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  • Writer's pictureAround the World in Vegan Eats


Updated: Mar 31, 2023

If you read our last blog you'll know that I fell in love with mango sticky rice. The bar was set high for food in Chiang Mai, which makes sense as the city is a place famed for its incredible street food. From small home-style restaurants to the stalls that fill the night markets with incredible smells every evening, there's no shortage of tasty - and really cheap - options when you're hungry. Of course, if you're vegan like me it is more difficult, but never fear! Things like mango sticky rice just happen to be accidentally vegan, but there's no shortage of non-vegan Thai dishes that have been adapted to suit a plant-based diet too. Which brings us to today's dish, a legendary one that we couldn't wait to try: Khao Soi. Would it live up to mango sticky rice? Would Mike (who wasn't as big a fan of the tasty Thai dessert as I was) prefer this savoury dish?

But wait, what IS Khao Soi?

Khao Soi is a dish popular in northern Thailand and Laos (though the versions are slightly different). It comprises of a coconut milk curry soup filled with crispy and soft noodles, pickled greens, chilli, shallots and lime. The traditional version uses egg noodles and contains meat (usually chicken or sometimes beef).

This dish is really famous among travellers in northern Thailand, a firm favourite of locals and tourists in Chiang Mai alike. So, not wanting to miss out, we sought out a vegan version of Khao Soi in Chiang Mai and found it at Free Bird Cafe. Their recipe uses potatoes, carrots and homemade tofu instead of meat; a choice of yellow lentil noodles or gluten free rice noodles replace the traditional egg noodles here to make the dish fully plant-based.

The front of a restaurant with wooden signage and counter and the words 'greendot: eat green, feel good' illuminated in green and white
Free Bird Cafe: a beautiful place

About Free Bird Cafe, where we tried Khao Soi Chiang Mai

There's lots of Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, but not so many plant-based versions. We headed down to Free Bird Cafe, a vegan social enterprise in the city. They have been open since 2009 and have a big, airy and comfortable cafe space with a shop full of second-hand clothing, vegan food, soaps and general haberdashery next door. It's a really friendly space with plenty of events and - most excitingly for us - a really extensive menu of tasty vegan food. As well as khao soi, the menu includes hearty breakfasts, salads and sandwiches, mac and cheeze, desserts and cocktails.

When you arrive at Free Bird Cafe, step into their shop to grab a menu. You can place your order at the tills here (as well as checking out the treats on display!) after which they'll give you a table number and send you into the seating area. Here you can take your pick of a range of different seating, from sun loungers, to small tables and large shared tables for a more social experience. The staff and other customers here were really friendly and welcoming, with a really joyful atmosphere in the cafe. You can see for yourself, and watch us eating it, in the video below!

So, what did we really think of this plant-based Khao Soi?

This dish was really delicious. It's easy to see how Khao Soi became such a favourite here: and this plant-based version is no exception. It looked and smelled incredible, and was so different to anything we'd tried before, all those flavours really just WORKED together. The curry broth itself was Mike's favourite element, and I loved the crunchy fried sweet potato on top: it contrasted really well with the softness of the noodles. Everything in the dish was so fresh and tasty: it felt healthy, but it was really filling and wholesome too.

Chunks of mango and sticky white rice, drizzled with coconut milk and sprinkled with mung beans
The Khao Soi: a masterpiece in flavour as well as presentation

A nice treat for Mike too was the pickled veg that is a famous part of Khao Soi (I'm less of a fan of pickled things, but Mike LOVES them). It was a little bit splashy: if you're not a chopsticks pro we'd advise not wearing a white t-shirt (thankfully we weren't!) as you'll be so keen to dig into this that keeping tidy will absolutely be an afterthought!

After we'd eaten we happened across the chef too, and had a great chat with her: as a refugee from Myanmar she told us all about the differences between the Khao Soi she ate growing up, and that eaten in Northern Thailand. On her recommendation we will definitely go to Myanmar one day and try their version of the dish, to see how the flavours compare. This was one of the loveliest things about Free Bird Cafe: the staff were so kind and eager to talk to the customers - we are so pleased that we chose to eat there, and really recommend that you don't miss trying this if you're in Chiang Mai.

How much did this Khao Soi cost - and was it worth it?

We paid ฿120 per portion of Khao Soi. This is approximately £2.94, €3.36 or $3.63. Though this isn't much by western standards it is quite expensive for food in Chiang Mai. However, this vegan Khao Soi was incredible: we think the price is worth it for the preparation and artistry, as well as the imagination that goes into making the dish plant-based. In eating at Free Bird you are also contributing to their social enterprise, and ensuring that their incredible vegan options (vegan snickers, anyone?) are here to stay.

Free Bird Cafe is located at 14 ถนนศิริมังมังคลาจารย์ Mueang Chiang Mai District, 50200, Thailand. They are open from 9am to 10pm Wednesday to Saturday, from 9am to 5pm Sunday and Tuesday, and closed on Mondays. As well as really beautiful food, they have a shop and plenty of events. It's a really friendly and wholesome space where you will be made to feel very welcome.

Have you tried Khao Soi in Thailand? Or elsewhere in the world! Where did you try it and what did you think? Let us know in the comments below.


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The centre of Vienna with tall, historic buildings all around
Chiang Mai has some absolutely incredible temples

Where should I stay?

If you want a comfy sleep, the opportunity to make friends and get involved in fun activities, and be located super close to the night market, then The Islander hostel is definitely somewhere you should check out!

For a more peaceful hotel experience, with a pool and a good location, Manee might be exactly what you're looking for!

Tours & Experiences

Chiang Mai is well known for its beautiful temples: top of our list was Doi Suthep. They are even more stunning at night: on this Doi Suthep and Wat Umong night tour you'll see these sights lit up, with smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. Or if that's not quite for you, why not try one of the top-rated Viator tours below?

Note: for ethical reasons we recommend taking great care if choosing an activity that involves elephants (as this is an automatic widget, these may appear below). For advice on choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary visit, please see our Ethical Elephant Sanctuary Visit blog.

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