For many travellers, Thailand is the gateway to Asia. But the food and culture is so good, some travellers may never want to venture beyond it. It may not have the global exposure of Chinese or Indian cuisine, but Thai cuisine is among Asia’s most popular, and a Thailand vacation will absolutely have you addicted to Thai food for life. But what should you eat when you’re there? Read on and we’ll let you know.
Following in the vein of similar articles detailing trips through Japan, Italy, and France, we’ve put together a foodie itinerary of a classic Thailand vacation. It starts in Bangkok, connects up to Chiang Mai, and then ends on the southern beaches and islands. Eating in Thailand will include not only multi-course dinners in exquisite restaurants, but world-class treats at street stalls, refreshing desserts, and endless flavour and spice in every dish. Without wasting any more time, let’s venture through the many flavours of Thailand.
Where to Start Your Foodie Tour of Thailand?
Feast on Thai Favourites in Bangkok
Thailand is not the largest country in terms of geography, but it does have a vast regional diversity when it comes to the cuisine. Of course, as with the tourist trail, all foodie roads lead to Bangkok, the Thai capital, and the ideal place to start your journey. Bangkok is the most-visited city on the planet and one of the most attractive and wild spots depending on where you go. Stroll down the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road and you’ll encounter the rowdy crowds that have become legend in Bangkok, but then make your way to the Siam Paragon Mall and you’ll realize that Bangkok is every bit as ritzy as rowdy. The thrilling thing about Bangkok is that it’s both things and neither; it’s a beautiful contradiction, with immense wealth and growth, but also poverty and old ways of living and a bustling street scene that doesn’t hide away in the shadows. Everything is visible alongside each other. The food reflects this diversity.
Bangkok is in central Thailand, a region where food is a tad milder than elsewhere, making it a good introduction to Thai cuisine on a Thailand vacation. It’s also the largest city in the country and has people from all the various regions in Thailand, so the many culinary options in the city give you a snapshot of the country as a whole. But on a first day in Thailand, a simple introduction to some of Bangkok’s most popular foods will suffice.
While a traditional Thai meal consists of four to five courses, usually made up of soup, a fried dish, a salad, a curry, and vegetables, you don’t have to hold to tradition when eating your way through Thailand. This is a culinary city that satisfies whatever fancy you have, from world-class French and Italian food to savoury street snacks that are more satisfying than the best Michelin-starred meals. That being said, keep it simple when you land in the city. After a visit to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, get your first taste of Bangkok’s incredible street food for lunch, sampling Pad Thai, the most popular dish in the country. The stir-fried combination of noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, eggs, tofu, fish sauce, and peanuts is a bright example of the spicy and sour flavours that dominate Thai cuisine. Make time for the lineups of Thipsamai if you want to experience one of the city’s best loved Pad Thai spots.
In the afternoon, continue your journey, on your Thailand vacation, through the city’s history and culture. If it’s the weekend, make time for the Chatuchak Weekend Market and consider a cruise along one of the many canals. At sundown, make your way to Wat Arun and watch the massive Buddhist temple light up as the sun dips below the horizon. Then it’s time for a taste of Bangkok’s gourmet pleasures, with endless options to choose from. Just be sure to include Tom Yum Goong as the soup course, as the spicy, lemongrass-flavoured dish is a Thai favourite and you won’t find any better version of it than in Bangkok. Consider trying dishes like Pad Krapao, which is minced pork stir-fried with basil and chilies, Pad See Eiw (if you don’t mind having noodles twice in one day), which is broad rice noodles cooked with Chinese broccoli and a meat, or Kai Med Ma Muang, also known as cashew chicken.
After enjoying a filling example of Thai culinary delicacies, head to the Lebua Hotel Sky Bar (where The Hangover Part II was filmed) for a cocktail with views 250m above the city. After soaking up the views and finishing your drink, head back to surface level and stroll down Khao San Road for a taste of the famous chaos. Then head into Chinatown (Yaowarat) for an evening snack (if you still have an appetite, that is), opting for some mango sticky rice or Pa Thong Ko, a delicious Thai donut that’s a perfect capper on the evening.
Sample Spicy Delicacies in Chiang Mai
After getting your fill of Bangkok, follow the tourist trail to the most popular northern city: Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai may seem quiet when compared to Bangkok, but there’s a lot to the city beyond the residential atmosphere. It’s beautiful, with a large number of attractions within its modest size. The food is also great. Being far from the sea, Northern Thai cuisine doesn’t have much seafood in its dishes. As well, food is far less salty than elsewhere, as the salt in fish sauce isn’t as ubiquitous. Food is instead more bitter and sour, influenced by flavours from Laos, Myanmar, and Southern China.
However, for your first meal, feast on a dish that bucks the trend of northern cuisine: Khao Soi, an intoxicating coconut curry filled with fried chicken, chilies, and crispy fried noodles that break off and soak up the creamy broth as you eat. After getting your first taste of northern food, spend some time touring the old city centre to see the popular temples like Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. In the evening, get your first taste of Khao Niaow, the sticky rice that is the northern staple in place of white rice. This sticky rice is served in clumps and dipped into red and green chili dips as a side dish at many meals. If you try to spoon the rice up, you’ll end up getting it stuck to your spoon, so don’t feel shy about using your hands to dip it. Enjoy some grilled chicken or other meats as your main course, but also be sure to order Som Tam, the spicy green papaya salad that’s blisteringly hot, but also addictive. The thin strips of papaya are combined with tomatoes, long beans, garlic, and copious amounts of chilies to create a savoury, super spicy dish that you won’t ever forget – just be sure not to eat the whole chilies in the dish, as they might knock you out with spice.
Enjoy Rare Flavours of Isan
If you have time and want to experience a taste of Thailand off the tourist trail, head to the northeastern region of Isan, which is geographically the largest part of the country, but rarely visited by travellers. Culturally, it’s similar to Laos, but don’t let the differences from culture in Bangkok and Chiang Mai fool you; this is still authentic Thailand. In fact, Isan is a great place to experience the country, as it would’ve been in the past. Its combination of down-to-earth inhabitants, great historical sites, and unseen gems makes it an attractive spot to visit, on a Thailand vacation, if you like getting off the beaten track.
Isan food is among the most popular in the country. In fact, dishes such as Som Tam trace back here and have become hugely popular in Bangkok and Chiang Mai (see above). However, when you’re in Isan, the food can often come from some unexpected sources. Chicken is a popular meat here, but so is frog, snake, and even large bugs, as the poor population uses whatever they can find to create delicious dishes.
You don’t have to have a stomach for bugs to enjoy Isan food though. A perfect example of its unique flavours, which often consists of lime, peanuts, chilies, herbs like cilantro, and meat, is larb, a sliced grilled meat that’s served with a sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, herbs, and spices on a bed of crunchy roasted rice. You can enjoy larb outside of Northeastern Thailand, but if you visit Isan, the food will be better than what you find elsewhere.
Cap it Off with Seafood and Dim Sum in Phuket
For most classic itineraries offered on a Thailand vacation, travellers skip Isan and end their journey in the southern beaches and islands, of which Phuket is the most popular, so let’s end our foodie journey here. In the south, seafood is the main protein and coconut milk finds its way into almost every dish. Food is also salty, as fish sauce becomes a staple ingredient and grilled fish is often coated in salt to lock in the moisture of the food.
In Phuket (or Koh Samui or Koh Phi Phi), you’ll likely spend your days on or near the beach, with the nights dedicated to partying or recuperating for the next day. Time moves slower here and you can spend the day however you like, so if you want to spend the entire day eating, now’s your chance. Dim Sum is popular in the south. Dim Sum restaurants are open from early in the morning to noon, so you’ll have to be up in the morning to enjoy some of these savoury dumplings. With Thai Dim Sum, you pick the types of dumplings you want to order from a steaming pot at the front or refrigerators along the back, and then return to your seat and wait for your options to be steamed and served to you.
After enjoying dim sum for breakfast, head to the beach, and after getting your fill of sun, enjoy a spicy soup and salad for lunch. You may not want spice when it’s hot, but believe me, nothing cools you down like spice. Perhaps retire for the hottest part of the day and then return to the beach later in the afternoon. In the evening, try some deep-fried fish for dinner and tuck into some coconut curries, often with shrimp or fish as the base ingredient. After having your fill of seafood, cap off the night with some mango ice cream, which cools you off like no other treat.
This article only offers a cursory journey through Thai cuisine, but it does give you a taste of why Thailand is such a compelling country for foodies. Whether you’re eating Pad Thai in Bangkok, Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, or Dim Sum in Phuket, the flavours are so enticing that you may want to spend a lifetime here, discovering every culinary detail that an “extended” Thailand vacation has to offer.
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