A coffee lover's guide to Chiang Mai
Move over, Melbourne. Thailand’s burgeoning cafe scene is grabbing firmly onto the spotlight. With hundreds of cafes, locally-grown beans and plenty of style, the northern city of Chiang Mai is particularly known for its coffee culture and Instagram-friendly presentation. You’ll have no problem caffeinating as necessary while you spend a day exploring the city. And with so many options, the hard part is narrowing them down and choosing where to go. Here’s where to start.
The selection of house-roasted local beans and picture-perfect settings in Chiang Mai has exploded over the past few years, but the roots of the city's coffee scene were established long before the digital nomads took over. Local brands started the revolution, and have since been recognised worldwide. For something special to start the day, make your way to Akha Ama Cafe either in the Santitham neighbourhood or in the centre of the old city near Wat Phra Singh. Known for its bean-to-cup concept with organic, sustainable beans grown in an Akha hill tribe village, the social enterprise has a reputation for producing some of the best coffee in Thailand.
Another old city spot, Ponganes Coffee Roasters, serves consistently perfect cups itself while also supplying other cafes with beans. Because it focuses mainly on roasting and distributing, the small cafe is only open to the public Thursday to Monday from 10am to 4.30pm. If you like that perfectly percolated espresso you just tried, you can buy a few bags of freshly roasted beans to make your own at home. Not only do they have beans sourced from local Chiang Mai farmers, they also use select beans from all over the world to create extremely aromatic and tasty blends.
Originally located on Nimmanhaemin Road, Ristr8to made a name for itself thanks to its founder’s creative foam art. The popular coffeehouse now has several outlets around town including the airy Ristr8to Lab on Nimmanhaemin Soi 5.
The OGs of Chiang Mai’s coffee culture broke ground for a new wave of artisanal brews, often paired with subtly stylish, minimal spaces and surprising ingredients or flavour combinations. Opened in early 2018, Gateway Coffee Roasters fills the second storey of a shophouse building on Th Tha Phae. While unique coffee connoisseurs can sip on carefully crafted cups of ‘black’, ‘white’ or ‘brown’ coffee (black coffee or espresso, espresso mixed with milk, and espresso with chocolate), the team is busy roasting beans in the back to send out to its sister cafes across town, including Graph Cafe and Find Coffee.
Yellow Crafts Home Brewing creates its signature coffee and non-coffee drinks with fresh soy milk made in-house daily. Each beverage is meticulously made with the help of scales and thermometers to ensure optimal conditions, as surprising additions like bright yellow pumpkin add a layer of playfulness while also keeping with the cafe’s strict white and yellow aesthetic.
For a local late breakfast or early lunch, IM Cafe serves tasty Thai and Western dishes, and, of course, a range of coffee. Located next to a car wash, this quaint cafe opens at 8am and offers a range of caffeinated options including sweet caramel macchiatos and iced coffee served in mason jars, as well as fresh juice served in a large light bulb glass.
New cafes are also moving into small neighbourhoods where cheap, instant coffee reigned supreme before. Café Fleur de Mai is tucked between apartment buildings in the Wat Jet neighbourhood, serving local beans and homemade baked goods in a fresh, friendly space.
Family-friendly cafe finds
Chiang Mai’s cafes aren’t all third wave hipster havens. Back in the Old City, stop off at Fern Forest Cafe to recharge. Set, as the name suggests, amongst ferns and other greenery, this bossa-nova-playing cafe has an array of drinks, desserts and light meals, such as roti stuffed with spinach in a cream sauce. Their lattes and iced espressos are particularly good and make a perfect pick-me-up.
Another fun, family-friendly option nearby is Into the Woods, a fairy tale-inspired cafe that serves creative coffee and cakes. If the owner is behind the espresso machine, you may get lucky and receive your cappuccino with a delightfully detailed fictional character drawn into the foam.
Coffee anytime, anywhere
Throughout Chiang Mai and much of the rest of northern Thailand, you'll find a dizzying array of coffee shops, stalls and even rickshaws that travel from street to street, selling Thai beans or cheap instant coffee with plenty of sugar and condensed milk. When grabbing Thai coffee and milk tea from a small stand or cart, get ready for intense sweetness, or try saying ‘mai sai nam thaan’ to get your order without added sugar.
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First published in June 2017.