The Healthy Guide to Chiang Mai
Sleepy late mornings
when guesthouses open their doors
ladies sweep the streets
like flower carpeted floors.
Gilded roof temples
glisten in the sun
orange robed monks
catch the eyes of everyone.
Blocks alternate businesses
but it’s pretty much same same
massage, temple, guesthouse
that’s the name of the game.
Though it may be discovered
and touristic to the T
Old Chiang Mai still lives
on off the grid little streets.
Escape the city buzz
in dozens of veggie cafes
graze through the markets
and give it all a taste.
Lay on floor cushions
and sip on ginger tea
rest your weary traveling body
in a house for Thai herbal steam.
Yoga, meditation, and healing
no matter where you put yourself
there’s someone interesting around.
Yes I suffered in such a small space
with nowhere to relax in nature
so I saw that to find the source
I would have to dig deeper.
With my eyes closed dancing
I traveled to other dimensions
where the world is alive and pure
and all beings sense their connections.
With my eyes open wide I focused
on what I wanted to see
wise old trees lining the river
plant vines swallowing the concrete.
At night as streets lit up with mopeds
and bright neon signs
I looked out to the purple mountains
and the pink painted skies.
Beneath the hectic I felt the silence
watching the fiery red sun die
soaking up the magic
in the Old City of Chiang Mai.
Where to Eat Healthy in Chiang Mai
Health conscious travelers, rejoice! Chiang Mai is an absolute mecca for healthy foodies, especially vegetarians and vegans. That said, you do need to consider that many of the delicious vegetarian restaurants are still using poor quality table salt, sugar, and processed vegetable oil in the food. Here I’ve listed my favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai, along with some of the healthiest items you can get there. Most are in (or very close to) the Old City.
The best, and cheapest, local juice and smoothie bar in Chiang Mai. All are made without sugar (make sure to ask for “no sugar” when you go elsewhere) and many have greens. My favorite post yoga or dance meal is a shot of wheatgrass, a young coconut, and the Number 7, which is a spinach, avocado, kale, banana, lime, ginger smoothie. You can also get fresh pressed green and vegetable juices to-go. I recommend ordering them fresh and taking them in your reusable bottle instead of their plastic bottles.
When it comes to a mix of Northern Thai and healthy western dishes, nowhere does it better than Free Bird (in my humble opinion). You’ll see printed clearly on their menu that they do not use harmful ingredients like white sugar and vegetable oil, and they use the best quality products they can find. With such a huge menu of delicious food and drinks it’s hard to make a specific recommendation, though some standout treats include the green smoothie bowl, the golden milk, and the Burmese Salads. This is also the only “good cause” restaurant I found in Chiang Mai, donating 100% of their proceeds to their community learning center Thai Freedom House, which offers arts and language education for indigenous people and Burmese refugees. They have a nice shop with goodies like white sage, Himalayan salt, and second hand clothing. (Insider tip: the owner Lisa sells yoni eggs by appointment only.)
Looking for healthy, clean, and simple? Look no further. Amrita garden serves Japanese fusion food that’s mostly organic and free of additives. I especially love the location and atmosphere with outdoor garden seating and big floor cushions. I recommend the house made kombucha, the vegan platter with different salads, the soba noodle salad, and the veggie burger (which I requested on homemade low gluten probiotic sourdough bread). They also have a shop with some raw desserts, coconut oil, and more.
Open EARLY, unlike many of my fave places in Chiang Mai, Fruit Pulse has excellent (although small and expensive) green juices, and even a cacao bowl. I haven’t tried their Thai food, but I hear it’s good. I recommend getting a quinoa salad, which is rare to find in Chiang Mai. They also offer juice cleanses where they deliver the juice to your guesthouse, though frankly I couldn’t justify using up so many plastic bottles that will just go in the trash.
For atmosphere this is my favorite café in Chiang Mai. It’s the kind of place you could lounge in all day, read a book, journal, do work on your laptop (if that’s your life), and definitely meet interesting people. The food is also delicious and consciously chosen. Some of the dishes are healthier than others, and I’m not sure what kind of oils or salts they are using. I do love the Thai Hash which is kinda greasy but so good, with stir fried potatoes, veggies, and thai herbs and spices, topped with poached eggs. For something healthy get one of the salads, add avocado and enjoy a cup of their pumpkin soup. I’m also crazy for their banana, cacao, peanut butter, coconut milk smoothie. They have a shop with some nice goodies like raw honey, charcoal soap, magnesium spray, and natural shampoo.
I mostly dig this café for the smoothies and juices. They have every combination you can imagine, and you can also design your own. I recommend the fresh pressed ginger, lime, cayenne, honey tea (especially if you get sick), and the almond, mango, cacao, avocado, coconut smoothie plus spirulina for a decadent treat.
Simple fresh pressed juices and salads. I mostly like this place for the Thai reggae vibes, and nostalgia’s sake. I came here daily on my trip back in 2013.
Down a small side street in the Old City, with big floor cushions and low tables, I love the atmosphere of this family owned vegetarian restaurant. I’m not sure what quality of ingredients they’re using in their Thai Food, but they do have a whole raw menu, including big raw, satisfying salads, and cacao bliss balls. Not sure how healthy it is, but the Phad Thai is out of this world.
I especially love the fresh spring rolls here, with so many colors and textures, and a light dipping sauce. I heard a rumor that you can ask for no sugar, no salt, and no oil in any of the dishes. I didn’t request the omission, but my food tasted very light, so I’m not sure they even used it. I also hear great things about their smoothies.
For deliciousness alone, these two restaurants (same owners) win the prize. I had the gift of enjoying their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, catered at Om Waters (one of my favorite places in Thailand) during a retreat through The Yoga Tree. All of the food is incredibly flavorful. I especially love their Burmese salad, maybe my favorite salad I’ve ever tasted, and the babaganoush. Not sure if it’s on their regular menu, but they also make gluten free pancakes from bananas, coconut milk, rice flour, and seeds, with homemade tahini and jam. Go there.
Sadly I never made it to any of the Pun Pun locations, though I hear it’s one of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai. They use mostly products from their farm (you can buy some of their products at shops around Chiang Mai) and are meant to have delicious food. Visit their location near the Old City, or make a trip out to their farm.
This trendy restaurant outside the city walls in Nimman has nice outdoor seating and a wide variety of yummy smoothies, green smoothie bowls, and cacao bowls. The whole menu is beautiful with quality ingredients, mostly with meat and gluten, but you can still find some delicious healthy choices. (FYI it’s pricier than most of the healthy places you’ll find in the Old City…)
One of my favorite Thai restaurants in the city. Vegetarian, big bowls of fresh veggies, lots of flavor. Again, I’m not sure about the quality of their ingredients or how “healthy” it is in that regard, but the owner speaks English very well and I’m sure can make modifications if necessary. She also has fresh raw salads.
The oldest and funkiest vegetarian restaurant on the list, I love Aum for the hippie backpacker Chiang Mai vibes. Feels… nostalgic. It’s right across from the Thaipee Gate, always full of people, and has an enormous menu. Try to sit upstairs at one of the low tables. You’ll find a wide variety of Thai food here, some healthy some not so healthy. Their healthiest options include fresh green juice, fresh spring rolls (I always request no tofu, because conventional tofu has toxins and doesn’t digest well), homemade tempeh with sprouts, brown rice avocado rolls, and their big salads. The less healthy but really yummy dishes include the fried samosas, fried tempura, and the vegetarian khao soi (traditional dish in Chiang Mai).
Again, not necessarily the healthiest option on the list, but really delicious and vegetarian. They do have fresh pressed juices, including green juice, and I love their sweet potato fries. They also have hummus, really yummy curries (especially the Panang), and vegan brownies and vegan coconut milk ice cream.
(For more info on eating vegan in Chiang Mai, check out my friend Amelie’s post The Complete Chiang Mai Vegan Food Guide.)
Stock up on your health and beauty needs, Chiang Mai has got it all. From supplements, to cleansing herbs, to superfoods, you can replenish your stash before traveling to more remote places. Note: I’m sure there are less expensive and perhaps better places to find these items around Chiang Mai. For sake of convenience I’ve listed the easiest to find ones in and close to the Old City.
If you’re looking for specialty oils, toxic free toiletries, special herbs, or supplements for cleansing, this is the place. I consider it almost a natural pharmacy. I’ve purchased moringa seed oil, jojoba oil, raw coconut oil, and sacha inchi oil here. They also have a selection of essential oils. Their toiletry selection is vast, though check the labels many still have parabens in them. I especially like their selection of supplements and herbs, and was able to buy detox quality coffee here for coffee enemas. They even have coffee enema bags and kits if you feel called to do a cleanse or need to flush out food poisoning. The food selection is not as extensive, but they do carry Bragg’s Apple Cider vinegar and sacha inchi seeds (best snack and not easy to find.)
For superfoods, Blue Diamond has the biggest selection I’ve found. Every kind of seed and powder imaginable, raw cacao nibs, pink Himalayan salt, you name it. They’ve also got a great selection of raw desserts, coconut water kefir, coconut milk yogurt, and coconut ice cream. I also like their vegan bakery and organic produce section.
My fave place for fresh pressed almond milk, raw treats, raw nuts and seeds. They have some nice bakery items too like gluten free bread, vegan muesli bars, and raw muesli.
Everywhere you look in Chiang Mai you’ll find spas, massage, and wellness centers. Thai massage originates in this area and there are many fantastic teachers and healers. To get the “in” on local healers to connect with, I recommend asking around when you get to Chiang Mai, or inquiring through some of the Chiang Mai Facebook groups. I know there are good Chinese Medicine doctors too, but I don’t have personal references. Below are my favorite places to cleanse, relax, and release in the city.
Ok, so it’s kinda funky, and not exactly clean, but I love, love, love the Thai Herbal Steam House. There’s two locations, one near the Chiang Mai Gate, the other near the Somphet Market, and both have the feeling of the old Chiang Mai. They offer massage, but I come for the herbal steam sauna, which I find to be more therapeutic than even massage. The sauna was especially helpful for me when I got sick with a cold, I sweat it out almost immediately. Plus you can’t beat the price, 200 baht for an hour.
