Vegging Out in Chiang Mai

Vegging Out in Chiang Mai

As part of my first solo trip abroad, I was pretty excited to put together a little vegan food tour of Chiang Mai. Because I usually travel with Stephan, a meat eater who loves to explore each region’s native cuisine, we typically seek out local hotspots for him to expand his adventurous palate. While I fully support this endeavor – as I am by no means an adventurous eater – for once, it was super fun to plot out my very own special ‘tour de herbivore.’

Presented below are all the vegan-friendly establishments I managed to visit during my five days in Chiang Mai, listed by order visited. If you’re a vegan traveling on a budget, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint. My average meal price for an entree and fruit smoothie was just under 150 baht ($5 USD), and the food was universally delicious and filling. If you’re in search of some great vegan cuisine from fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, get excited… Chiang Mai’s got a lot of great food to offer!

 

The Cat Shack

The Cat Shack is an adorable little café tucked down a quiet alley in the northeast corner of town, about 600 meters from Tha Phae Gate. Their menu is not strictly vegan, offering both vegetarian and even some meat options, but there is a pretty good selection for breakfast or lunch (note: the café closes at 5pm, so dinner would have to be quite early). The menu is fairly evenly split, offering a small number of Thai and Western dishes for around 100–110 baht each. I ultimately opted for the Thai red curry, which was quite good, and my smoothie was amazing. Although I didn’t visit, The Cat Shack also has a more well-known sister restaurant just across the ring road called The Cat House. The menu is supposedly quite similar, but perhaps it’ll be somewhere new to check out on my next visit.

Importantly, if you’re a coffee lover, Mountain Coffee sits right next door to The Cat Shack. They serve locally-grown coffee that’s cultivated along the slopes of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, Thailand’s third-highest peak (about 85 km north of Chiang Mai). The freshly-harvested beans are roasted in-house, and you can even buy bags to-go (one pound (500 grams) costs 210 baht). If you’re looking for a peaceful place to relax and sample the brew, you can sit and enjoy a cup in the shaded garden for only 40–50 baht.

My meal:

Thai red curry – 100 baht
Passionfruit, banana and coconut smoothie – 60 baht

Food:    
Location/Atmosphere:     
Vegan options:   

 

Reform Café

Serving 100% vegan meals and using locally-sourced ingredients, Reform Café is located at the Green Tiger House in the northern part of Chiang Mai’s Old City (not far from the north gate). Similar to most other vegan restaurants in the city, the menu offered a mix of Thai and Western dishes. I had dinner here one evening and, overall, the food was pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite meal I had while in Chiang Mai, but it was still quite delicious, and tasted very fresh. The restaurant itself was quite lovely, with peaceful outdoor seating in a small garden area, as well as a few covered tables in case of rain. And while I only gave my Pad Thai three and a half out of five stars, the café gets pretty rave reviews overall, so I’d certainly be open to returning and sampling something else from the menu.

My meal:

Pad Thai with tofu – 100 baht

Food:   
Location/Atmosphere:    
Vegan options:     

 

Khun Kae’s Juice Bar

This place is pretty awesome and, luckily, it was a short, half-kilometer walk from my guesthouse. The best part? It’s open every day! Khun Kae’s serves up fresh smoothies and juices with no added sugar, and also makes some really beautiful smoothie bowls. They also use bamboo straws, so if you sit down for a smoothie, you don’t have to worry about plastic waste. Most items here are vegan, with the exception of a few items containing bee pollen, and you can even have ginger or turmeric added at no charge. The prices are great, with smoothies and fresh-pressed juices costing a mere 40 baht, and large smoothie bowls for 80 baht. As breakfast was included with my guesthouse stay, I didn’t try the smoothie bowls, but I’ll certainly make a point to have one next time I’m in town. Pictured below is my mango, papaya, and pineapple smoothie… I didn’t quite make it through Khun Kae’s extensive list in five days (#goals).

