Chiang Mai Icons

 |  March 29, 2012

When thinking of Chiang Mai, be it as a resident or someone who visits, there are certain iconic places that spring to mind; a night out dancing at Riverside or Warm Up, eating French fries at The Boat or slurping milkshakes accompanied by toast cut up into eighths at Milk Zone. We have taken a nostalgic look at a selection of iconic long standing businesses which are synonymous with Chiang Mai, and so many of our memories.

The Boat

The Boat, a family run business, first opened in Chiang Mai in 1982, though its first branch was started in 1970 in Pattaya, where it still exists today. The owner of the restaurant and bakery graduated in Hotel Management from a university in New York, and was inspired by American fast food diners. He and his wife, who had also worked in the hotel industry, moved up to Chiang Mai from Bangkok in the early eighties and opened what was to become a stomping ground for generations of university students. The Boat, being right near the gate of Chiang Mai University, sold – and sells – ice creams, cakes, burgers, and chips, along with some Thai dishes, and was the first restaurant of its kind to cater to the student crowd. In the days when there were no pubs and bars around Chiang Mai University, The Boat was where dates were made, love blossomed over a shared banana split and friends hung out showing off their latest fashion ware. The prices have remained inexpensive and much of the old décor such as the 80s style seating, luminous neon bulbs and light boxes showing faded now retro photos of food taken by the owner himself are still in place. It is far from being the trendiest joint in town and has a somewhat faded look to it, but its iconic status as a student meeting point has remained constant over the past three decades.

Open Daily 7a.m.-10p.m.
237/11-14 Huay Kaew Road
053 222 934

The Sandwich Bar

The Sandwich Bar is, by 10 years, The Boat’s pi. Opened in 1972, The Sandwich Bar has relocated shop three times, though these moves have not affected the famed restaurant’s customer base, who originally comprised of foreign workers in the city. The majority of early customers, and partly the reason for the restaurant’s birth, were American GIs, en route to and from Vietnam. Initially Thai locals avoided this eatery, seeing all the farang customers, they suspected expensive prices, and were wary about trying the various foreign dishes on offer. The Sandwich Bar began with a limited menu using imported food such as submarine sandwiches, oxtail soup and hot dogs. Other customers who regularly occupied the seating booths to either sit and write or meet with friends, were diplomats and dignitaries from the local Japanese and American consulates, jade trades people from Hong Kong, German volunteers and foreign teachers. Today The Sandwich Bar is still open for business everyday of the year, with most customers being Thai and the menu has expanded to include many Thai dishes. Citylife’s founder, John Shaw MBE, recalls dining at The Sandwich Bar in the early seventies during his first visits to Chiang Mai and our staff still go there for a quiet evening meal with their families.

Open Daily 7a.m.-9 p.m.
3 Arak Road, opposite Chiang Mai Ram 1
053 221 528, 086 189 6438

Milk Zone

Milk Zone is now 13 years old. It began as a food stall on the road side outside its current location down the road from Chiang Mai University’s front gates. Citylife, then the Chiang Mai Newsletter, wrote about the ‘milk bar’ trend when Milk Zone first opened (and was immediately copied by at least a dozen other milk bars) in 1999. We opined that it would be a passing fad which surely didn’t have legs to continue for more than a year or two…how wrong we were! Milk Zone moved into a brick building after its initial success and has been serving milky drinks, hot and cold, accompanied by flavoured toasts for the past decade or so. Sadly the old food cart and sign were stolen from behind the shop years ago and it hasn’t retained any of its original look. The caf? specialises in milkshakes, ice cream shakes and desserts made from shaved ice, milk and sugar. Milk Zone has ensured its popularity by word of mouth recommendations and looking at photos on the walls, many Thai celebs have made their way to the café on a visit to Chiang Mai, showing that even dara are eager to experience Milk Zone’s cutesy persona.

