Sep 30, 2022
THE HILLS AROUND CHIANG MAI are full of magic,” says Phanuphol ‘Black’ Bulsuwan as he serves me up a multi-course feast that raids the local larder for a selection of vegetables, herbs and foraged goodies.
Fermentation is a specialty at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, Black’s bijou, 12-seater restaurant in Chiang Mai’s hip Nimmanhaemin neighborhood, where the succession of vegan creations delivered to my table showcase his flair for presenting seasonal produce in fresh, bold flavor combinations. Black isn’t a vegan, nor his restaurant, nor I for that matter, but we both wanted to see what he could whip up using only the bounty of this particular region’s terroir. After all, plant-based is so hot right now.
And the menu is legit culinary alchemy, but that doesn’t surprise me. Black, you see, knows a thing or two about the supernatural. This impish conjuror usually works his spells on a selection of ingredients from around Thailand. His resourcefulness—allied to a cooking philosophy that mines Japan, the Nordic countries, and Thailand for inspiration—has propelled Blackitch to the very pinnacle of Thailand’s restaurant scene. Its creative, sustainable, and seasonal cuisine has earned it an appearance in the Michelin Guide and the 50 Best Discovery list.
In a country of high-profile tourist attractions and destinations, northern Thailand can sometimes feel neglected. It is, after all, something of a land apart. The area’s traditions have been shaped by centuries as part of the Lanna Kingdom, an independent state that was absorbed into Siam in the late 19th century. The north has a unique juju.
As a resident of Bangkok for the best part of the last decade—and a frequent visitor to Thailand for longer than that—I can attest to its rich seam of wizardry. That’s why I’m back here in the hills for another swig of its elixir. First I’ll sample the elevated culture, cuisine, and accommodations that make Chiang Mai an unmissable draw for visitors. I’ll also strike out into the mountains on a 1200cc beast to complete a circuit of the Mae Hong Son Loop, one of Thailand’s most famous road trips. In doing so, I plan to imbibe a heady hit of northern Thailand’s beauty and a renewed insight into its remarkable abundance—something that Chiang Mai scene-makers like Black are eager to shout about.
To be fair, the chef is evangelical about produce from all over Thailand. He’s as effusive about crab sourced from Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south as he is about organic rice from Sisaket where Thailand and Cambodia meet. Still, there’s no mistaking the extra glint in the eyes of this northerner as he waxes lyrical about his backyard.
“We’ve got amazing terroir in northern Thailand,” he says. “Herbs are more fragrant, vegetables are tastier, and the meat tastes like it is supposed to taste.”
As I wrap up, I reflect upon the moreish appeal of the north, a region that never fails to lure me back for extra portions. Some of which I decide to work off by taking the four-or-so kilometers between Nimmanhaemin and 137 Pillars House, my hotel, on foot. The route brings me through Chiang Mai’s walled, moated Old City, the evocative still-beating heart of the city home to centuries-old temple compounds like Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. Eventually, I cross the Ping River and complete the last little stretch through a sleepy residential area to 137 Pillars House.
Chiang Mai’s considerable charms reach peak seduction levels at this leafy, charisma-drenched property, tucked away near the river in a property once owned by Louis Leonowens, son of Anna (of “Anna and the King” fame). Laid out in lush tropical gardens dotted with lily ponds, the colonial-inspired suites take cues from the resort’s centerpiece building: a lovingly restored teak homestead that dates back to the late 1800s when it was the northern HQ of the (British) East Borneo Trading Company. I kick back in my suite, teleport back in time at the suave, wood-paneled Jack Bain’s Bar, and make full use of the hotel’s slimline 25-meter lap pool, dominated by a stunning vertical plant wall.
The following morning, I strike out again to fill up—figuratively and metaphorically—on manna from Lanna. A first stop takes me outside the big city to Ban Don Luang Handicraft Center in Lamphun—Chiang Mai’s diminutive neighbor. Here, members of the Yong ethnic community have established themselves as perhaps Thailand’s most skilled cotton weavers. It’s the perfect place to pick up a fashionable keepsake with a keen sense of place.
I made the short trip back to Chiang Mai. There’s time for another cultural close encounter before lunch at InClay Studio Pottery. Here, in an open-air workspace situated in the garden of his family home near Wat Suan Dok, Jirawong Wongtrangan makes one-of-a-kind dishes, cups and ceramic utensils that — he tells me — take design inspiration from repetition of patterns found in northern nature like leaves, textile motifs and stones. Satisfied clients include some of Thailand’s top resorts. A downhome atmosphere prevails at Jirawong’s studio where pet chickens and roosters roam the tropical grounds and aspiring artisans can receive guidance on the pottery wheel from the man himself.
Ready to replenish, I pay a visit to Khao Soi Mae Sai to get an obligatory (when in the north) fix of khao soi—a dish with Yunnanese-Muslim origins considered to be one of the most potent weapons in Thailand’s culinary arsenal. It was recently named best soup in the world by website TasteAtlas.com, an honor chef Black actually poopoos as he is adamant that khao soi is a curry. I’m presented with subtly spiced coconut-milk broth packed with house-made noodles, and marinated chunks of chicken finished off with a judicious dash of coconut cream and topped with pickled mustard greens. The distinction between soup and curry may matter ecyclopedically, but not to my satisfied belly.