Smoothies/juices – 40 baht
Smoothie bowls – 80 baht

Food:     
Location/Atmosphere:    
Vegan options:     

 

Anchan Vegetarian

Interestingly, Anchan Vegetarian turned out to be the biggest surprise of my Chiang Mai food tour, but not for reasons you might expect. Seeing as the café is a solid 4 km west of the Old City, I decided to visit on a day that I was already on that side of town. I ended up heading to Anchan for a post-hike lunch, after spending the morning trekking up the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat. The rot daeng I grabbed near the temple dropped me off at Chiang Mai University, and seeing as Anchan was back in the direction of the Old City, I figured I’d just hoof it the 2.5 km up the main drag. After a decent haul in the blazing summer sun, I finally arrived at the entrance. Puzzled, I thought to myself, ‘this looks pretty stinkin’ familiar.’ I headed up the stairs to the second-floor restaurant and, as I walked through the door, my jaw dropped open… Stephan and I had visited this place two years ago when we were in the city! I couldn’t believe I’d walked all that way for a repeat visit.

Though I was initially disappointed it wasn’t a new restaurant, I remembered how good it was, and eagerly scanned the lengthy menu. I knew I’d had some type of curry the first time I visited, though I couldn’t remember which one. I figured I should opt for something totally different this time, and ultimately selected the stir-fried morning glory with rice. My eyes widened as the friendly server set down my plate… the portion was enormous! Never one to back down from a challenge, I managed to finish the entire plate. It was delicious, and the cinnamon ginger iced tea I’d ordered was freakin’ amazing! The menu is enormous, offering vegetarian/vegan takes on traditional Thai dishes. And because there’s absolutely no meat served, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something tasty for lunch or dinner.

If I had to pick one downside to Anchan, it would be the location. The restaurant’s a good 4 km from the center of Old Town, which means either a pretty long walk round-trip, taking a scooter (if you have one), or hiring a taxi. Getting a red truck is easy and cheap enough, but I do just love a quick walk to and from dinner. If you do venture to this side of town and are also in need of a unique dessert, you might consider checking out Ice Love You for some yummy vegan ice cream (see below).

My meal:

Stir-fried morning glory with Thai miso – 95 baht
Cinnamon ginger iced tea – 60 baht

Food:    
Location/Atmosphere:   
Vegan options:     

 

Ice Love You

Thailand is hot, and if you’re looking for a delicious way to cool down, you should consider stopping by Ice Love You. This quirky ice cream shop is a bit off the beaten path – about 3 km due west of the Old City – but worth it if you’re looking for a fun vegan dessert. The parlor has an attention-grabbing superhero theme and is peppered with whimsical décor – namely, a giant teddy bear loveseat and an assortment of rubber ducks.

Ice Love You touts itself as an ‘experimental’ ice cream shop, with dozens of rotating flavors. They claim to serve 100 flavors and, although I didn’t sit there and count, there certainly was quite the selection. The best part? Most of the flavors are vegan (built from a coconut milk base). Some of the more intriguing flavors I spotted included: rum raisin garlic, fish curry, spinach, tomato, avocado honey, wasabi, Lanna Thai tea, coconut pandanus, durian sticky rice, asparagus, and foi thong (a traditional Portuguese treat made from thin, sweetened egg strands). There are also more traditional offerings such as chocolate, coffee, mint chocolate chip, cappuccino chocolate chip, and countless fruit flavors.

One scoop will cost you 35 baht (about $1 USD). I opted for the sampler of three flavors for 100 baht, which seemed like the perfect option. If you are really keen to try some flavors, though, they also offer a sampler with 6 or 7 scoops. If I hadn’t just stuffed my face at Anchan, I think I could have given it a pretty good go.

I ultimately selected the passionfruit, longan sticky rice, and Siam ruby queen. I had no idea what the third flavor was, and the girl scooping the ice cream spoke no English, so I just went for it. Really, though, I probably should have Googled it. It turned out to be a purple corn ice cream… a little weird and too savory for me. Had I been more shrewd with the stupid smart phone, I would have opted for the lychee or coconut pandanus… next time. The longan sticky rice was interesting, with actual chunks of sticky rice mixed into the base. They also serve a mango sticky rice, which is one of their most popular flavors. Of the three, though, the passionfruit was the easy winner. If you’re in need of a quirky, fun dessert experience, definitely check this place out. My only wish is that it was a bit more central so I could sample a different scoop every night. Next time I’m in Chiang Mai, I’m totally heading back for a 7-scoop mega-tasting session.

