As travellers, Richie and I are devoted to cheap eats. Eat cheap, eat local! In Bangkok, where food is fresh, bountiful, varied and tasty, it’s hardly a difficult motto to live by. Nor does it require a spirit of self-sacrifice. By eating the food that locals eat, where locals eat it, we’ve saved ourselves loads of money and disappointment.
On average, Richie and I get by in Thailand on about 200Baht ($6.50) p/person p/day for food: that’s three light meals a day, one or two cold beverages, a sweet treat AND some fresh fruit.
So, dive into the closest alley, market and cafeteria with us and kick up your culinary heels as we take you into the world of Bangkok eats and drinks for under $2.
Eating cheap with the Lonely Planet
If you’re feeling dubious about eating local or trying something new, the Lonely Planet (or other trusted guide book) is a good place to start. In general, we find their suggestions useful and reliable. In Bangkok we put the Planet to the test by eating out at two of the restaurants/stalls recommended in the 2012 14th edition. Here’s what we reckon:
- Khrua Phornlamai; Th Plaeng Nam (Chinatown) for pàt kêe mow (wide rice noodles fried with seafood, chillies and Thai basil). Cost: 60B/$1.90.
The lowdown: This Chinatown street stall consists of little more than a few woks, a trestle table covered with bowls of fresh ingredients and a handful of plastic tables and chairs.
The pàt kêe mow arrived quickly on sizzling plates. Despite our request that the dishes be prepared ‘Thai hot’ they arrived with only a hint of fire. In order to achieve the required heat factor, we added fresh and dried chilli from the pots on the table, which included the ubiquitous fish sauce, sugar and vinegar.
There was a good amount of seafood in the dish, mostly prawns and squid. The wide rice noodles were not as chewy as perhaps they could have been. The dish was a bit flaccid and lacked the clarity of flavour I’ve come to expect in Thailand. Still, it was an enjoyable and filling meal, the basil was yummy and the location ideal. A perfect place to to sit and soak up the bustling atmosphere of Chinatow. Experience: 3/5 (In Richie’s opinion: 4/5).
- Thip Samai; 313 Th Mahachai; 5:30pm-1:30am closed alternate wednesdays, for pat tai (fried rice noodles with egg, shrimp and peanuts). Cost: 70Baht/$2.20.
Okay, we broke the budget on this one. But it was worth it! When we arrived at Thip Samai at 5:20pm after a hot greasy stroll from Wat Pho, the queue was out the door and down the road. The theatrics in the outdoors kitchen made the time pass quickly: 12 busy staff with woks rocking, flames jumping and food flying. In no time at all we were sitting inside eating. The place was spotlessly clean and the wait staff friendly and polite.
Out of the 3 dishes on offer we opted for the pat tai served in a crepe-thin layer of omlette.
The experience took my appreciation of pat tai to a whole new level. Each thread of noodle was separate, al dente and elegantly coated in flavour. We were liberal with the chopped peanuts, basil, bean sprouts, fresh chilli and lime (delivered fresh to your table when you order). No messing about!
Every mouthful a pleasure: the crisp crunch of the raw sprouts, the silky wholesomeness of the omelette, the pungency of the spring onion and the nuttiness of the roasted peanut. A full and memorable taste experience. Two days later, we were back for more! Experience: 5/5.
You won’t find the following options in ‘the book’ but we found them ourselves and reckon they’re just as worthy of inclusion.
- Moo satay (pork satay skewers with peanut sauce) at Nothaburi Market. Cost: 40B/$1.30
Take the Chao Phraya Express (river boat) to the northernmost pier, Tha Nonthaburi. Walk a further 500m up the main drag (heading east) until you hit the market. Follow your nose down the first alley on your right. After about 50m you’ll come across an open shopfront/food factory sporting the following sign.
About 6-8 people will be busily making, grilling, basting, trimming and packaging pork skewers. We took our own plastic plate so that we didn’t have to use a disposable one. The girl who served us was bemused but obliging. The thick rich peanut sauce was more than sufficient, so we returned the bag of dipping sauce provided. No plastic necessary.
The pork was wonderfully tender, stickily caremelised and sweet, and the cucumber salad a refreshing mouth cleanser. 10 sticks between us was not enough! Experience: 5/5.
NOTE: Market begins packing up around 9am. We recommend going early so you can make the most of your visit. There’s plenty to see! The first river boat departs Th Phra Athit (Tha Banglamphu) at 6:30am. Ride takes 30 minutes (15B/$0.50) and is very scenic and enjoyable.
- Kraw koo ka pi on Th Phra Athit, Banglamphu. Cost: 45B/$1.50
If you’re staying in the busy travellers district around Khao San Road it’s easy to get to this popular street stall. It is located on the pavement opposite Tha Phra Athit pier, just before you reach Santichaiprakan Park. The stall is only open during the day. So don’t be late!
The meal is remarkable value at a touch under $1.50. It consists of wholesome rice, sliced semi-sweet sausage, caremelised pork tidbits, burnt whole chillis, fresh lime and salad (including beans, cucumber, greens and julienne strips of green mango). A hot & sour dipping sauce is provided.
The various components of the meal are wonderfully balanced, achieving a rare sort of perfection. The icy plum cordial (15B/$0.50) is a refreshing accompaniment to the meal. You can also choose from longan, chrysanthemum or pomegranate ‘juice’. Experience: 5/5.
The Thais are expert at concocting sweet cold beverages. Bubble tea (with tapioca ‘pearls’) is everywhere, and generally of a high standard (20-40B/$0.60-$1.20). Fruit juices and smoothies, ranging from 15-60B/$0.50-$1.90) are a safe choice.
NOTE: all smoothies are made using blended ice. We never found it a problem. If you’re feeling adventurous, head for one of the many street stalls serving sweet milky beverages loaded with red beans, grass jelly, sweet corn and pudding.
Here’s two of our favourite cold Bangkok bevvies:
Fresh Coconut 25-30B/($0.80)
Nothing like a fresh chilled coconut to rehydrate and replenish your electrolytes. Make sure the vendor is willing to hack the fruit in half once you’ve finished in order to get at the soft white flesh inside.
Thais love their coffee. They’re good at brewing it too. In a cafe catering to travellers you’ll pay 30-60B ($1-2) for an iced coffee, and there’s every chance it will be Nestle ‘instant’. Yuk! A street vendor will make the same beverage with REAL coffee for 15B/$0.50. Just look for a cart loaded with cans of sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. They should also have a stainless steal pot of brewed coffee on the go, with a strainer resting on top. This is your guarantee that the vendor is using REAL ground coffee beans.
Let the vendor know how sweet you would/wouldn’t like the beverage, whether you want it hot or iced, and whether or not you want ‘milk’. Make sure you visit a vendor with a few tables so that you can sit down and savour the experience, and most importantly, that the vendor has glass tankards, otherwise you’ll end up with a yucky disposable cup! Our favourite coffee guy was down an alley on Th Rambuttri (parralel to Khao San).
You need never go without fruit in Bangkok. You’ll hear bells ringing every 10 minutes as vendors lurch through the streets with their cabinets of freshly prepared chilled fruit. A bag of chopped mango/ watermelon/ guava / papaya/ cantaloupe or pineapple will set you back 20B/$0.50.
Be warned, Thais like their fruit tart! You may also be offered a bag of chilli salt which you’re expected to sprinkle over your fruit. A bit of an alien concept to us farrang (foreigners) but useful for replacing the salts you’ve lost during a day of sweaty sight-seeing.
You can also find loads of fresh fruit at Bangkok’s many delightful produce markets. Shop around and ask for the prices first. See what’s in season. What’s cheapest will likely be what’s best. Otherwise you’ll pay prices comparable to what you’d expect at home. For instance, black imported cherries were selling for 450B/$14.70 p/kilo in Chinatown. Why would you?
When we were there, we found the following fruits to be fresh and good value: pineapple (10-20B/$0.25-0.50) each, depending on whether you wanted a small or large one. Wax jambu, 60B/$1.50, p/kg, a delightful crunchy pink/purple fruit that requires no peeling or de-seeding. Langsats, 30B/$1 p/kg, a delicious fruit that, once peeled, resembles a segmented lychee. Taste resembles a sweet grapefruit. Amazing! Don’t be afraid to lash out and try a plate of pre-peeled jackfruit or durian. The fruits themselves look scary, but the taste is out of this world!
Don’t be a wuss! They might look peculiar and outlandish but they’re absolutely delicious. Opt for sweets which are wrapped in banana-leaf so you don’t get lumped with cling film and a polystyrene tray.
If you’re into sticky gelatinous textures, there’s no end to the fun you’ll have. Grilled glazed bananas, deep fried banana chunks or bananas grilled in their skins are cheap and delicious (10B/$0.25). A bag of tiny sugared ‘doughnuts’ will set you back 20B/$0.50. If you want to see how Thais prepare their wonderful desserts, visit the ground floor ‘food court’ of Old Siam Plaza (cnr Th Phahurat & Th Triphet; river ferry Tha Saphan Phut).
Here’s a couple of our faves from the Nathaburi market:
Sweet sticky rice with red beans 10B/$0.30 each
Yam ‘jelly’ with shredded coconut 10B/$0.30 each
More foodie options …
Another food destination that you might want to seek out is the Taling Chan (‘floating’) market, especially if you’re into seafood. Alternately, follow your nose down any alley you’ll very likely find a stall/shop/restaurant/cafe/grandma selling some of the best food you’re ever likely to wham in your gob! Dig in!
7 Tips for eating cheap and lovin’ it!
- eat at busy street stalls, cafes and food vendors. If there’s loads of people eating there it is bound to be cheap, fresh and tasty.
- Prowl about other peoples’ tables first to see what they’re eating. That way you’ll know what you’re in for before you sit down and commit. Point to something that looks good, then sit back and relax.
- Eat early! A lot of the best food vendors sell out quickly and are often closed by 8 or 9pm. Get in early to avoid disappointment.
- Always ask the price before you order/purchase something. Nothing worse than getting a nasty surprise at the end of a beautiful meal.
- If you’re mindful about minimising your travel footprint, think about carrying your own chop sticks, plate and fabric bags for shopping. Be insistent – plastic is not cool! One glance in the river/canals and it’s easy to see why it’s so important to set an example in helping Thailand transition to a non-plastic/disposable future!
- Take a photo of what you’re about to eat. Chances are your friends/family are going to want to see it too!
- Try something new. If you normally like green curry, try the red curry or tom yum. If you don’t normally eat purple eggplant, try the tiny green pea-sized ones that Thais love. If you wouldn’t give offal a second glance at home, try it in a peppery broth in Chinatown. Chances are you’ll love it. If not, it was an interesting ‘experience’.
- Learn how to say, “à-ròy mâhk” (That was delicious!). You’ll be saying it at least three times a day.