Afterward, I indulge in more terroir talk over cups of drip coffee made with beans sourced from boutique plantations in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces at Gallery Drip Coffee Chiang Mai. This time I’m chatting with Jarutat ‘Jart’ Snidwongse Na Ayuthaya. A pioneer of Thailand’s craft cheesemaking movement, Jart is another evangelist for northern Thailand’s artisanal potential. He puts the Kingdom’s burgeoning reputation for great cheese down to a combination of the tropical climate and the enlightened leadership of former King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who encouraged dairy farming to provide accessible nutrients to the population.
“I knew it was possible to put Thailand on the world cheese map because there was already a lot of milk here,” he says. “On that basis, my dream started to form.”
His Jartissan brand, which he runs with his wife Ann from their lakeside property in Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai, handcrafts cheeses with different—often radically so—textures and flavor profiles. They utilize local ingredients and Thailand’s unique tropical terroir. “There are a lot of localized microbes in the air in Thailand,” Jart tells me. “Perhaps much more than in temperate and cold countries.”
All this talk about the northern countryside and its transformative powers has whetted my appetite for being out in it. And the following day I get my wish as I join Bike Tour Asia, a big name in the region for its big bikes, and embark upon the Mae Hong Son Loop.
With its doughty heft, my BMW bike is both sexy and reassuringly solid—no small thing when faced with the vagaries of the loop’s twisty highways (it is estimated to encompass around 2,000 curves in total).
As we clear the interminable outskirts of Chiang Mai, the open road is working its magic. I give the beast some gas and feel the warm breeze whistling by my ears. The tarmac skirts dramatic limestone pinnacles and valleys that fall away from the edge of the road. It’s an opportunity to luxuriate in northern Thailand’s sheer beauty and the mellow glow it engenders, which is no minor endorsement in these stressful times.
Small details endure. Along the way, we clean out a stall selling smoky gai yang (grilled chicken) at an obscure junction between Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam, take a dip in a natural pool at Mae Ya Waterfall in Doi Inthanon National Park, and raise our arms like conquering heroes each time we pass through the ornate arches that mark the threshold of even the most one-horse villages.
Other highlights of the loop include a stop at Pang Ma Kluay, a small village surrounded by countryside famous for its foraging potential. Here chefs such as Black come to source goodies, including wild bitter aubergines, edible freshwater algae, shoots, herbs leaves, roots, and the tender cores of banana palms. Another clue to the area’s gastronomic abundance lies in the organic Arabica coffee plantations skirting Baan Huay Hom near Mae Hong Son.
Most uplifting, though, is the simple joy of being on the move. Motorbikes and the open road have long been a symbol of freedom—the preserve of the independent-minded adventurer, the leather-clad rebel. And it’s impossible to deny the exhilarating sense of liberty that comes with being in tune with your surroundings on near-deserted highways in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
The end of the road comes as both a relief and a disappointment. Prolonged exposure to a motorbike saddle may wreak havoc on the hindquarters, but the journey itself is anything but a pain in the rear. Even still, I’m delighted to put my head down under a blanket of stars at Bubble Sky Glamping. Glamping is a rising trend among young Thais. And there are numerous unique places to sleep close to nature near Chiang Mai. At Bubble Sky, comfortable king-size beds are arranged on wooden platforms under clear bubble domes. It’s a little twee. I half expect Tinkerbell to show up in the middle of the night. Yet there’s no denying the fairytale charm of the place, especially when the mist rolls in and it feels like I’m wading through clouds.
Back in Chiang Mai, I’ve got just enough time to pull one last rabbit out of the hat: a white one. If Peter Pan vibes are strong at Bubble Sky, this Old City speakeasy leans more towards Alice in Wonderland, with a host of playful touches evoking Lewis Carroll’s fantasy classic. After locating the well-hidden entrance, I ascend two flights of rickety stairs, dodge a creepy doll or two, and enter a tiny bar space market with a rabbit’s head on the door. My reward: a classic Negroni made with small batch gin from Chiang Mai’s Edelbrand distillery. It’s a strong finale to another successful Lanna odyssey and one last fix of potent northern magic for the road.
137 Pillars House Chiang Mai’s tranquil location and lush tropical landscape combined with the spectacular sites of Chiang Mai create the perfect backdrop for this reinvigorating getaway, with stunning vistas, lush jungles and refreshing waterfalls. Guests will be immersed in a peaceful sanctuary for the senses. 137pillarschiangmai.com; doubles from US$385.
Secret Thailand Exclusive Offer: 137 Pillars “Nature and Nurture Wellbeing Retreat” — a 4-day / 3-night wellness retreat including a soothing selection of wellness therapies and nature-immersive activities. Rates start from THB 66,000 for single occupancy.
Bubble Sky Glamping Chiang Mai fb.com/bubbleskyglampingchiangmai; tents from US$120.
Blackitch Artisan (Kitchenblackitch.com; meal for two US$122.)
Khao Soi Mae Sai Ratchaphuek Road; +66 53 213 284; meal for two US$5.
Gallery Drip Coffee fb.com/gallerydripcmi.
Jartisann Cheeserie fb.com/jartisanncheeserie; +66 8 0546 3615.
White Rabbit menu-thewhiterabbit.carrd.co; 179/1 Phrapokklao Rd. 2F; +66 64 260 2669; cocktails from Bt350.
Bike Tour Asia biketourasia.com; self-guided tours from US$330 per day, scheduled tours through northern Thailand from US$3,000 for eight days, or work with them to create a custom trip.
Ban Don Luang Handicraft Center Sixteen kilometers south of Lamphun town via Road No. 1032; call TAT Chiang Mai office for information +66 53 248 604.
In Clay Pottery Studio inclaystudio.com; handbuilding and throwing courses from Bt990 or experienced potters can book studio time on your own.