Having only heard glowing references to Thai food I found myself underwhelmed after my first few days in Bangkok many years ago. What nobody had told me was that you aren’t supposed to eat the lemongrass! Once I’d corrected this ‘schoolboy error’ I came to love the food of Thailand which is often best enjoyed from street vendors who operate from food stalls on the pavement with a few tables alongside.
Vegetarian, chicken, pork and shrimp dishes are the most commonly prepared with a combination of aromatic ingredients such as garlic, shallots, coriander, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and palm sugar. Thai people enjoy spicy food so you’ll often find a small bowl of spicy fish sauce (Prik Nam Pla) on the table. Made from lime juice, fish sauce and fresh chillies this innocuous looking accompaniment should be treated with respect!
What to Order from a Thai Menu
Deciding what to order when first presented with a Thai menu can be rather daunting which leads many new arrivals to Bangkok simply ordering a plate of fried rice (Khao Pad) as this is perhaps the most recognisable dish available. Whilst the various fried rice options are usually delicious, you should make a point of ordering some Thai classics if you’re ever going to fully appreciate the national cuisine.
Some of the most popular dishes to look out for are as follows:
Spicy Soup (Tom Yum): Spicy, sour soup filled with herbs and spices and often including shrimp or chicken.
Thai Green Curry (Gaeng Keow): This thick, creamy curry is an iconic national dish made by preparing a curry paste from a combination of the aromatic ingredients listed earlier together with coconut milk.
Thai Red Curry (Gaeng Daeng): Prepared in a similar manner to the green curry but using red rather than green chillies. This is usually the spicier of the two dishes.
Thai Fried Noodles (Pad Thai): Rice noodles are stir fried with eggs and a combination of classic Thai ingredients to create one of Bangkok’s most popular street foods. The dish can usually be ordered as a vegetarian option or with chicken, shrimp or crab.
Spicy Green Papaya Salad (Som Tum): This rather surprising inclusion in a list of the most popular Thai dishes is widely available throughout Thailand. It is a spicy salad made from narrow strips of unripe papaya combined with yet another combination of classic ingredients together with freshly roasted peanuts.
Bangkok Travel Basics
Airports: Most long-haul travellers will arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport which lies 30km east of the city centre. Some regional and domestic arrivals will land at the older Don Mueang Airport which lies 25km north-east of the city.
Transfers from Suvarnabhumi: The Airport Rail Link runs to Phayathai Station in the city centre where passengers can connect to the Skytrain (BTS). Alternatively, there’s a public taxi service from the airport or passengers can pre-book airport transfers into Bangkok with Shuttledirect.
Where to Stay: Budget travellers tend to head for the Khao San Road area whilst high budget arrivals stay at luxury hotels in Riverside overlooking the Chao Phraya River. The well-connected Siam district is home to a number of luxury hotels making it a popular choice for families whilst Silom is a good choice for business travellers. Many hotels to suit every budget are located along Sukhumvit which is well connected to the city’s main attractions by the Skytrain (BTS) network.
Getting Around: Travelling around the congested city is no longer the problem it used to be thanks to the excellent Skytrain (BTS) and Metro (MRT) networks. Metered taxis are widely available but traffic jams can be soul destroying. There are many river taxis and ferries serving the waterways whilst tuk-tuks are a last resort for short journeys.
Some Recommended Places to Eat in Bangkok
In a vast urban area populated by more than 8 million people and visited by more than 40 million tourist per year it’s no easy task to suggest where the best Thai food can be found. Throughout the city there are street vendors, budget restaurants and 5-star establishments serving excellent cuisine to suit every pocket.
Here are a few places that are highly recommended for visitors to the city:
Centred on Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the city’s great foodie destinations especially in the evening when pop-up food stalls appear all over the district. These street vendors prepare excellent Thai food in woks at the roadside as well as preparing some excellent Chinese dishes. Barbecued seafood is a popular choice amongst visitors as well as chicken satay served on a skewer, fried rice or noodles, crispy duck and a whole range of curry dishes. Not surprisingly, Chinatown is also home to some top-notch restaurants which serve the best Chinese food in Bangkok. The area is lively all year round but really goes crazy during the Chinese New Year festivities. A short stroll from Chinatown leads into Phahurat which is the best place in the city to enjoy Indian food.
Street Food Around Transport Hubs
In a city where millions of people are constantly on the move it’s very common for local people to eat from vendors located near bus and train stations. As such some of the best street food and restaurants can be found in proximity to major transport hubs. Two such place to look out for if you’re in the vicinity are as follows:
Saphan Taksin BTS Skytrain Station: Located alongside the Taksin Bridge, this Skytrain station is an important transport hub for commuters and tourists who are travelling by river from Sathorn (Taksin) Pier. Foodies shouldn’t be in any rush to escape from this busy area as it is has long been home to a great selection of street food and traditional restaurants. Simply head away from the river after exiting the train station and take a left along Charoen Krung Road where you’ll be spoilt for choice in deciding where to eat. One establishment which deserves a special mention is Prachak (1415, Charoen Krung Road) which has been serving what is arguably the city’s best roasted duck for more than a century.
Victory Monument: This is one of the city’s busiest transport hubs which is served by the BTS Skytrain service and is used by thousands and thousands of public buses every day. As such there are countless vendors serving a vast array of Thai street food from early in the morning until late evening. In addition the side streets surrounding the roundabout are packed with more street sellers as well as long-established restaurants. Of particular note is Boat Noodle Alley which stands on a canal just north of the Victory Monument and is a famous venue for eating bowls full of steaming noodles.
Netflix Inspired Eating Places
We’re all well aware of the power of social media these days but a mention on the Netflix streaming service can prove even more powerful to restaurants around the world. That has certainly been the case in Bangkok where Raan Jay Fai (327 Maha Chai Road) which appeared on ‘Street Food’ as the only street food restaurant in the city which has a Michelin Star. Its signature dish is the crab omelette although other typical Thai dishes are available. The restaurant has become a victim of its own success with waiting times of up to four hours for a table although you can make reservations months in advance. Even after ordering you can expect to wait for at least an hour to get your food as the 74 year old owner, who is now a celebrity-chef in her own right, cooks every dish herself.
The same Netflix programme also focused on the Jek Pui Curry Stall (Mangkorn Road) in Chinatown where customers sit on red stools on the pavement to savour the famous curries. Another featured venue is Ba Mee which has long been a favourite place to enjoy its egg noodles. Formerly located at Sukhumvit Soi 38 they have been forced to relocate to Chaloem Phrakiat Soi 30 due to property development but have managed to take many of their loyal customers with them.
Another Netflix production called ‘Chef’s Table’ focused on professional chefs and their places of work around the world. The first establishment in Bangkok which featured on the programme was Gaggan (68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road) which is a fine-dining Indian restaurant with two Michelin stars. A later episode included Bo.Lan (Sukhumvit Soi 53) which also has a Michelin star and has long been recognised as being one of the finest Thai restaurants in the city.
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