Food:    
Location/Atmosphere:   
Vegan options:     

 

Taste From Heaven

This little gem is located on the east side of Chiang Mai’s Old City, just down the street from Tha Phae Gate. The restaurant offers an extensive menu that is 100% vegetarian, and most items are actually vegan. Additionally, most non-vegan items have a vegan option (consider substituting rice noodles for egg noodles if you’re looking to try the north’s famous Kao Soi… so good!). The meals are quite reasonably priced, especially given the quality of the food. Taste From Heaven offers a host of options for Thai cuisine – rice and noodle dishes, stir fries, curries, soups – and most dishes run between 75–95 baht ($2–3 USD). The menu also offers a handful of Western dishes, such as veggie burgers and various pasta plates for around 105–135 baht.

Not only is the food delicious, but the staff is super friendly and attentive. The café also has a really relaxed, welcoming vibe in a great location… off a small street lined with cool eateries (Ratchamanka Road) just off the main ring road. Because everything on the menu sounded amazing, I paired my delicious, fresh spring rolls with a pot of butterfly pea tea. I’d seen bags of the tea all over Warorot Market a couple days prior, and it had definitely piqued my interest. The herbal ‘tea’ is actually brewed with dried leaves from a plant that’s indigenous to Southeast Asia, Clitoria ternatea (butterfly pea or blue pea), and pours a vibrant blue color. It’s pretty good… for sure a unique taste that’s both a little earthy and a little sweet.

And because I am a total chocolate freak, and it’s so hard to find chocolate in Southeast Asia, I totally indulged in the vegan brownie! It was like heaven on Earth after a week without chocolate, and at 60 baht, one of the cheaper chocolate treats I found in the city. If you’re in town for a few days, I’d definitely check out Taste From Heaven… it was pretty awesome.

My meal:

Fresh (tofu) spring rolls with tamarind sauce – 75 baht
Butterfly pea tea – 45 baht
Vegan brownie – 60 baht

Food:     
Location/Atmosphere:     
Vegan options:     

 

Free Bird Café

Let me just start by saying Free Bird Café was unquestionably my favorite place in Chiang Mai. I thought everything about the restaurant was awesome… the menu, the food quality, the staff, the location, the cause… if you’re visiting Chiang Mai (vegan or not), this place is totally worth a visit!

100% of the profits from the Free Bird Café fund the nonprofit organization, Thai Freedom House. This project supports a language and arts learning center for Burmese refugees, primarily of the Shan minority group (hence the many Shan specialties on their menu). The charitable café is committed to creating delicious organic, locally-sourced vegan dishes (the entire menu is vegan), and about 95% of the menu is soon to be gluten-free (save for a few noodle dishes).

The café is conveniently located near the north gate, just outside the ring road, and the interior is just lovely. Long wooden benches run along walls splashed with hand-painted murals, and there’s even a small section offering locally-made crafts, eco-friendly goods, and second-hand books – with all sales again benefiting the community center. At the back of the restaurant you can find the Pre-Loved Charity shop, which sells gently-used clothing and shoes, and they will also soon be opening a zero-waste shop called My Best Life CNX. The profits from the zero-waste shop will benefit a scholarship program that will help the learning center’s students attend university, and also aid them in establishing their own sustainable business ventures.

Aside from the great charity, Free Bird’s food is out of this world. For my lunch, I ordered the Burmese green tea leaf salad, a local favorite and seemingly Free Bird’s most coveted dish. I have to admit I was skeptical, as salads typically bore me, but I was beyond enamored after just one bite. Made with spicy, fermented tea leaves, cabbage, tomato, red onion, garlic, lime, and some sort of super crunchy nuts, it was easily one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I ordered a passionfruit soda (fresh passionfruit and club soda) to pair with the salad, and that too was beyond phenomenal! Keeping with their eco-friendly practices, the drinks are all served with reusable bamboo straws. And because the profits all went to charity, I just had to indulge in a rich, chocolate brownie for dessert (again, awesome).

