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Aug 14, 2008 06:35 AM

[Bangkok] Help me get some street food

Silly title, I know, but I've just arrived and have found myself in the unfortunate position of being a little intimidated by the street food scene. I desperately want to try everything and stuff my face, but not speaking a word of Thai and being generally clueless is getting in my way.

I'm very scared of being rude--ie is it okay to just point at what I want? Even then, since most of it is not yet prepared I'm not sure if pointing is the way to go.

I'd love to get any suggestions. I'm feeling a little intimidated but I'm certain my food addiction and your help could help me overcome this :)

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  1. In which area are you staying? Maybe we can give specific options.

    "Mai cow jai" means "I don't understand." This will probably inspire the vendor to wing it!

    Although "hot-off-the-wok" is best, the vendors with prepared items are good, as long as they do a steady business. These are "point-n-buy" options.

    If you are in a heavily touristed area, most vendors will be used to the language difference. They probably have already worked a system of communication.

    In less touristed areas, most vendors are proud to have a foreigner visit their stall, and will try there best to communicate.

    Most stalls feature one item. Sometimes we're looking at variations, like the type of noodle, or different ingredients. Many vendors will understand your confusion and try to offer the options by sight.

    Pointing is ok. But, if the food is at ground level, don't point with your foot. Feet are "bad" and should be kept away from food and people.

    And, remember to always say "thank you", "kop khun ká" for a woman, "kop khun kop" for a man.

    A good place to explore hawker food might be Aw Taw Kaw market. It's a definite do for anyone into food. Take the MRT (subway) to "KAMPHAENGPHET". Use exit #2 "Farmer's Organization". A morning visit is best.

    Be sure to try the bamee from the bamee lady, seen below. Her English is quite good!

    1. Eat everything with gusto. You are in a very fortunate position. You won't be rude--people in Bangkok know how to put up with farangs. Point if need be. KtSH is right about thank you's, but get someone to say the two versions for you to repeat until you get them right. And do look for NE Thai/Lao sticky rice (khao niyao) and laab!

      1. You might try popping into an Asia Books branch and see if they have a copy of "Thai Hawker Food", ISBN: 9789748900995. Although it is out of print, they show it available on their website.

        Some of the specific vendors are gone, but it is still a good guide to street food. It will also help with memories, and in preparation for your next visit.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

          Sam and Curt,

          Tsk tsk, shame on both of you for misleading Lina on the 'thank you' thing.

          You do not use the two versions of 'thank you' based on the sex of the person you are addressing. You use ONE of the two versions based on your own sex. That is, if you are a woman, you ALWAYS say 'khob khun kha' and try to put a high tone on the last word. If you are a male, you ALWAYS say 'khob khun khrap.' (here again, high tone on the final word). My spelling of the Thai words is a tad different from Curt's and is closer to classroom Thai vernacular than street Thai.

          1. re: ThaiNut

            Gads! Of course! Too much rum last night. Agree with your more phonetic spelling.

            1. re: ThaiNut

              IMHO, the only real way to learn Thai is to listen (or learn Thai script).

              There is Thai and English. And, then there is "Thinglish", the "official" transliteration of Thai. Thai is hard enough without learning a third language. That's why I try to stick to a more "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" transliteration.

              But, then again, I'm American and Lina's Irish! ;-)

              Yes, there is a bit of an "R" sound in "ครับ". But, in my experience, I have heard it butchered so badly that I just use "cop" when trying to hand out handy phrases. Besides, most street vendors have spent precious little time in the classroom.

              I guess we could have been more clear on the fact that the gender distinction is the speaker, not the speakee; but hey!

              I probably could have more correctly spelled "Aw Taw Kaw" . I believe the academic spelling would be "Or Tor Kor". I could just imagine the frustration trying to ask directions with that!

              ็You've been awfully quiet. Was it something we said?

          2. Friends, grammatical arguments aside, I managed to consume at least 100 calories for every step I took today. Much like a cow out to pasture, I must have stopped at least 6 or 7 times to munch. All I can say is that a) I love Bangkok and b) I love street food! What shall I try next? Do I need to even go indoors to eat again? Since it's raining tonight, I might have to.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Lina

              Don't let this happen to you: When I'm alone in Thailand and Laos, I pretty much eat only street and market food. After a few years many years ago, I started looking at the very high output single burner gas stoves that people used. I got one and brought it back here to Colombia--weighs A LOT! But really worth it. Turn it on and the flame kicks the earth out of orbit.

            2. There are several rules to eating street food and not getting sick. One is if it is hot and was cooked before you, it should be OK. Another is, if you don't trust the water, don't trust anything washed in it if you are going to eat that part, i.e. salad. Peeled fruits are OK and other fruits can be washed with bottled water. I drink the water that Thais do and don't have problems. Not everyone is used to the water. Another point is if there are a lot of Thais at a street vendor, the food should be good and quite possibly authentic. Thais, in general, will not buy food that doesn't taste good and if a vendors food makes them sick, they will tell all of their friends.

              Vendors make a limited selection of food. Some food requires specialized equipment. If a vendor doesn't make what you want, go to another vendor. A pot of boiling water may indicate a noodle vendor, a wok may indicate a vendor that can make fried rice. A vendor that sells barbecue chicken on wood splints (gai yang) should have sticky rice.

              Buy fruits at the market. You will be surprised how good they taste. Try ones that you aren't familiar with. Get a half a kilo - 1.1 pounds (krung lo), at first to find out if you like them. Wash them if necessary. there are many varieties of bananas, try some of each type. Try the mangosteens if they are in season. They are dark purple, orange sized and have a rough skin.

              There are a number of street vendor foods I would suggest. In the morning I like to eat moo ping, which is barbecued pork strips on a stick and sticky rice (khao niew). The ones I usually get are 3 baht or 7 for 20 Baht. You may get smaller ones for 2 Baht or larger ones for 5 Baht. Along with that I get a small bag of sticky rice. I usually wash it down with water. Some places have it in the morning, others at other times.

              Another food for various times of the day is kway tiao. This is rice noodle soup and usually can be made with beef, pork, beef balls, pork balls, fish balls and/or seafood. You also have to choose the type of noodle. You can get by by ordering the same as someone else. See for some types of noodles. Kway tiao is usually 25 Baht to 50 Baht.

              Another food that is good is gai yang. It is barbecued chicken, but it doesn't have barbecue sauce. It is quite tasty. A reasonable price would be 25 Baht to 40 Baht. Since it takes time to cook, it usually won't be found first thing in the morning. Preferably get it right off of the grill, or if it has been off a little while, have the vendor put it on the grill to reheat. If you get it from a vendor that gets on at a stop while traveling on a bus, look at it carefully, to make sure it hasn't got a lot of dust on it from going on too many buses. Gai yang is very good with sticky rice. Pinch a small ball of sticky rice with your right hand, then pinch off a small amount of chicken to go with it. Yum.

              I also like chicken liver made in the yang style, as well as gizzards and hearts. These are not available everywhere, much less often than gai yang. My wife calls them tob as in tob yang, but this may be slang of Issan/Lao. Fortunately, I can get them at home once in a while.

              Another good category to go for is the food served hot from a grill on a stick and in a bag, usually containing a sauce that is both hot and sweet. The barbecued squid is good as well as various meat and fish balls. Large beef tendon balls are part of this group.

              One thing that I use as an old standby is fried rice (khao pot). The Thai style is to use fully cooked rice that is very tender. You can have it made with beef, pork, chicken, shrimp and seafood as well as many other ingredients. It usually comes with cucumber slices, green onions, a lime wedge and soy or fish sauce. It is almost always good.


              5 Replies
              1. re: jnsx

                This is great advice, thanks so much! I'm happy to report that I've only eaten one meal indoors in Bangkok--the complimentary breakfast at my hotel yesterday. This was also the only time that I felt slightly ill during my entire trip, which has forced me to make the decision to never eat while seated or indoors ever again.

                1. re: Lina

                  It's be a couple of days since the last post. Have you had excellent food since? I am curious about what you have sampled? Have you had the boiled peanuts for a snack yet? The vendors who sell them usually have a small in can to measure out 5 or 10 Baht worth. Be careful, they can be somewhat addictive. Have you tried spicy foods or are you sticking to milder foods?

                  On my first trip to Thailand, I had som tam once or twice and ate with Thais several times, Thai style. By Thai style, I mean everyone gathered around a circle of bowls containing various foods, with each person reaching for a pinch of the food they want, usually with a ball of sticky rice and always with the right hand. There are finer points of etiquette, such as only touching what you are going to take, not taking too large of an amount and deferring some of the more popular food to the elders by only taking a small amount. Have you experienced this?

                  Have you noticed that Thais use the spoon to eat and the fork to help place food on it? Of course this is when the situation dictates a fork and spoon. Have you noticed that chopsticks are used mostly for eating kway tiao. Have you noticed Thais eating KFC chicken with a knife, fork and spoon? Things are so different. Enjoy the sights, the smells and the flavors. Good luck.


                  1. re: jnsx

                    jnsx, that was a NE Thai/Lao meal you had (plates of food in the middle and eating with sticky rice). Other cultural taboos: pointing at others with your feet and touching people on the head

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      I know,Sam. My wife of 18 years is Lao/Issan. I speak passable Thai and know some words in Issan (northeastern dialect) and Nua (northern dialect) - due to taking lessons for years at Wat Thai Los Angeles in North Hollywood and traveling to Thailand for a month each year. The travel to Thailand helps on the pronunciations as well as getting really good Thai food.

                      The first time I had a meal with Thais was less than a week after arriving in Thailand for the first time. I was invited to eat with a group of newly acquired friends in the city of Rayong. The style of eating was new to me, but I caught on quick enough. This style of eating is also the same in the north, at least at the homes I have been to. The central part of Thailand and the south may do things differently, but there are many people from the north and northeast (Issan) in those places. I have even seen it in the south where my sister-in-law has a boyfriend. The dishes were served and eaten Issan style.

                      For those in the know, I talked about several Issan dishes, which I like a lot. I like palaa (pa daek) in my som tom. The "l" after the p is many times silent, so I didn't include it. The "r" character (raw reua) is actually an "l" (law leua) sound in Lao/Issan, so you can track the influence of Lao on the language as it's spoken in various places. I have also had larb (laab) several distinct ways. There is cooked larb, then there is larb luet made with raw beef and raw beef blood, then there is the same thing, but made with raw pork. I have had it all three of these ways. The ones made with raw meat are extra spicy. Eating larb luet is probably the quickest way to let others know that you appreciate the cuisine of Issan/Lao.

                      I've had a lot of other dishes from Issan. Two years ago, I almost got to eat red ant eggs, but they were such a delicacy and it was assumed I wouldn't want any, they were gone before I got some. I have had other insects before , some I found to be so-so and others I found to be good. When I was in Issan in January, I went with my wife's in-laws to a Korean barbecue type place, but the food was the local food and the marinades were the local marinades. It was very good, all of us stuffed ourselves.


                    2. re: jnsx

                      I unfortunately had to leave Bangkok and went on to India and am now back in Dublin--hence my not posting. I had amazing food in Bangkok, almost entirely on the street. I went for spicy food, but didn't have much of a problem, although the green curry in the MBK food court almost made my head explode! That said, it wasn't too bad compared to what I was going to experience next in India. I loved eating with a spoon--I'd happily do it this way forever.

                      Also, after taking the Thai cooking class I feel more equipped to make it myself at home. I've already tried a few things and have been very pleased with the results.Thanks again for all of the advice!