By William Klingner.
Landing in Chiang Mai, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard great things about the area and that it was relatively undiscovered compared to Bangkok or Phuket. In the airport, there were hundreds of Buddhist monks wrapped in brown and orange robes. With the mountains behind us and the ornate temples in front of us, I knew this would be unlike any place I had ever been to. The first thing that you notice is that there are temples everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. Any available space in the city is either a temple or in the process of being converted into one. There are a few spots where you can see a dozen or so in the same view. After meeting a few monks and taking some time to meditate in a few temples, I decided I would need to find some tea. Tomorrow would be a big day. We were planning on playing with elephants and tigers in an area nearby the city.
With all my belongings in my osprey backpack, I started to navigate through the city streets and back alleys. Eventually we came to a beautiful secret garden that seemed to be tucked away from all the main roads. Enclosed by walls on all sides was a quiet and peaceful garden, surrounded by clay statues and ornate shrubs. Although this place is called Clay Studio Garden Coffee, I knew I would be able to get some matcha that the people of Thailand love so much. The tea in Thailand may be a little bit different than you would expect. Although people here are crazy about anything from Japan, they also have a bit of a sweet tooth, so all the tea you get here will most likely come sweet by default. They made sure to give the tea a nice foamy finish, and they even poured it so that there would be a design on the top in the shape of a tea leaf. I had never seen this before, but they really went the extra mile to make it taste good and look good. There I sat, taking in the sweet matcha beverage, surrounded on all sides by Buddhist statues and lush green vegetation. I really felt at ease. Although the rest of the trip would be pretty fast paced amongst street markets, elephant baths and touring temples, I knew I could take a moment and just be present.
If you are looking to get real loose leaf tea, I would recommend checking out Monsoon Tea. Just like with London, it is hard to find a place here that is purely focused on tea, but this place is one of the few. They have a shelf full of tea tins of all sorts of different varieties. This might be one of the few places that gives you so many options. Loose leaf tea is rare in Chiang Mai. A lot of the focus is on matcha, either in sweet lattes or in some cases in candy. If you want to see something cool, try heading into any 7-eleven and you will find green tea flavored kitkats! They also sell green tea flavored Pocky as well. This is made by mixing culinary-grade matcha powder into the chocolate to create the unique green tea flavored candy. You would be surprised how popular these are here. I personally was a bit underwhelmed by the taste but that is mostly because I’m not such a fan of sweet things. I have friends who love these and you really can’t get them as easily in the U.S.
This is not really a tea place necessarily but more of a nice restaurant to visit if you are feeling a little bit homesick. I wasn’t but my girlfriend who had been living in Nakhon Ratchasima for a few months at the time had been missing the atmosphere of an American café. This was a pretty cool place to check out, but mostly just as a way to escape the culture shock. They have wifi, coffee, tea and American/European friendly breakfast options. The tea comes in bags but it is good nonetheless. This is a nice place to meet up to catch your breath and reflect on the trip. In Chiang Mai you can get culture shock really fast so it’s nice to take these little breaks while you can. That being said, if you are looking for the true Thai experience, I would recommend just wandering aimlessly through the streets and check out all the street markets. There are many places where you can get an amazing fruit smoothie for just a dollar. They have all sorts of cool combinations you’ve never seen before. If you are looking for an avocado and papaya smoothie, they’ve got you covered!
Some restaurants in Thailand are very traditional and they will make you take your shoes of when you enter. Being a more conservative city, Chiang Mai has lots of these types of restaurants. One thing I love about the restaurants here that I don’t think gets talked about enough is the fact that the food comes so quickly. I’m not even kidding, if you go to the restroom after you order, the food will sometimes be there by the time you get back. I don’t know how they pull off this magic act but I love it!
I would also like to recommend you checkout Phra Sing, an area in Chiang Mai. It has some of the most beautiful temples in the city along with a nice boardwalk over a small pond where you can see turtles and Lilly pads and at the end of the walk there are huge Buddhist Monuments like the reclining Buddha and Wat Chedi Luang, one of the oldest temples in Thailand. As long as you walk around a good amount in this city, it is almost impossible not to see a ton. There is so much going on here and it is easily one of my favorite cities in the world.