Open Daily 3 p.m.-1 a.m.
15/98 Huey Kaew Road
053 892 199

Kasem Store

Before the likes of multinational stores such as Tesco and Makro, and even Rimping Supermarket opened, a small but densely packed shop dominated the market for imported goods in Chiang Mai; Kasem Store. The grocery shop, run by a vivacious white haired Chinese lady (whose hair was white even when our editor went shopping there weekly with her mother in the seventies) has been in business for over 30 years and remains a buzzing hub of foreign fare. The family first sold fresh vegetables at Warorot Market, but after a big fire in the market towards the end of the Second World War, they went in search of new premises, and relocated to Ratchawong Road where they opened a general foodstuffs shop called Kasem Pah Nit, which specialised in goods imported from China. In the 1960s the shop moved up the same street and ran under the shortened name for which it is now famous. The grocery shop began to stock more imported products from Europe, America and other countries as foreign missionaries in the area requested they sell foods from abroad. Early expats found Kasem to be their one grocery lifeline to life in the west and the humble shop prospered. A chef from HM’s Phuping Palace, a regular patron, taught the owners of the shop how to bake, and Kasem is still a favourite destination for baked goods. The shop has been baking since 1966 and prides itself on being the oldest bread baking store in the city, as well as being the first place in Chiang Mai to sell waffles. Nine years ago another shop was opened on Nimmanheamin, still run by members of the family.

Open Mondays-Saturdays, closed on Sundays 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
8/4 Nimmanhaemin Road and 19 Ratchawong Road
053 400 1123

Naem Pah Yon

Chuan Nirattisayawanit the sixth son of 14 siblings told Citylife how his mother, whom everyone knew as Pah Yon, supported her family by selling northern foods at San Pak Koi market. One of her products, for which she would become very famous for, was naem (a delicacy made from fermented and seasoned shredded pork). In Pah Yon’s day naem was tightly rolled and packaged in a natural casing; banana leaves. Chuan remembers his mum’s diligence and that she never moaned or complained about the heavy work or tiredness. Being of Chinese descent herself, Pah Yon’s naem gained high popularity amongst the prosperous Chinese community in Chiang Mai. Often these well-off families would send their kids to study in the capital, and when visiting them at school parents would bring Naem Pah Yon as a treat. People in Bangkok also began to catch on to this northern goodie and would buy Pah Yon’s naem when visiting Chiang Mai. In 1967 the traditional banana leaf wrapping was exchanged for plastic, by this time Naem Pah Yon was in high demand and other retailers began to sell the product. In 1991 when Pah Yon turned 87 she gave in to her children’s pleads for her to retire. Pah Yon passed away at the age of 92 in 1997, her edible legacy remains strong and well.

Open Daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Chang Moi Kao Road, behind Starbucks near Gecko Books, Tha Pae Gate
053 398 357, 053 874 159, 053 234 466

Aroon Rai

This simple all-time-favourite restaurant was opened by a just-married local Chiang Mai couple in 1957. Originally the eatery serving typical northern Thai food was just a small room but later expanded to accommodate its growing number of customers. Joy, the owner’s daughter, told us how the name Aroon Rai came from a combination of her grandfather’s (Aroon) and father’s (Rai) names. It was first called Aroon, but some of the samlor drivers didn’t know it, so they added Rai as her father was a well know merchant and this made it easier to find. Many of the recipes have not changed since the restaurant first opened. The most treasured dish of all is the famous chicken and potato curry, which is a kind of kaeng garee, using yellow curry paste and coconut milk, all of which is made from scratch. In the past Aroon Rai was popular with locals and during the Vietnam War many GIs would visit; but it really came into its own thanks to Joe Cummings, of Lonely Planet fame, who has been a fan for decades, and has driven hoards of backpackers in the restaurant’s direction over the years. Now the restaurant is mainly popular with tourists. The restaurant’s claim to fame was in being included in Mel Gibson’s movie, filmed in Chiang Mai, Air America.

Open Daily 8 a.m.-11 p.m.
45 Kotchasan Road, opposite Tha Pae Gate
053 276 947

Chiang Mai Plastic

Chiang Mai Plastic opened in 1967, it began as a small shop selling plastic household wares to local people. The owners were of Chinese descent. Duern one of the third generation of owners believes it was the shop’s attention to customer’s demands and needs which made the shop as well-known as it is today. Nowadays the shop has three entrances and has sprawled into a labyrinth of corridors, and rooms in Warorot Market. It sells a mindboggling number of plastic items, including Tupper ware boxes, children’s plates and cutlery, greetings card making bits and bobs and many more other weird, wonderful and generally useful goods made from that infamous material. For all your plastic needs, just simply wonder through the maze that is Chiang Mai Plastic and you will pretty much be guaranteed to find whatever you want!

Open Daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
68 Kuangmeiru Road, Warorot Market
053 235 149, 053 234 998, 053 233 992, 053 251 777, 053 874 135-6

The Riverside

Riverside opened in 1984, at the time people told the owners they had opened up on the wrong side of the river as there were no other businesses on that side. The two Dutch and English owners were originally in Chiang Mai working in the export business, due to fluctuations in the strength of certain currencies their business went bust over night and friends recommended that they opened a restaurant as Thais love to party, and so Riverside came about. The pub-come-restaurant was initially marketed towards the Thai audience as at that time tourists were only in town for four months of the year. At first The Riverside couldn’t afford to pay musicians so would have friends come to play after work and would give them a beer on the house. After a short time, and lots of hard work, Riverside became one of the most happening joints in Chiang Mai, famous for good live Western music, solid standard of Thai and international food, great drinks menu, competitive pricing, party vibe and of course…river views. In fact our editor celebrated her 15th, 17th, 18th, 20th and 22nd birthday parties there! Nowadays this Chiang Mai classic still holds its own as one of the hot spots in the city. The restaurant and bar has since grown, expanded, re-formed and re-shaped, it has an assortment of seating areas, live music, food and drinks to suit its ever-varied clientele.

Open Daily 10 a.m.-1 a.m.
9-11 Charoenrat Road
053 243 239, 053 246 323


Neramit tailor shop has existed since 1953; it was opened by the father of the present owner Viroj Tansukanun. Viroj’s father came from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai to pursue a better life. At that time, unlike the present day, it was not possible to buy readymade clothes and suits. So, everyone needed to go to tailor’s shop. However, there were only a few tailor shops in the area and people had to wait for about two months to get their clothes finished. During the Vietnam War American GIs would have their clothes made at the shop, other customers included Vietnamese immigrants, local Thai people and foreigners. In the past there were up to 22 workers peddling the shop’s sewing machines. Later on in 1979, the shop moved from Chang Moi Road to Ratchawong Road because the rental fee of the old building had been raised. The sewing machines that are used now are the same machines used since the shop first opened. Nowadays there are thousands of retailers selling pre-made clothes, though Neramit tailor shop remains in business selling high quality handmade suits and clothing. Viroj says he puts his heart into making each piece of clothing. While the shop, due to vast competition, has far fewer workers, its high quality products, all overseen by the dapper Viroj is still iconic for many long term clients.

91/2 Ratchawong Road
053 234 353, 094 307 218

Warm Up

For those into the young party scene in Chiang Mai, Warm Up is, well, the ultimate destination. The pub-club-come-restaurant recently celebrated its 13th birthday. It all began as a pipe dream between five friends, and first opened on the 19th of February 1999 close to the Rimping Supermarket near the River Ping, with only eight tables. The main intention for starting the bar up was that it would be a meeting place for the friendship group of the owners. However this circle of friends was forever growing, so in need of more space Warm Up moved to the area near Nakornping Bridge. The pub was larger this time and had 32 tables. Continuing to get packed out at weekends they moved again to a two story wooden house with a car park in the same area. This new location had 70 tables, allowing large groups of people to dance and drink to the latest Thai and western tunes. Warm Up happily ran in that riverside spot for three years until moving again to their current location on the Nimmanhaemin Road. In this new hotspot Warm Up really boomed and was, and still is, the talk of the town amongst the young – some perhaps not so young – and the beautiful party goers seeking Hip-hop, dance, chart music and a good time.

Open Daily 6 p.m.-2 a.m.
40 Nimmanhaemin Road
053 400 676