Chiang Mai Gate Night Market might be the best place for a first timer to dip their toe into the cuisine of this great country. They have all of the “cooking class foods”, you know the ones: pad Thai, green curry, tom yum, som tam, and the ubiquitous mango sticky rice. All delicious, even if they are a bit amateur hour. You’ll also find some things you might be unaware of if your Chang tank top is untucked from the elephant pants below it: kanom krok, pa thong ko, puu phat phong karii, moo palo, and the like. Nothing too crazy however, offal few and far between; not a bottle of nam buu in sight. Somewhere the wondering wonderer might stumble across as a better meal than either of the 7/11 in the back will offer.
In my early days living in Chiang Mai the South Gate Market (it’s commonly referred to this because… I’ll let you figure that one out) was a mainstay in my life. Open after the sun goes down, and with a few carts that stay illuminated past midnight, it fit the schedule and variety my appetite desires.
If you want to be surrounded amongst a sea of tourists I suggest going just after dark. If you want to only be barely surrounded by tourists go just before the sun sets, or better yet past 22:30.
This place is busy for a reason. Walking distance from the old town and the Chiang Moi neighborhood. Cheap, clean, and next to the moat, it is a place where Thai culture and touristic desire coexist quite well.
What I get here most often is the khao mok gai (Thai chicken biryani) from Laila chicken biryani at the far end of the market. It’s in front of the western most 7/11, just keep walking against the flow of traffic and you can’t miss it. They offer a good selection of Halal dishes here, all of which are good. But their biryani is my favorite in town. Rice stained yellow from turmeric, a topping of fried shallots, pickled cucumber/onions, and a sharp and sweet green sauce. This is comfort food, this is what you want after watching a ring full of blindfolded Muay Thai boxers beat the shit out of each other (and the “referee”) at Thapae Boxing Stadium.
Another favorite of mine here is the khao gaeng (literally rice curry) stalls in front of the other 7/11. You get to eat with your eyes here, and be overwhelmed with choice like at the olive oil aisle in Whole Foods. If you’ve never experienced khao gaeng before (and the people I’m writing this for most certainly haven’t) it’s not unlike a roadside Panda Express.
Displayed before you in the standard thin walled silver Thai pots and trays are a number of prepaid curries, all made to be eaten with rice. You know… because of the name. This way of eating never has, nor ever will exist in Western countries. The laundry list of US health code violations alone would rival a CVS receipt. Fuck health codes. This is home cooking. Someone’s, ANYONE’S grandma is who is making this for you, and she is making it with love. The kind of meal you can feel good about eating. One that is filled with nutrition and dare I say compassion.
These are all take away, and unlike Panda Express they don’t come in trays conducive to eating. Rather, in the standard Thai open top bag with a rubber band that is excessively keeping it closed. It’s almost like they don’t want us to open it with how tight they twist the damn things. Keep this in mind when ordering as it’s generally a grab and go home kind of meal. However, they do have some styrofoam bowls and plastic spoons if you want to eat at the tables across the street. Steamed and sticky rice in the cylindrical “coolers”; get the sticky rice.
After your meal you have some good options for dessert. Maybe the most common of which this side of Malaysia being pa thong ko (Thai adopted Chinese fritters). Little rectangles of yeasts dough, that have been partially snipped at both ends to form a sort of donut bow-Thai (see what I did there), they are more than just a sweet affair. In the mornings they are dipped in a thick rice porridge (jok in Thai) for a quick and filling breakfast. However I think they are best hot out of the wok and dipped in sweetened condensed milk. The pandan custard topped with coconut milk ain’t bad either.
If donuts seem a little boring then give the kanom krok lady a shot. These are little girdled cups of sweetened coconut milk mixed with rice flour. Slightly crisp on the outside and gushy on the inside, usually topped with corn or green onions. This may sound a little strange for a dessert, but Thai food is sweet and savory throughout the meal. I like the corn ones, but hey, I’m American and we like our corn.
There is also a nice cart selling some traditional Thai sweets. I don’t fuck with these too much, most of which are sugar saturated little squares of bean paste or rice. That’s not to say they’re bad, but just not my kinda sweet. I want something with a little stronger of a flavor. The sticky rice squares stained brown from palm sugar are quite nice actually. And as I said before mango sticky rice is in abundance here.
And what would a touristy Thai Market be without durian? A much less smelly place actually now that I think about it. Durian, the kind of fruits. While the price for this stuff is a good bit higher here than it would be at say Gat Muang Mai, it’s still worth it to try if you’ve never had it before. They sell them by grades from “AAAA” to “very good”, these mean nothing. Look at it, if it’s plump looking and reminds you of a gargantuan booger it’ll be good. A nicely ripe durian should have a soft cheese consistency with a French cheese funk; side of gym locker room too.
If you do decided to partake in this fruit of the Gods, be warned, you will smell. They don’t allow this onto planes here for a reason. You will however either love it or hate it. There isn’t a big middle contingent here. Get a few friends, peel back the plastic wrap, and make fun of the people who can’t handle the flavor/texture/smell it you like it. Or make fun of the freaks that apparently enjoy the taste of hot garbage.
There are also a good number of light snacks here you can eat while you gander though the stalls. A tray of peanuts and peas will be steaming on top of a bamboo tray in front of the Tesco. They might not come in a brown paper bag, but they’ll still make any God fearing Southern boy comfortable in the humidity.
Pre grilled and priced prawns are found at various spots. A little pricey, but still cheap by Western standards. There is also more than one cart grilling ups pork and chicken. And no, I don’t know how they make the meat that vibrant red color. And honestly I don’t really care, it’s that delicious. all the cuts are pretty kosher. The strangest thing you’ll come across is a skeet of chicken livers… well that and the chicken ass. I suggest getting the chicken ass, little fatty triangles you can eat out.
If it’s your first time here, or to Chiang Mai in general, here’s what I’d do to get the most out of a trip here. Grab a few friends, get a fruit shake while you wonder the market nibbling on this and that here and there. Grab a few pieces of grilled meat, maybe a grilled fish or some prawns, some sticky rice, and a couple curries from the khao gang stalls. Then make you way to the food court area and grab a table undo all the the takeaway bags and fill up the styrofoam bowls, lay out the grilled meats and rice, then dig in Thai family style. That’s to say eating a little bit of this and that all sharing each dish. You’re in Thailand, the concept of “my food” isn’t as strong here; embrace that. Share a good laugh and maybe some germs, your be a better person for it.
Alternatively grabbing a stand alone dish at really any of the carts isn’t a bad idea either. But afterwards don’t pass up on the fried bread or kanom krok. They also serve a hot candy cereal of sorts (I’m not sure how else to describe this) at the pa thong ko stall next to the biryani lady. A hot base of sweetened coconut milk filled with colored jellies and sweet beans. Worth trying at least once.
Chiang Mai Gate Night Market
Price: it really varies on what you get with a small treat coming in at 20 baht per bag and a fat price of durian or whole fish closer to 300. 100 baht will get you a full meal, drink, and dessert.
Open: there is a rolling opening and closing for each specific stall but coming between 18:00-22:00 will ensure a full selection. The last stalls stay open till just after midnight and it officially opens at 5 pm.
The Good Stuff Chiang Mai