Travel

How to Eat Your Way Through Thailand

Especially if it's your first time visiting
Khao Soi | Photo: Tasting Table
Best Things to Eat in Thailand: Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai

Before you take your first bite in Thailand, you'll need to come to terms with one tragic, inevitable fact: You can't eat everything. Though Thailand is geographically small, the food varies widely among the different regions, and a single street market could contain enough variety to feed you for months. Additionally, with the 2018 arrival of the Michelin Guide to Bangkok, Thailand has been officially solidified as a global culinary capital. To get the most out of your trip, seek out a geographic tasting menu by spending a few days in three different cities—Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. Plan on eating from the street to the sky, and always leave room for coconuts

Bangkok

The nation's capital is the perfect place to get your Michelin fix. Start at the top—63 floors up, to be precise—at the Lebua Hotel Sky Bar. Sip the signature Hangovertini (The Hangover II was filmed at Lebua) and take a selfie at 820 feet before heading over to a reservation at the two-Michelin starred Mezzaluna, where Chef Ryuki Kawasaki blends his Japanese heritage with local Thai ingredients and French culinary traditions. 

For traditional Thai flavors in an innovative environment, book a table at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin. Awarded one Michelin star, the tasting menu is a delight from start to finish, with dishes like cotton candy salad with red snapper and slow-cooked beef rib with homemade oyster sauce.

Once you've had your fill of indoor fine dining, head to the streets. Chinatown booms after dark, with market stalls and street restaurants serving grilled squid, steaming bowls of noodles and pa tong koarguably the best doughnut you'll ever have. It's fried right before your eyes and served with a sweet pandan leaf and coconut custard for dipping. 

On Maha Chai Road, hungry diners linger on the sidewalk as they wait for a table at Raan Jay Fai, the first street food vendor in Bangkok to be awarded a Michelin star. Jay Fai, who's 73 years old, is the sole cook in the entire restaurant. That means it could be hours before you get to dive into her famous burrito-sized crab omelette served with tangy, bright red hot sauce. Not to worry—right next door is Thipsamai Phad Thai, where you'll find some of Bangkok's most legendary pad thai, so you can snack on the sweet and sour noodles while you wait.

Chiang Mai

Surrounded by lush hills and intricate temples in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is landlocked, which means more meat and herbs and less seafood and coconut. Start your mornings with a latte from Ristr8to, home of owner and barista Arnon Thitiprasert, who won the 2017 World Latte Art Championship. From there, make your way to Khao Soi Khun Yai and settle into a red plastic stool for a bowl of Northern Thailand's famous coconut curry and an icy glass of lotus root juice. Don't forget to garnish your bowl of creamy, chewy noodles with fresh shallots, dried chili, pickles and lime—you're expected to adjust the dish to your personal tastes.

To work up an appetite for your next meal, head just outside of the city and climb the 306 stairs to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of Northern Thailand's most sacred and stunning temples. Or, stay in town and visit Wat Phan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang before wandering through the downtown markets. On Sundays, look for the one kilometer-long ThaPae walking market that's home to art, local silk and handmade crafts that can only be found in Northern Thailand. Make your way to the food stalls and commit to trying something new to you, like an ant egg or bee omelette served in a banana leaf.

For dinner, venture outside of the town center and take advantage of the (slightly) cooler Northern climate at one of Chiang Mai's many open air restaurants. Baan Rai Yam Yen is a haven for Northern Thai cuisine, with live music and an extensive menu that features regional dishes like sai oua (pork sausage stuffed with curry paste and local herbs) and laab (minced meat or fish salad made with toasted rice powder, lots of herbs and fiery dried chile). You could also get fancy with dinner at KHAO by Four Seasons, where you can explore Thailand's cuisine with an exquisite rice tasting.

Phuket

It's all about the sea in Phuket. You'll get your fill of caught-an-hour-ago seafood, spicy curries and dim sum. Unlike Chinese dim sum, where bite-size delights are carted through the dining room, in Thailand you'll find large refrigerators packed with dim sum somewhere in the restaurant. Grab a tray, pick out what you want and take it to the steamer. Note that dim sum restaurants tend to open early and close by noon, so make sure you set an alarm.

 
 
 
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For uber-fresh seafood that isn't for the faint of heart, hop on a boat and go to the floating restaurant Kruvit Raft, where you can pluck your chosen fish right out of the ocean and eat it 10 minutes later. While your catch is sacrificed—the head for red curry tom yum soup and the tail fried with chili and local pineapple—dive into a pile of salty crystal ball seaweed dunked in sweet and spicy som tum sauce with cashews.

If you prefer to stay on land, head to Nam YOI for pla tod kamin (crispy deep-fried fish that are eaten whole, bones and all) and sataw kapi pad kung (bitter beans with shrimp, pork and shrimp paste). For Thai cuisine with a fine dining twist, make your way to The Slate's Black Ginger or Suay, two restaurants that are hoping to be rewarded by Michelin, or to Nahmyaa at COMO at Point Yamu where you can sip Thai wines (yes, Thailand has wineries) as you watch the sunset over the Andaman Sea.

Brooke Siem is a writer and professional chef currently meandering around the world. Follow her on Instagram at @brookesiem.

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