Sometimes I feel like a bad tourist. Bangkok definitely inspired that nagging voice in the back of my mind as I spent my first several days in the city doing nothing but eat. But food is one of the best windows to a new culture, and Thai food is some of the best in the world! Thai cooks have a true, nearly incomparable skill at balancing sweet, sour, and spicy flavors in dishes that are just explosively, mind-blowingly good. Bangkok in particular has a serious reputation for awesome, affordable eats, so I won’t consider those first few days wasted. Below are nine meals, snacks, and drinks to fill up on in the Thai capital, from comfy full service restaurants to basic street stalls.
The country’s national dish may already seem familiar from your local takeout menu. Trust that there’s no better place to enjoy pad thai than Thailand. The iconic rice noodle meal gets dressed up with egg, tofu, bean sprouts, peanuts, and fresh lime after getting stir fried in a blend of palm sugar, dried shrimp, red chili pepper, and other flavorful ingredients. You can mix in vegetables, chicken, or fresh prawns. I never quite found what I’d consider a perfect pad thai in Bangkok, but the closest I got was Yai Yaa Kitchen. The homestyle restaurant’s version wasn’t nearly spicy enough for me, but everything else about the plate was spot on.
Pad See Ew
Similar to pad thai, pad see ew is a noodle dish. Instead of shrimp, peanuts, and bean sprouts, however, this Chinese-influenced plate features wider noodles, broccoli or kale, and lots of soy sauce. This particular iteration came out of Radhani in the Sukhumvit neighborhood.
You’ll also see plenty of wok action sans noodles no matter where in the city you go. Vegetables, chicken, pork, prawns, and sometimes beef all get the stir fry treatment in various combinations. And no meal is complete without a mound of pristine white rice. This plate of chicken and broccoli was served with a smile at the Golden Mango near Silom Road.
Like most of Southeast Asia, curry is integral to Thai cuisine. Basic types boil down to red and green, green being much spicier because of the use of fresh chiles in lieu of dried. You’ll also find Massaman, filled with Indian influences, and Panang, boasting a subtle flavor and often the addition of peanuts, on local menus. My favorite curries in the Old Town were at La Reve, a slightly rickety sit-down joint just a step above street food.
If there’s one thing Bangkok is known for, it’s great street food. Snacks and meals served up on the sidewalk is more than convenience in the Thai capital; it’s a true culture. I stayed in Bangkok’s Old Town, about a 20-minute walk from both Silom Road and Chinatown, the two main street food neighborhoods in the city. So…you can tell where my priorities lay. I found the Silom Road area to be busier during the day with local workers taking lunch breaks at their favorite stalls, while Yaowarat Road in Chinatown came alive on weekends after dark. No trip to Bangkok is complete without a stroll down the packed sidewalks of Yaowarat. Some street stalls actually operate as makeshift restaurants where you’ll have to wait in line for your little plastic table. A long line is a good sign! If you’re nervous about the safety of street food, you can always err on the side of caution by eating where you see lots of locals. You’ll wind up with food that’s safe, tasty, and cheap to boot – my roast duck and noodles with a large sweet chrysanthemum tea was less than $2!
Coconut Ice Cream
Chatuchak Market, held every weekend in the city’s north, is a great place to try lots of street foods. A common item among vendors: coconut ice cream. Peddlers scrape flesh from a halved coconut and fill the rest with vanilla ice cream. You can then choose from a bar of toppings, but don’t expect rainbow sprinkles to be on the menu. Jars of red beans, sweet corn, peanuts, sticky rice, and jellies grace the front of the cart. If you aren’t visiting on a weekend, you can find ice cream carts near Lumphini Park most afternoons.
Thailand, like many of its neighboring countries, has a strong fruit shake game. You’ll never have an easier time getting your five a day. In fact, with sweet concoctions like mango, strawberry, and watermelon, you’ll probably have a hard time stopping at five. There is one place you should tread carefully, though. In Southeast Asia, the word lemon typically refers to what we would call a lime.
Bangkok is largely a city of shopping and drinking. When it’s time to indulge in the latter, you have two basic choices. The luxury route will take you up dozens of stories to one of the city’s swanky rooftop bars for a splurge over the glittering Bangkok skyline. Drink menus are often creative with a pineapple basil gin and tonic appearing on the simple end of the spectrum. Distil at the Bangkok State Tower was pricey but conveniently located for me. For the budget side of the nightlife coin, head to touristy Khao San Road. Cheap trinkets and bucket booze bargains abound in this backpacker mecca. If the pulsing club beats and aggressive oxygen bar vendors aren’t your style, you can get a tamer experience just one street over on Rambuttri Alley.
Thai Iced Tea
If there’s one thing you have to drink in Bangkok, skip the spirits and head straight for the tea. Thai iced tea is a totally unique blend of bright orange tea leaves, found nowhere else in the world, with sweet condensed milk. The result is a creamy and often toothache-inducingly sweet treat that locals and visitors alike can’t get enough of. You’ll see it on the menu everywhere you go, and there are also plenty of vendors selling it at markets like Chatuchak. My favorites were at La Reve and Yai Yaa Kitchen.
There is, of course, much more to Thai food than this. See all the goodies I made at Mama Noi’s Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai.