Once we had overcome our street food fear, thanks to friends in Hong Kong, we went on to be delighted by Bangkok street food. And in Bangkok, finding street food vendors, is almost as simple as merely walking out onto the street – they are everywhere.
I don’t think people realise just how prevalent it is. For example, if I compare it to the street food offerings in Vietnam, it is far more readily available in Bangkok, and in my opinion, there is a lot more variety. But let me paint a picture and take you onto our daily food journey.
Although we were staying in a high-rise apartment in a fairly posh, expat area, we had decided not to cook, but to find all our food on the streets, and the occasional restaurant, in our local area. This meant sourcing 3 meals a day and most our drinks from the street.
Also read: Hong Kong – then and now
Bangkok has very long narrow blocks, with most of the traffic directed one way only. The road we were on, Langsuan Road, is a 3 lane one way, with 500m to each side of our building, of which much is lined with food vendors. Vendors are mostly set up on the pavements and can be broken down into a few different types of street food vendors:
- One-dish-specialists. They are masters at their game, and they generally produce only one dish, with small variations, for example the dough-pancake-pudding man has a banana and non-banana version. Whatever you buy will be presented to you in a plastic bag, with plastic spoon and a straw if applicable! Where they can, they will give you a plastic bag in a plastic bag!
- Informal street eatery. I was going to call these ‘informal restaurants’, but that is perhaps too generous. Generally these vendors have a few fold up tables & chairs under an umbrella or tarpaulin. They have choices or even menus, which makes it harder as you can’t really know what is on offer unless you can physically see it. Menus are rarely in English, and written exclusively in Thai script. Plates and bowls will be picnic-style plastic, but with real cutlery. You can normally get ‘add-on water’ (see below).
- Informal restaurants. These are proper, but basic restaurants. They generally have menus, some even complete with pictures or photos, and some translated into English. Although many translations cannot be relied upon, so you have to be prepared for getting something a little different to what you expected. Plates and bowls are still mostly picnic-style plastic. If you get ‘real bowls’, they will probably be chipped! But generally you will be given real cutlery. On the whole, they will have a range of drinks on offer too, perhaps even beer!
You can rarely buy food and drink at the same vendor, as drinks vendors are specialists too. You get the following drinks vendors:
- Smoothies and juices. Freshly made for you on the spot from an array of fruit and/or vegetables. Remember to always ask for ice, other wise it is served at room temperature. And as we were there in 35C heat, this meant tepid juice.
- Specialist coffee vendors. These are generally semi-permanent structures – almost like what we would know as a ‘wooden shed’. The range of espresso based coffee drinks is more akin to what you’d get from high street chains, but most coffees and flavoured coffees are offered hot, cold or frozen. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, do try to tell them as everything is sickly sweet otherwise. Condensed milk is a very popular ingredient!
- Other drinks vendors. These guys offer more milky, sweet and flavoured percolated coffee. They are cheaper as they don’t need an espresso machines, so they can operate from a cart, rather than a more permanent structure or location.
- Add-on water. Some informal street eateries will have a bucket of fresh water, that you can help yourself to, or you will be given a mug of ice with a straw in, that you can add water to. (We passed on this one!)
Also read: Travel – Living like a local
So a typical day of food searching was almost like a sport for us. We think about what we fancy, then try and map where we can get that food from. Sometimes we split up: Tim will go up the street, I will go down the street. Then we have to factor in which vendors we think will be around. Eventually we realised, for example, that the omelette lady isn’t there on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday, so we’d have to make another plan. But in the beginning, before we knew the patterns or the vendors it was all a bit hit and miss. But these were some typical meal journeys:
- Omelettes. Check to see if the omelette (on rice .. filled with hot chilli!) lady was around. She was down the street, across the road. This meant running the gauntlet across the road, as cars sped by exceeding the speed limit and ignoring pedestrian crossings. We would minimise how many times we had to cross the road, especially as a man had got run over in our road and died one morning!
- Fruit. There were 2 fruit chaps. One up the road on our side of the road, and the other down near the omelette lady. Choice of about 5 exotic fruits. My favourite was papaya, Tim’s was pineapple. We both liked the watermelon.
- Veggie juice. Up and across the road.
- Coffee. Further up the road and across the street. Ironically, opposite Starbucks.
- Fruit. Bottom fruit seller has moved by lunch time, and top fruit seller sometimes sells out. So need a plan B.
- Lunch market. This is an informal street eatery about 850m away, where you get rice and a choice of 3 toppings. But planning your timing is important. Too early and they aren’t ready, 12pm – 12.30 pm peak period for office workers and queues are long, with no tables to sit at. Arrive too late, and it is all gone. Arrive late afternoon/evening and you’ll never know there was a market there at lunch time, as it turns into a motorbike car park!
- Informal restaurant. Down an alley, opposite posh Eathai in the brilliantly beautiful Central Embassy architectural marvel (which incidentally has the poshest toilets in the whole world!). About 15 minutes’ walk away. Here is the food is doubly as good, at a fraction of the price. It’s mostly just locals. I think we saw one other tourist whilst eating here.
- Restaurants. Of course we did go to the odd ‘proper’ restaurant, but eventually found we could eat equally as good elsewhere. Of course, restaurants offered you the opportunity to ‘linger’, whereas the informal eateries need you to eat and leave, as they need your table. Besides, plastic chairs aren’t that comfortable anyway!
- Take-away from street vendors. We did sometimes get chilli minced pork & egg on rice, or skewered pork/chicken with sticky rice, noodle soup, stir fried rice, fish balls, boat noodles (see Tim’s separate article where he explains the Boat Noodle concept) and more.
Because of the distances we had to cover (mostly on foot) to gather a day’s food provisions, it did take up a lot of our time. But it was a daily journey we enjoyed. We’ll write separately about our foodie favourites.
Also read: Vietnam – first impressions