Thailand is a cross roads of eastern cultures. The food found there is some of the most complex, rich with delicious aromas. It’s where tropical flavors mix with Chinese and Indian traditions. While I do enjoy sitting down for a meal with a variety of dishes, street food in Thailand is more diverse and fascinating, if a tiny bit intimidating.
The first day I arrived in Thailand, I took a little morning stroll around my neighborhood. I was staying in the Khao San Road area, the old town that has plenty of character. The sidewalks were jammed with food stalls, even early in the morning. Street food in Thailand is breakfast, lunch and dinner for the average person.
Some carts were selling typical morning things, sweet cakes and fresh pressed juices. Others were selling rice or noodle dishes, and some were selling suspicious-looking seafood. I passed on the things that looked a little too authentic and stuck to the juices at the beginning.
I am a little paranoid about stomach problems while I travel. When I was in South America, I never ate a thing outside of a reputable restaurant and only drank bottled water. I even brushed my teeth with bottled water, which was the local advice. I missed some fun, local experiences due to my cautious nature and I regretted it. The thing is, I just don’t know what the correct amount of caution is.
The street food smells were enchanting. I was so tempted to try everything I saw on the sidewalk, but I just couldn’t. There was virtually nothing I saw that could be considered even vaguely sanitary. Most street carts were an actual cart with a glass box for the food and a propane tank attached to a portable burner.
Rather than continue to argue with myself about the hygiene levels of the streets of Bangkok, I decided that I needed some local advice. I turned to a local street food tour, figuring that they would be used to taking foreigners around to try exotic foods without giving them food poisoning.
After some research, Taste of Thailand Food Tours looked like the best bet for some chaperoned street food exploring. The tour explored a part of Bangkok that I wasn’t planning to see, Bang Rak or the “Village of Love”. As I was traveling alone, I thought it might be fun to take an evening food tour and have a little company at dinner.
The tour was a little on the expensive side, costing about $35 for a 3.5 hour tour that included dinner. That sounds reasonable for an American, but the street food is ridiculously cheap in Bangkok. Despite that, the value of a local guide is usually worth it, so I went for it.
Bang Rak was busy and noisy. The food carts spilled out of alleyways and into parking lots and sidewalks. I was late, having been stuck in traffic for an hour, and I missed the first stop. The first food was a 20 year-old egg, pickled. I like to eat adventurously, but I’m thinking that the traffic jam was God’s way of keeping me from eating that egg (shudder).
After I arrived, we began at a vendor selling something like small, fluffy crepes. The little pancakes were sweet and folded around bananas. Yum! This was a snack that I had a few times on my trip. One version was filled with, and I kid you not, cotton candy.
Our next stop was at a fruit vendor, where our guide explained all of the different types of fruits that can be found only in or near Thailand. We tried mangosteen, sweet tamarind, and something that looked like a tomato and tasted like an apple. Confusing!
After browsing the fruit stall and trying whatever looked interesting, we were off to the Chinese herbal store. The Bang Rak area has many Chinese restaurants and shops, and Bangkok has one of the largest Chinese neighborhoods outside of China.
We wandered around the old-time herb store, which sold creepy cures for whatever ailed you. Freeze dried octopus tentacles? If I were a witch looking to make a brew, this would be my store. We each chose an herbal concoction to taste. I chose something safe, a honey tea, but tried a sip of the more potent stuff. It wasn’t that bad, it sort of reminded me of Chino or Amaro, herbal drinks that are common in Italy for good digestion.
Close to the herb shop, we went into a Chinese restaurant, buzzing with customers and noisy florescent lights. Smoked ducks were piled like logs in the kitchen, and I know that because we passed through it to get to our table up the rickety, slippery back stairs.
At the Chinese restaurant, we tried a few different dishes, all of which were delicious. The smoked duck was the best, by far. Taking a tour was really paying off, I would never have gone into that suspicious restaurant or ordered a smoked duck for myself. As it turned out, that restaurant is known for the duck, smoked and glazed with a sweet and spicy sauce.
I was still licking my lips as we were led out of the restaurant and down a dark street. The dark street turned into a dark alley far from the busy noise and lights of the main street. Hm. At this point I figured that either we were going to be robbed or taken for something very local.
Local it was. We went into a small restaurant with plastic chairs and tablecloths that was empty. I was not feeling optimistic about this choice. Then, the food arrived. We shared three dishes, Lard Na (ground pork with lettuce), Tom Young Gai (chicken and lemongrass soup), and a shallot/lemongrass salad that I’d never seen before.
The food at this hole-in-the-wall was fantastic. I am not exaggerating when I say it was some of the best Thai food I’ve had. It was a very humble place, with the cook functioning as waitress and host. Also, they actually served food with heat! Everything I ate in Bangkok was so mild, I think the restaurants were afraid to serve the giant American woman real, spicy Thai food. A little burn with a curry is perfect for me.
For our grand finale, our guide took us to an upscale restaurant for a curry. It was a fun contrast to go from a humble shack to an elegant dining room that has hosted the king of Thailand on many occasions.
After a little cup of coconut ice cream, we were done for the night. I was full to exploding. The night was perfect for me. Adventure and good food with some nice people.
After learning the ropes on the tour, I carefully picked some stalls on my own. The variety of street food impressed me, I could have eaten something different every day for weeks. The meat stalls sold meatballs in sauce. Some carts had makeshift woks that cooked up Pad Thai, one of my favorite noodle dishes. The weekend market had omelette stands. Smoothies stands were everywhere, most selling tropical fruit shakes. Mango and rice is a favorite dessert and often on offer.
After exploring all of the food options, I had to wonder, why is the street food culture so strong here?
I asked my local guide and she said that there are several reasons. One is that many people live in small homes with tiny kitchens. It’s necessary to eat daily on the streets because cooking at home may not be an option. Another local said that it is cheaper in many cases to eat at the street stalls than to buy groceries and cook at home, especially for people who are single.
Overall, street food in Thailand is excellent. The variety is fantastic, the price is right and the scene is fun. The street food vendors were usually friendly and willing to negotiate the language barrier with a laugh. I found it to be a highlight of my trip. Best of all, I never got sick, not even after eating the tarantulas….
Does this sound like your kind of adventure? Then come along with me in 2018! I’m guiding a tour of Thailand with Imprint Tours, more information here: http://imprinttours.com/tours/2013-tantalizing-thailand/