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Delightful Thailand – Some Going Out There (1/2)



Delightful Chiang Mai – Some Going Out There (1/2)

Chiang Mai is not for shoapholics and temple buffs only. The northern capital has very interesting gastronomy, too. If you're hungry, bored and lonely up there, follow me on my trip through the restos, pubs and discos of Chiang Mai.

Eat Out

La Brassiere is one place I visit regularly for dining, but not for live music (which is featured in part 2). At casual, but pleasant La Brassiere, you sit right on the river's edge. Frogs are croaking from next to your table – they'd better keep a low profile, because they appear in the menu as well. Thai or Farang food is constantly well done and nicely laid out, if maybe a tad bland. Service is super-attentive, mosquito-coils are provided. But La Brassiere is one place where I don't finish my glass unthoughtly, because they quickly rush by hoping to sell another drink. It's difficult not to go there, because it's not far from town, and you get a breeze and a sunset view together with anything from cordon bleu to tom yum khoong.

For some reason I like La Brassiere more than the adjoining, more famous riverside restaurants, among them Good View and Riverside. Maybe Brassiere is less busy and a bit more personal. And you sit about 50 centimetres closer to the Ping River.

From the other, western side of Ping River, you can see the whole string of riverside restaurants. That's around Waorot Market's flower section. Funny enough, on the walkway there they built rotting wooden walls to obscure the cross river view towards the restos. That's a good one: have a riverside walkway and block view and breeze with ugly half-broken walls.

Heading even further upriver, I try other trendy food music pubs, too. There's the slick neon-lit pub called 61. I have a problem here that's quite familiar: Coming alone, you are a pariah. You won't get a nice table with a band view, but you are placed at the bar or somewhere in the toilet.

That is not a problem at The Resort, though, because that place is huuuuge with enough tables for many lonesome Farangs – kind of an open hangar built to imitate the atmosphere of a Hawaiian restaurant or something. Another hangout for the local money-minded jeunesse doree; I swear, when the band played Simon & Garfunkel's "Boxer", they sang "I am just a rich boy, and my story's seldom told" ("poor boy" would have been the original text).

It's difficult to eat away from the breezy river. La Villa is an agreeable al fresco neighbourhood pizzeria right in the old town. There are nice coffee shops and internet services nearby, and you can watch the strollers on Ratchadamnoern road. I also visit the very opposite, the German Microbrewery, way out on the other side of the river, behind the huge Carrefour mall: it's a closed-wall food hangar with red-white chequered table-cloth and the most bourgeois, sedate Thai clientele I ever saw anywhere.

In turbulent tiring Thailand, in an exotic challenging world, the wary travelling man needs a familiar place to turn to for a sundowner and a decent dinner: to waiters he knows and to waiters who know him plus how to fix his favourite cocktail and spring roll varieties. For me in Chiang Mai, this place is atmospheric La Brassiere on Charoenrat Road.

Look Out

One of the most accessible restos with a good city view is the rooftop Blue Bat Beer BBQ on top of the Pornping Hotel, the 24th floor of that Chiang Mai institution between the moat and the river, near the night bazaar. I take Ning there, back then my de-facto SE Asian girl friend; of course I expect a romantic star-lit place which will put that charmed glow onto her face I am addicted to. But Blue Bat Beer BBQ looks somewhat neglected and seems to sell only grilled meats…

We've heard 10 seconds of the three-piece live band when the waiter approaches; I change plans abruptly and say: "We just need a drink, we don't need the menu." Ning nods. Even she, who herself happily listens to the most yowling Asian country ballads, has quickly realised that the band on Pornping's rooftop does not go down well with any food consumption: The prize for SE Asia's worst "Hotel California" cover version goes to Pornping's rooftop yowlers. And that means something. The Thais' tolerance of miserable music is stretched to new extremes here.

I discover other lookout places when steering motosai west on big Suthep Road. This is something like the extension of Ratchadamnoen road that goes east-west through the middle of the old town. If it's around afternoon, make a detour to the shady peaceful forest pagoda of Wat Umong, where many leafy spots provide shelter for you and your newspaper. If you proceed further on Suthep Road, you pass the very busy southern edge of the university compound – always a good area to look for cheap food and internet access.

Just 300 meters further west, you may think you reached a golf course or a farming area, as civilisation stops so rapidly. Here the hills start that belong to either the zoo, the uni or other institutes. If you head north (right) on winding uphill roads, you may get to the zoo's back door and might be able to sneak in for free. After some more pothole research I finally reach a new elegant restaurant overlooking a small artificial lake and behind that the whole of Chiang Mai. I try to get one of the terrace tables with white table cloth and great city views – but someone named Pothole Research (and looking aptly) will only get seating inside the building, without any view, and that makes no sense.

If, from the sudden end of Suthep Road, you head up further west (straight) and then south (left) there is another surprise: You encounter another small artificial lake high above Chiang Mai's highest buildings. On one edge of the lake you see romantic Thai couples and guitar players; they turn their back to the unassuming pond and instead enjoy a free view of Chiang Mai from the west, with airplanes seemingly slaloming between the higher hotels. Still, compared to Bangkok, Thailand's town number 2 really looks like nothing than a non-descript spread-out small town, something like Mukdahan.

Sitting on the lakeshore at daytime, you may not have noticed that the forest on the other shore hosts a big restaurant. But it becomes obvious at sunset, when they turn on all the lights, shimmering peacefully on water. On the far side of the lake, away from the town view, Galare restaurant spreads its tables pleasantly across a tree-covered slope. (Don't mix it with the Galare guesthouse far away on Ping river, but tell me what this "Galare" means, please.) This is quite a romantic, but not high key outdoor dining; if you're lucky, you sit right on the water; on my visit in early 2005 it is quite chilly. The obnoxious PA in the trees pipes those soapy esoteric tunes you hear everywhere in Chiang Mai: Chamras Saewataporn's "Green Music" – it is so sterile, generic and un-Thai that his CDs are only sold at ditto, dedicated stalls on Bangkok's skytrain stations and in Chiang Mai's Central Airport mall (See here).

In turbulent tiring Thailand, in an exotic challenging world, the weary travelling man needs a familiar place to turn to after a good day's job, for a good view with a bit of atmosphere and some space around him – and with the option to take dinner right there in the outback without another motorized trip. For me in Chiang Mai, this is the hill west of Chiang Mai, west of Suthep road, with its lakeside and Galare restaurant.

Find Out

Now how do you find out about all those food and lookout places in Chiang Mai – hidden Galare and breezy La Brassiere? For atmospheric cosy outdoor dining, everybody wants to direct you to Whole Earth; actually, that's just an impersonal mosquito-ridden tourist trap – and yes, you munch outdoor, but that's right on noisy Sri Donchai road.

A bit of research seems useful to find more interesting venues. For the independent traveller, the Lonely Planet always is a good introduction to town. The recommendations for lodging, shopping and food are great. Nightlife and music pubs are not LP's strong point though.

So I head for the municipal tourist information near Ping river. The student-like girl there seems quite surprised that anybody bothers to walk into her office. She is even more surprised when I ask for Thai live music venues. Like other Thais, too, she is even shy to talk about music places, maybe she doesn't like white-skinned intruders in her sanuk-domains. She produces the worst free city map I ever saw and marks exactly one life music pub. (At that point, I simply forgot the TAT office across the river.)

Of course there are heaps of online info; but that's inconvenient for planning-orgies in coffee-shops and hotel gardens, so I check the big Suriwongse Book Center for more printed information. For walking tours in town, Oliver Hargreave's picture-heavy "Exploring Chiang Mai" would be most helpful. It has good tips on dining and nightlife too, including spotlights on what Oliver calls "contemporary massage parlours".

But for your special night out, even better info can be had&read. One great guide into Chiang Mai's hidden places is the Nancy Chandler's Map for 160 Baht. This seemingly handdrawn map (also available for Bangkok) lists not only all shopping opportunities, but also many out-of-the-way restaurants, pubs and discos. Do not only check the map, but also the small booklet that comes with it – it is packed with info.

The handdrawing with lots of pink and yellow hues is Nancy Chandler's trademark. But I suspect they do it in Painter or Photoshop these days; and I would really prefer a clear vector-based layout like the very readable, but not so informative "Groovy Map". I end up copying information from various sources into the "Groovy Map" and then setting out with just this one. You can fold it ten times and squeeze it into your back pocket, mai bpen rai.

Suriwongse Book Center sells another good source, "Citylife", a thin booklet for 120 Baht. They claim to review 450 of more than 1,000 restaurants, pubs and clubs in Chiang Mai, including comments about food quality, ambience and audience; but they don't say much about the music style. "Citylife" is really for locals and expats, they discuss whole areas that do not appear on tourist maps, like the string of music pubs on the Irrigation Canal Road in the northwest or Chiang Mai Land in the south. I can clearly see what should be improved in their next, third edition; still with all their detailed area maps it is an absolutely helpful planner for a special night out.

So if you'd like to see a bit more, in part 2 of this report, with the help of my Chiang Mai library, we set out for some really interesting coffee houses, music pubs and discos.

Stickman's thoughts:

I've gotta say I have enjoyed the food and restaurants in Chiang Mai, and they are much cheaper than what you get in Bangkok.