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Thailand’s de facto northern capital of Chiang Mai not only has incredible amounts of amazing Thai food, but it also has way more than its fair share of beautiful, design-led coffee shops that are both utterly Instagrammable and that serve up some seriously – and we mean seriously – good coffee. If you’re a wannabe barista in need of a truly decent caffeine fix, here’s where to head for Chiang Mai’s best coffee shops.
This tiniest of tiny coffee shops – seriously, you can count the number of seats on two hands – is the baby of the barista and coffee aficionado couple behind the original Graph Café in remote western Thailand’s Sangkhlaburi, close to the Myanmar border. There, the café’s name was said to reflect the journey from Kanchanaburi to Sangkhlaburi, winding through the mountain roads like the ups and downs of ‘the graph of our lives’.
They have since sold the Sangkhlaburi branch (it’s still a coffee shop, but under different ownership and with a new name), and upped sticks to Chiang Mai, where between them they now run both the coffee shop itself and a nearby modern Italian café-restaurant.
If there’s space for you to squeeze into glass-fronted Graph Café (diehard fans in need of a caffeine fix sometimes pull up stools on the kerb outside), make time for a chat with barista-owner Tee before sipping an expertly poured flat white made using locally sourced northern Thai coffee beans.
Or try a glass of the intriguing draught nitro-brew coffee, pulled with a frothy, Guinness-like head – Graph Café was one of the first to begin serving this, long before the likes of Starbucks caught wind and jumped on the bandwagon up and down the country. The house blend is also available as whole or ground beans to take away and brew at home.
Daily, 9am-5pm; Soi Ratvithi 1, Sriphum Road; 086-567-3330; www.graphdream.com
Ristr8to was among the first of the trendy modern outlets to appear in Chiang Mai when the city’s now-renowned coffee scene was just finding its feet. The mini-chain now has numerous locations, including in the high-end Nimmanhaemin neighbourhood, popular with foreign visitors and expats, and just about Chiang Mai’s primary place to see and be seen.
Ristr8to seems to be perpetually busy – it also appears to be a popular spot for meetings and study dates – but there’s a good number of tables both indoor and on the street-facing terrace at the front, so finding a seat is usually still pretty straightforward. Be warned, too, that the trendy vibe means loud music that gives the place an almost bar-like atmosphere.
That won’t be to all tastes but, if you’re not deterred, you can choose from a fairly extensive and well-executed menu of all the usual espresso-based coffee staples, plus the likes of affogato and some more inventive cocktail-inspired creations.
Daily, 8.30am-7pm; Nimmanhaemin Road; 053-215-278; www.ristr8to-coffee-chiangmai.com
We’ll say this: you know you’ve found somewhere that’s serious about coffee when the focus is so heavily on the roasting, grinding and brewing that seating is an afterthought.
Indeed, at Ponganes Espresso, there’s hardly anywhere to sit at all, such is this nonetheless highly recommended outlet’s intention to style itself as a coffee bar, rather than the more conventional coffee shop. That means it’s somewhere to knock back an expertly pulled espresso or piccolo while standing at the bar and engaging in chit-chat with the barista, and not necessarily the kind of place you’ll want to savour a soothing latte with a good book.
Don’t let any of this take away from the fact that Ponganes is undoubtedly a coffee shop every bit worth a visit, serving up top-notch, primarily espresso-based drinks brewed from carefully selected beans. Also on sale is a good range of equipment and accessories for the home barista; especially tempting are the gorgeous wooden coffee grinders.
Thursday to Monday, 10am-4.30pm; Ratchapakhinai Road; 087-727-2980; www.ponganes.com
Akha Ama had humble beginnings, starting out in a simple apartment before expanding and then expanding some more. The original branch still sits in a delightfully low-key, residential location, while a newer second outlet offers a more convenient downtown setting just a short distance from Wat Phra Singh temple.
Both locations remain charming spots to satisfy your caffeine cravings with a quality, expertly poured brew. Even better, Akha Ama doubles as a social enterprise, facilitating the fair production, processing and trade of the coffee beans grown in the young founder’s own hill-tribe village.
Thursday to Tuesday, 8am-6pm; Ratchadamnoen Road, and Hussadhisewee Soi 3; 086-915-8600; www.akhaama.com
Arguably the place that was serving the best coffee before Ristr8to shook up the scene and the rest promptly followed, Pacamara still manages to hold its own today. The coffee remains outstanding, and the downtown location is as convenient as ever for a pick-me-up before or after tackling Chiang Mai’s temples and other sights.
Daily, 7am-7pm (until 8pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday); Ratchadamnoen Road; 058-327-324; www.espressofriend.com
For more ideas on exploring Chiang Mai’s cafe scene check out this excellent post on Paper Planes Blog
At Expique, we’re experts at showing you the unique parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand that most tours don’t take you to – and which you probably won’t discover on your own. Joining one of our tours or experiences (or having us create a custom tour for you) is a great way to make the most of your time in Thailand and ensure you leave with a memorable experience.
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Which is your favourite Chiang Mai coffee shop? How many of the spots on our list have you visited? Let us know in the comments!
Ponganes Espresso photo by Ponganes Espresso; Akha Ama photo by Kim Waechtler/Erven Ruellan; Pacamara photo by Pacamara; all other photos by Chris Wotton