Myanmar tea and pe pyote htamin at Ko Zaw's tea shop. (Frontier)

A taste of home: Myanmar restaurants blossom in Chiang Mai


Starting the day with a cup of sweet milky tea and a bowl of mohinga is essential for many in Myanmar. But after the military took power in February 2021 and plunged the country into a violent political crisis, many fled to neighbouring Thailand, and found themselves unable to satisfy their most quintessential cravings.

Chiang Mai became the city of choice for many new arrivals, particularly those with proper documentation, due to its relative proximity to a number of border crossings and the allure of an easier lifestyle than that offered by other, rougher border towns, where many undocumented refugees are stuck in limbo.

While restaurants serving authentic takes on more well-known Asian cuisines may be easily found the world over, any Myanmar person living abroad is familiar with the struggles of finding a taste of home in a foreign country. Many of them see similarities with Thai culture, but insist the food is very different, even if some dishes like ohn no kauk swe and khao soi (coconut broth-based noodle dishes from Myanmar and northern Thailand, respectively) may taste similar to the untrained tongue.

In recent months, shops serving mohinga (a rice noodle fish soup), lahpet thoke and nan gyi thoke (tea leaf and noodle salads), a variety of Myanmar curries and more have popped up around the famed Thai tourist town.

“When I came to Chiang Mai, I was working a part-time job. On my free days, friends would gather at my house, where I’d make tea for us all to drink together. We couldn’t find the right Myanmar taste in Thai tea. So, I decided to open my own tea shop in Chiang Mai,” said Ko Zaw* in November. He requested that the name of his shop not be published.

Ko Zaw had worked for a foreign civil society organisation in Myanmar, and like many others, fled the country a few months after the coup due to security concerns, eventually opening his tea shop in May this year.

Ko Maung Myint*, the owner of a more upscale tea shop that opened in early November, said the military coup, subsequent violent crackdowns and broadening civil war have left many in Myanmar traumatised. For him, this has led to disillusionment with his previous life and a desire to change his profession.

“I’m an architect. But I don’t have a clear conscience and I feel guilty to accept a big offer to work on a grand house at a time when my fellow citizens are being killed every day. I can’t concentrate on my work,” he explained. “And, like most other Myanmar citizens, I love tea.”

The shop, located near a river, is best known for its authentic tea, mohinga and nan gyi thoke. The owner’s background in architecture is obvious from its much sleeker interior design – the venue is more Instagrammable than some of the other more makeshift tea shops, with dark wooden walls, tables and stools, large glass windows and designer crockery.

Maung Myint was able to escape Myanmar when the architecture firm he interned for in 2019 offered him another job in Chiang Mai after the coup. But he now struggles with survivor’s guilt, after most of his family members died when the brutal COVID-19 Delta variant wave ripped through Myanmar last year, leaving just him and his sister alive.

“If I had continued with my studies, I would have gotten my degree and started my business by now. I was planning to open an architecture company with my friends. All my dreams are shattered because of the coup,” he said, adding that he continues to do minimal work for the architecture firm in a freelance capacity. Maung Myint said members of the company helped him get a licence and space for his tea shop.

Others who have lived in Thailand for decades have also opened restaurants to take advantage of the recent surge of Myanmar clientele, like one shop which serves multi-ethnic cuisine, including specialties from Kayah and Kachin states. 

Khin Myar*, a 54-year-old woman from Kayah State, fled to Thailand in 1990 in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and subsequent violent military crackdowns. An orphan from a young age, she moved to the large border town of Mae Hong Son alone before coming to Chiang Mai in her 30s.

“I have broken my leg twice already. I can’t walk well anymore… I can’t do hard work anymore. Since coming here, I’ve worked as a helper at many food shops – I’ve gained enough experience to sell my own food,” she said.

The shop, located in a quiet neighbourhood near the airport, consists of three bamboo huts with thatched roofs and matching tables and chairs, evoking Myanmar’s rustic countryside. One of the restaurant’s specialties, zakaw htamin, consists of various fermented meat and vegetable dishes arranged around a pile of rice on a large banana leaf fanned over a plate.

A woman eats nan gyi thoke at Maung Myint’s restaurant. (Frontier)

Serving the community

Another new arrival opened a restaurant called Away Eain, which roughly translates to “home away from home”.

“When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, there were few shops where Myanmar people could get together,” the owner Ma Moe Thuzar* explained. “There was no connection between newcomers and those who have been here for years. So, I got the idea to create a community space where Myanmar people could meet while eating and share information like job opportunities.”

Like Ko Zaw, Moe Thuzar worked in civil society in Myanmar before the coup, but her organisation shut down as the junta became increasingly hostile towards such groups. Determined to continue working, she joined a new organisation, which also dissolved while waiting for the regime to grant a registration licence which never came.

“I work part time as a researcher at Chiang Mai University. But living costs in Thailand are so high that I can’t live on a part-time job. So, I opened the shop with money I saved,” she said.

She sees her restaurant as more than just a place to eat, allowing Myanmar youth to use it as a community centre to network and hold cultural events like art exhibitions and poetry readings. 

Ma Tar Tar, who has only been in Chiang Mai for around a month, said the tea shops are a source of comfort, particularly because she left Myanmar alone.

“I feel like I’m in my environment,” she said, speaking to Frontier from Maung Myint’s restaurant. “It’s convenient for somebody alone like me.”

Tar Tar ran a hostel in Myanmar, but the tourism industry has collapsed due to COVID-19 and the coup, and she is struggling to establish a similar business in Thailand.

“It is a little expensive to comply with the rules and regulations. I’m still preparing the place and I don’t know how it will turn out,” she said. But at least she can enjoy a taste of home while she plans.