Before I finished my meal I was already scanning the extensive menu and plotting a return trip. Just as I’d picked out at least five more things I wanted, I heard the woman at the counter inform a customer that they were closed on Sundays and Mondays (due to ongoing commitments to their various service projects). My heart sunk, as those were the only two days I’d be able to return. Refusing to accept defeat, I decided I’d just make a return trip later that afternoon for an early dinner (note: they close at 5pm). Although I was still pretty stuffed from my amazing lunch, I did find room for a papaya shake and Shan yellow noodle salad, both of which were similarly tasty.

If you’re in Chiang Mai, do yourself a favor and stop here for a meal (or two… or ten). It is astonishingly good food for a worthy cause. What could possibly be better?

My meals:

Burmese green tea leaf salad – 95 baht
Organic passionfruit soda – 65 baht
Vegan brownie – 100 baht
—–
Shan yellow noodle salad – 110 baht
Organic papaya shake – 80 baht

Food:     
Location/Atmosphere:     
Vegan options:     

 

Vegan Heaven

Determined to try as many vegan restaurants as I could squeeze into a five-day stay in the city, I headed over to Vegan Heaven for dinner after returning from a week at Elephant Nature Park. Taste From Heaven (see above), Vegan Heaven’s sister restaurant is actually almost next door to the ENP office on Ratchamanka Road… but because I was so resolute in needing to check a new eatery off my list, I headed 400 meters across ring road to Vegan Heaven.

As I walked to the restaurant – hauling my cumbersome pack that was loaded down with camera gear – it began to rain lightly. I continued on thinking, ‘I probably should have just popped in next door at Taste From Heaven.’ This, indeed, turned out to be true. When I arrived at Vegan Heaven, I was met with the exact same menu offered at their sister restaurant (my fault… I should have checked the menu online). While I was disappointed to have walked a kilometer round-trip in the rain for a menu I could have had 50 meters from the ENP office, at least I knew it was good. Vegan kao soi? So yummy. Lemongrass tea? So refreshing and relaxing on a drizzly night in the city.

Advice: if you find yourself on this side of the ring road, it’s worth stopping in… but if Taste From Heaven is closer, no need to make a special trip over for identical menu options.

My meals:

Kao soi – 95 baht
Lemongrass tea – 45 baht

Food:     
Location/Atmosphere:    
Vegan options:     

 

Aum Vegetarian

Aum Vegetarian was the last restaurant I visited in Chiang Mai and, unfortunately, probably my least favorite of the lot. The food and atmosphere were okay, but nothing here blew me away. The café’s a bit off the beaten path – about 1.5 km south of the Old City – but less than 1 km from the of the out-of-the-way Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan) and silversmith village along Wua Lai Road.

If you’ve wandered over to check out the silver-making district, this would be a reasonable stop for lunch, but overall, the food’s a bit average. The menu is entirely vegetarian, and offers a pretty large selection of Thai dishes, though the vegan options are not clearly marked (I did have to ask about the rice before ordering). I found the food a little on the salty side, and the portion size was not particularly substantial (but for the prices, not bad). Additionally, I found it a bit odd that the pure, no added sugar smoothies were more expensive than a regular smoothie; I guess I thought they were both just blended up fruit, only one had simple syrup (or something) added.

As for the atmosphere, while the upstairs floor seating and collection of books and guitars created a cool, casual vibe (clearly a lounge geared towards backpackers), I didn’t expect the backpacker at the neighboring table to actually pick up an instrument and start playing. His clumsy fingers fumbled along the strings as he jarringly moaned some unintelligible lyrics, and – to be quite honest – I had to restrain myself from smothering him with one of the rust-hued folding cushions. Thankfully, there was a long enough pause in the intermittent rain that he decided to pack up his ‘talents’ and move on… leaving me to finally eat my rice in peace.

Overall, Aum was okay… by no means my favorite stop in Chiang Mai, and probably not a place I’d go out of my way for (and really, unless you’re staying south of the Old City, it’s definitely a bit out of the way).

My meals:

Pineapple fried rice – 70 baht
Coconut mango smoothie – 80 baht 

Food:   
Location/Atmosphere:   
Vegan options:   

If you’re a vegan exploring northern Thailand’s ancient capital city, I hope this list provides you with some helpful recommendations. Not only is Chiang Mai a super friendly, laid-back hub of culture and cuisine, but it’s a pretty awesome place to find a myriad of tasty vegan takes on local classics.

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