Over the 2+ decades I’ve been visiting Thailand, coffee has become increasingly popular and available. This blog explores a few of the coffee experiences we had early in 2014 when we traveled extensively in the north of Thailand, in Phrae, Pua, Nan and Chiang Rai.
It’s a continuation of two blogs published in April 2013:
I see more and more coffee shops or “huts,” as they are frequently named, everywhere in Thailand. Driving through a town, or even just on the highway, there will be a coffee hut. In addition to individual coffee huts, there are many chains: Coffee World, Black Canyon Coffee, Doi Chaang, Amazon, Doi Tung (see below) and more. There are, of course, Starbucks – at over 140 in Thailand.
I did try Starbucks this year, mainly so I could write a bit about it. My advice: don’t go there. I find the coffee so-so and the drinks are larger, weaker and more expensive, costing about the same as in the states. Increasingly many of the coffee places (Amazon, for example) have free wi-fi; at Starbucks the only option was an all-day password for 150 baht – about $5.00. For their prices: it should be free. Doi Chaang is a fairly well-known chain out of Chiang Mai that serves Doi Chaang coffee beans. I was going to try it when I saw a branch at the Krabi airport but it was even more expensive that Starbucks – 100 baht for a latte, which, even accounting for inflated airport prices, was too much. I got a coffee at Black Canyon instead for 20 baht less. (It was good.) Of all the chains, we’ve had pretty good coffee at Amazon.
Coffee culture is young and still evolving in Thailand, so often baristas don’t quite have all the details down about the various drinks. At a coffee shop at a temple in Chiang Rai I ordered a cappuccino, typically espresso topped with equal parts steamed and frothed milk. At this shop I was served my first frothless “cappuccino” ever; it was basically coffee blended with sweetened, condensed milk, served after about a 10 minute wait. This was extreme. Usually the drink somewhat resembles what you expect. Although when we were at Pak Meng beach in Trang (down south), Kasma ordered a latte and I ordered an Americano, which is supposed to be a black coffee. When the two drinks came, they looked identical. Kasma asked “Which is the latte?” The waitress looked dumbfounded for a brief time, then put one down in front of Kasma and said: “This can be the latte. They’re the same.” There was one difference: my “Americano” cost 5 baht less.
My advice from the first blogs holds: order what you want, don’t be impatient if it takes awhile and enjoy whatever it is you get. Next time, try another place. Consider it a tasting adventure and see yourself as being part of an evolving cultural phenomena.
Traveling in the north, we encountered a number of coffee fields. Coffee is cultivated up north and it’s not unusual to see coffee shops which serve locally grown and roasted beans. At Tha Wang Pha in Nan we sought out some coffee fields and when we saw beans drying in the sun we stopped to see if we could buy some unroasted coffee beans for a friend in the United States. Unfortunately, they would only sell us wholesale quantities so we couldn’t make the purchase.
For the rest of the blog, I’d like to showcase 3 of the places where we had coffee up north, beginning with Phu Coffee in Nan.
Phu Coffee (ภูคอฟฟี่) – Nan
Phu Coffee (and that’s what it sounds like in Thai), is found in the tourist center across from Wat Phumin. There’s a coffee shop out front – Nan Coffee – that wasn’t bad but we preferred Phu Coffee, which is located inside the courtyard and off to one side. Look for the yellow umbrellas.
The indoor seating was cozy and comfortable. This was very much a local coffee shop. The beans were local from Doi Phu (Phu mountain) and they also sold coffee beans to take home. Service was quick and efficient and the prices were more than reasonable: hot mocha, cappuccino and latte were only 25 baht while iced drinks were 30 baht.
The coffee was quite good, and presented very nicely (see the first picture of the blog of the mocha and the picture of the latte above right). The coffee was served in what I think of as traditional Thai style: accompanied by a cup of tea to serve as a chaser after you finish your coffee. The tea was surprisingly good here: it was brewed to order, which is not usually the case at Thai coffee shops.
We came here 3 mornings in a row while staying in Nan. I highly recommend it.
Café Doi Tung (กาแฟดอยตุง) – Doi Tung (& Chatuchak Market)
While we were in Chiang Rai we made an excursion to Doi Tung, perhaps the best known tourist destination in Chiang Rai province, known for the Royal Villa of the late Princess Mother (mother of the current and previous king) and the Mah Fah Luang Garden. When we arrived that morning, we stopped first at Café Doi Tung.
The seating is outdoor in a covered area and there’s a lovely view of the mountains in the distance. The beans served here are from those mountains (doi means mountain so Doi Tung is Tung mountain) and have been grown as part of the Doi Tung Development project (started by the Princess Mother) since the late 1980s.
The café is a bit more like a coffee house such as is found in the U.S. The drinks are larger – 12 ounces rather than the more prevalent 8 ounce size in Thai coffee places – which was reflected in the price – 75 baht for a latte, 70 baht for a cappuccino, 85 baht for a mocha (more usual prices for the smaller drinks elsewhere are 40 – 45 baht).
They also had a substantial array of pastries and sweets (which is not the norm in Thailand), such as coffee cake, carrot cake, layer chocolate cake, green tea cake, macadamia fruit cake, macadamia mocha cake and macadamia nut brownies. We sampled the brownies, which had good flavor (great with the nuts) but could have been a bit moister for my preference. Still, they were very good.
I had a latte and Kasma a mocha. It was excellent coffee and served very efficiently. After spending the day at the various attractions, we returned to the café in the later afternoon and enjoyed a Macadamia Nut Slush: it had lots of cream, some caramel and crushed macadamia nuts. It tasted heavenly: a perfect way to end the day.
The café also sells a number of other items that are produced locally, including roasted coffee beans in three different roasts (light, medium and dark). We purchased a number of items, including macadamia nuts (which they grow), macadamia nut cookies (very good), macadamia nut butter (my, was this good) and a box with 6 pouches of Doi Tung coffee, each one used to make an individual cup of drip coffee.
We enjoyed the coffee so much that we were pleased to learn there are a number of branches in Bangkok. We were very happy to visit the branch at Chatuchak market (on Kamphaeng Pet 2, directly next to the parking lot) later in the trip. Check out the Café Doi Tung Website.
Bomb March Coffee – กาแฟแห่ระเบิด – Long (Phrae Province)
Driving from Phrae to Sukhothai we drove past a coffee hut with a bomb in front and did a quick u-turn.
Exploding coffee? We had to give this a try!
This, by the way, is a good example of a coffee place pretty much in the middle of nowhere, something you did not see very much even a couple of years ago.
It was a lovely coffee house named กาแฟแห่ระเบิด, which they translate as Bomb March Coffee. There was greenery and inviting places to sit, a water feature (water falling through bamboo) and some modern art on the wall. In the background, Christian devotional choral music played (?); this is the only time in my 21 years visiting Thailand I’ve heard such a thing.
The coffee was quite good, the barista efficient.
Kasma was able to get the story mainly from information on posters and pictures on the walls, which were all in Thai. During World War II Thailand was essentially occupied by the Japanese; Thailand allowed them into the country to prevent bloodshed on her population. There was an important bridge on a main supply route in this area, which the U.S. bombed. Three unexploded bombs were later found in the river and surrounding mud, which the villagers collected. They took the gunpowder out to make into smaller explosives to use for fishing (though another story has the Thai soldiers emptying the bombs first). After some 30 years, in Buddhist year 2516 (1973, Western calendar), the heavy metal bomb casings were cut to make into large bells and, with a great procession, intsalled in 3 of the local temples.
A fascinating history at a fascinating coffee house.
Kasma later found out, by talking to some locals, that the coffee hut had been there for some time and was in danger of closing. After transforming it into Bomb March Coffee, adding the historical information and bomb decor, it has flourished.
We visited the temple Wat Sri On Khom in Long where we saw one of the 3 bombs that were transformed into temple bells.
Written by Michael Babcock, March, 2014