“I’m happy that it’s not too difficult to find Myanmar food,” she said.

Another customer, speaking from Ko Zaw’s restaurant, said when she first arrived in Chiang Mai over a year ago, she struggled to find Myanmar food.

“If you wanted to eat Myanmar food, you had to go to the market on Friday morning,” she said, referring to a weekly wet market east of Chiang Mai’s old city with many Myanmar-run food stalls. “But it’s not like the atmosphere of our country,” she added.

She said some of the shops are still struggling to hit the right flavours, while others have captured the authentic “Myanmar taste”, but the community aspect is the most important part.

“It’s great because you get to eat Myanmar food and meet fellow Myanmar people,” she said.

Zakaw htamin at Khin Myar’s restaurant in Chiang Mai. (Frontier)

A precarious position

While the new wave of Myanmar restaurants and tea shops in Chiang Mai have become cultural focal points, their survival in a foreign country is not guaranteed. Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Thai law does not allow businesses or property to be 100 percent foreign-owned. Most foreign entrepreneurs must therefore rely on a local business partner, typically required to put down a minimum investment.

“When I first thought about opening a shop, I thought it would be easy,” said Ko Zaw. “But then I found there are many laws and restrictions… If you’re not a Thai citizen, you’re not allowed to open a shop. So, I had to partner with a Thai citizen who can apply for a licence.”

The arrangement puts the Myanmar business owners in a vulnerable position, where they are at the mercy of their Thai partners. Some of the restaurant owners reported having a good relationship with their Thai partner, while others said they put in minimal investment while demanding a large portion of the profits.

“My Thai partner takes a large percentage, but he takes responsibility for all necessary documents, so I don’t have to worry about it,” said Ko Zaw.

Moe Thuzar said her partner covers the expense of the business licence and property costs, while she pays for supplies and labour. The Thai partner receives a flat monthly rate, regardless of the amount of profit. “It’s more like paying rent,” she said.

But the informal arrangement also means the Thai partners can demand to renegotiate the terms of the partnership at any time.

“Not long after opening the shop, he demanded a larger share… to negotiate with him is very hard, but since I can’t do it alone, I have no choice but to go with him,” Moe Thuzar said.

The restaurant owners must also contend with significant overhead costs, with most saying they spend around THB20,000-30,000 (US$575-860) per month on rent, utilities and supply costs.

“My shop has not made a profit since it opened. I’m just fighting for survival,” said Moe Thuzar. “This is the period when we must stand firm. I have decided to remain steadfast for at least one year.”

Ko Zaw, whose shop recorded a loss in September, said it’s especially difficult to maintain his business because his customer base is also struggling financially.

“At first they came because they missed Myanmar food. Later, they had to be more careful about spending because the cost of living is higher here,” he explained. Ko Zaw said many Myanmar nationals in Chiang Mai, like students from the country, have no income at all, and many others still get paid in Myanmar kyat, which has plummeted in value due to economic mismanagement by the military junta.

Maung Myint said he was disappointed by the turnout in his restaurant’s opening two weeks.

“In Myanmar, we have our own place to open a shop, so it costs nothing for the location. But here rent is higher, the cost of ingredients is higher – we have to spend money for almost everything we need,” he said.

Khin Myar said that in her restaurant’s first two months, she was only selling around THB600 ($17) worth of food per day. “I was very depressed. My friends gave me the resources to keep going without getting discouraged,” she said. “Now I’m slowly selling a little more.”

But like the others, she still faces problems. She has outstanding debts and paid around THB20,000 to install paving to prevent the shop from becoming impossibly muddy after rain. She also wants to upgrade the basic toilet facilities, but can’t afford to yet.

Yearning for home

While the restaurant owners are helping others cope with being away from home, most still pine for a return to Myanmar, despite the dangers and bleak outlook.

“Anybody would want to go back to their home country if they could make a livelihood there,” Ko Zaw said. “My father always says he wants to go back home, but the situation is not favourable right now. But at the same time, business here is not as good as expected. Though we are trying hard to survive here, we are losing hope.”

In 2020, Ko Zaw started raising cattle in Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region, a side gig to his NGO work.

“The coup took place as I was clearing land and buying cattle,” he said. “I waited for some time for the situation to return to normal, but it only worsened, so I went abroad.”

Ko Zaw said he was lucky because he had not yet spent all of the money he set aside on his cattle farm but was “hit hard” by the depreciation of the kyat.

Moe Thuzar said she originally intended to pursue a master’s degree in Thailand, but a series of complications left that plan uncertain.

“Now I have no plans for my future anymore. Visa fees, taxes and other living costs are high here. I want to go back home if the situation improves,” she said. For now, she remains committed to her restaurant and is looking for a new location closer to a major road.

“This place is a bit far for Myanmar people to come… in the next month or two, I will move to another place. It’s not easy to keep this place open,” she said.

Maung Myint said he is still contemplating resuming his architecture studies in Thailand, but needs documents from his school in Myanmar and no longer has any living family members who can bring those over for him.

“My future is uncertain,” he said.

But for Khin Myar, the future is already decided. Like some others, her restaurant is not officially registered, but because her son is a Thai citizen, they expect to receive a formal licence next year.

“After getting the licence in my son’s name, I plan to move to a place with more traffic. I don’t expect to be rich, so I’ll be satisfied if I make enough to eat from my shop’s income,” she said.

She said she wants to remain close to her son, who can have a better future in Thailand, and after 32 years, has no home to return to in Kayah. If the political situation improves, she would like to go back, but only for a visit.

“I will stay here until the end of my life,” she said.

* Denotes use of a pseudonym for safety reasons.

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar