiang Mai.