One of the fancier, more expensive spas in the city, but if you want to pamper yourself it’s still a good deal at around 2000 to 3000 baht for spa packages. I did the Thai herbal sauna and then enjoyed an aromatherapy oil massage in my own private room with a huge bathtub and shower. Frankly, I’ve had better massages, but it was still good.
Love this neighborhood Ayurvedic center right in the Old City. If you’re interested in getting an Ayurvedic assessment, a healing massage, or do a full detox (around 3000 baht per day), this is a very affordable way to do it. Most detox centers in Thailand are immersion retreats, where you stay onsite and do an intensive program. Frankly, this is probably the most effective way, as you have support and very little distraction. However, if you don’t have the time or money to pay for a detox retreat, you can do drop in sessions at the Chiang Mai Ayurvedic Center. They have colonic irrigation sessions for just 1000 baht, so if you did your own juice and coconut water fast (you could do it very cheap in Chiang Mai with juices for 40 baht and coconuts for 50 baht), it’s possible to do deep cleansing inexpensively. I love the ladies here too, they are so sweet and fun.
Yoga & Consciousness
Yogis, tantrikas, meditators, personal development junkies, spiritually curious, there’s a place for all in Chiang Mai. It’s a wonderful place to deepen your practices, do trainings, take a retreat, and learn new skills. As a yoga teacher and retreat leader, I came to Chiang Mai for the DANCEmandala training at The Yoga Tree. Here are some of the more reputable places to dive in.
My home in Chiang Mai and one of the most welcoming communities I’ve ever encountered. This all inclusive space emanates such love and has one of the biggest, most peaceful green spaces in the city. There’s classes for every flavor, from Vinyasa Fusion Flow, to Restorative, to Laughter Yoga, and of course DANCEmandala created by the owner Areeradh. I highly highly recommend at least coming in for a session of DANCEmandala, a practice that changed my life 3.5 years ago… so much that I came back to do the facilitator training! I also recommend their ongoing events like BioDanza, SheDANCE, and other retreats and workshops.
Other yoga studios include Namo Yoga, Wild Rose Yoga, Bodhi Tree, Mahasiddha Yoga (also a Tantra school), and I’m sure there are others. There are also plenty of workshops and retreats happening all of the time. Pop into Bird’s Nest Café where there’s a bulletin with retreats on offer.
Chiang Mai has a wonderful community of conscious locals, expats, and long term travelers. I highly recommend connecting through some of the Facebook groups like Chiang Mai Digital Nomads and especially Chiang Mai Nomad Girls. There’s a weekly lunch for ladies traveling in Chiang Mai held at Free Bird Café, shared through the Chiang Mai Nomad Girls group.
No matter how clean my food is, how many hours I spend doing yoga, and how many massages I get, nature is still where I feel the healthiest. Unfortunately there’s not many spots in the Old City to relax and just be in nature, but there are some beautiful places within a reasonable distance.
My favorite one being Om Waters in the Sri Lanna National Park, about an hour from Chiang Mai city. The park has a big lake, with a few floating wooden houses where you can stay and do little more than watch the sunrise and sunset, kayak, and rest. What makes Om Waters so special is… many things. It’s tucked away from all of the other floating guesthouses, which makes it very peaceful. There’s a large yoga platform for stretching, dancing, or holding workshops. The atmosphere is so relaxing and peaceful, thanks to the owner Joe who created such a beautiful place. Retreats are held here often, I came with Areerat from The Yoga Tree as part of my DANCEmandala training. You can also come to stay on your own and bring your own food to cook in their kitchen.
It’s not as deep in nature as I’d like, but Mala Dhara offers a close refuge from the city, with many luxurious comforts. Retreats are often held here, but you can stay in one of their luxury eco huts or the affordable dorms. You can also come for one of their events open to the public and enjoy the swimming pool, big steam sauna, and cacao, coconut, sugar scrubs in the rice fields.
Hiking near Doi Suthep
Admittedly, I never made it up to Doi Suthep, which I hear is actually very crowded with tourists. However, the park that surrounds it is meant to have some nice hiking trails with waterfalls. The deeper you go the more you can have the place to yourself. This is probably the closest nature to Chiang Mai city.
A three hour nauseating ride away, Pai is much more chill than Chiang Mai… but it’s changing. Actually, it has changed a lot since I was there 3.5 years ago. Pai is no longer the little hippie enclave it was 3, 5, 10 years ago, and has become quite popular among backpackers and also Chinese tour groups. If you go, stay outside the center across the river at Sabai Gardens or Ing Doi Guesthouse to enjoy the quiet side of Pai with just rice fields and water buffalo. Definitely, definitely eat at the night market (find the Burmese salad roll lady and the Queen Falafel) and treat yourself at Earth Tone (one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to in the world. For more info on Pai, read this post (3.5 years old, but still helpful.)
My Thai friend told me to skip Pai and head here. “Pai is over,” she warned me. I didn’t listen. I hear great things about Chiang Dao, with allegedly a lot more nature and local culture than Pai.
Over to you, care to share your favorite tips for healthy travel in Chiang Mai and beyond?