There’s an entire universe of amazing dishes once you get beyond 'pad thai' and green curry, and for many visitors, food is one of the main reasons for choosing Thailand as a destination.
Even more remarkable, however, is the love for Thai food among the locals; Thais become just as excited as tourists when faced with a bowl of well-prepared noodles or when seated at a renowned hawker stall. This unabashed enthusiasm for eating, combined with an abundance of fascinating ingredients and influences, has generated one of the most fun and diverse food scenes anywhere in the world.
Here’s a rundown of different ways to experience Thai food:
1. Food without the fumes
For most residents of Bangkok, eating is as important a part of shopping, as er… shopping is. Thus every mall worth its escalators has some sort of food court. In the recent past these were the abode of middle-class Thais; the food was cheap, the settings bland, and you were even expected – horror of horrors – to carry your own tray. In recent years, however, food courts have moved upmarket, and the setting, cuisine and service have elevated accordingly. Try the food court in the shopping district’s famous MBK mall, on the seventh floor.
2. Foraging off the beaten track
For an impromptu food-tourist outing, hop on the Skytrain and head north of Bangkok to Soi Ari, off Th Phahonyothin. Here is a street food paradise where virtually the entire spectrum of Isan and Thai Chinese dishes is available. Excellent phàt thai can be got at the lauded Phat Thai Ari (2/1 Soi Ari, Greater Bangkok).
3. Hotel buffet bonanza
Avoid the a la carte restaurants; where the hotels really excel is the mind-blowingly decadent buffets, with their fountains of chocolate, oysters on the half shell, pretty pink salmon, and dishes from every major cuisine. Move over Roman vomitoriums, we’ve got to do another buffet round. Reservations are required.
4. Cruising cuisine
Bangkok's Chao Phraya River is lovely in the evenings, with the skyscrapers’ lights twinkling in the distance and a cool breeze chasing the heat away. A dozen or more companies run regular dinner cruises along the river. Some are mammoth boats so brightly lit inside that you’d never know you were on the water; others are more sedate and intimate, allowing patrons to see the surroundings. Several of the dinner boats cruise under the well-lit Saphan Phra Ram IX, the longest single-span cable-suspension bridge in the world.
Having consumed everything Bangkok has to offer is one thing, but imagine the points you’ll rack up if you can make the same dishes for your friends back at home. A visit to a Thai cooking school has become a must-do for many Bangkok itineraries, and for some visitors it is a highlight of their trip.
Courses range in price and value: a typical half-day course should include at least a basic introduction to Thai ingredients and flavours, and a hands-on chance to prepare and cook several dishes. Most schools offer a revolving cast of dishes that change on a daily basis, making it possible to study for a week without repeating a dish, if desired. Many courses include a visit to a market, and nearly all lessons include a set of printed recipes and end with a communal lunch consisting of your handiwork. At the more expensive schools, students are also usually given an apron and a gift box of Thai cooking ingredients.
6. Human kebab
During the annual Vegetarian Festival (in September/October), Bangkok’s Chinatown becomes a virtual orgy of nonmeat cuisine, and food shops and stalls all over the city post yellow flags to announce their meat-free status. Most restaurants will put their normal menus on hold and instead prepare soy-based substitutes for standard Thai dishes like tôm yam, kaeng mátsàmàn, and kaeng khǐaw wǎan. Even Thai regional cuisines are sold – without the meat, of course. Of the special festival dishes, yellow Hokkien-style noodles appear in stir-fried dishes along with meaty mushrooms and big hunks of vegetables.
7. Fast food, Thai style
The classic Bangkok eating experience is sitting on a plastic stool by the side of a traffic-choked road and eating a bowl of noodles or a simple rice dish cooked in front of you. Locals, both rich and poor, will travel any distance to their favourite stall – it’s not rare to see Mercedes parked alongside motorbikes. Some stalls are so famous that articles are written about them in both Thai and English newspapers (look for the clippings proudly displayed beside the nightly inventory). You’ll need a little Thai to order, as English can be limited. The book Thai Hawker Food (available at most Bangkok bookstores) is also a good start for getting your bearings.
8. Perk up your noodle
When you face a bowl of noodles and the array of condiments available to season them, you must be prepared to become your own pharmacist, mixing up the ingredients to create the right flavour balance. Typically these containers offer four choices: sliced green chillies in white vinegar, fish sauce, dried red chilli and plain white sugar. In typical Thai fashion, these condiments offer three ways to make the soup hotter – hot and sour, hot and salty, and just plain hot – and one to make it sweet. The typical noodle-eater will add a teaspoonful of each one of these condiments to the noodle soup, except for the sugar, which in sweet-tooth Bangkok usually rates a full tablespoon.
9. Big deal
Although the prices at Bangkok’s best restaurants may seem like chump change when compared to those of their brethren in New York City or London, a few nights of eating out at this level will make a dent in just about anyone’s wallet. To ease the pain but still savour the flavour, we suggest dining at lunch, when many of Bangkok’s most revered upmarket eateries offer some fantastic set-lunch specials.
10. Calling all daredevils
Silly you – the average garden pest is really a tasty treat. After the wet season, vendors appear throughout town (try Th Khao San) with conical heaps of stir-fried bugs (crickets, red ants and water beetles). Pull off the legs and pop the bugger in your mouth, after which initial revulsion will turn into potato chip-like addiction.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.
Ready to get to grips with more tempting Thai offerings? You'll find plenty of inspiration in Lonely Planet's new World's Best Street Food.