Hitting the streets for the best food in Bangkok

Eating street food in Bangkok literally means dining on the streets, in this case, right in front of the stalls where the heart of the action is — Pictures by James Tan
Eating street food in Bangkok literally means dining on the streets, in this case, right in front of the stalls where the heart of the action is — Pictures by James Tan

BANGKOK, Dec 14 — Staying true to the spirit of travel and short getaways, I headed to Bangkok to experience a mixed bag of everything; from shopping to eating, brilliant sunshine all year round, pleasant smiles and warm hospitality, as well as enough entertainment for both the young and old.

The Thais take eating on the street very seriously; even in the middle of the busiest commercial district in the heart of the city, you will find dozens of pushcarts and food stands early in the morning along sidewalks, back alleys and even by the entrances of office buildings.

The morning rush hour crowd comprising office workers, cab drivers, students and even housewives can be seen eagerly picking their breakfast choices here.

Walking past these make-shift food stalls is an assault on the senses, albeit a pleasant one. First of all, there is the smoky aroma of skewered marinated pork being barbecued on the customized grill at the back of a motorbike or boiling cauldrons of porridge or broth for the quintessential Thai rice noodle soup with bites of pork or chicken.

Then there is the medley of colourful fruit shakes or freshly-squeezed juices (the bright orange tangerine or blood red pomegranate are my favourites), and dainty morsels of delicate and pretty desserts.

This trip I stayed on Sukhumvit Road, near to the Thong Lor area to be exact. The direct access to the BTS skytrain alleviated the issue of transportation (you would NOT want to be stuck in traffic around the city area come rush hour, trust me).

The nearest food street is Sukhumvit Soi 38 which is extremely accessible via the skytrain (the smells reach you even before you are more than one foot from the BTS Thong Lor station!) and is the perfect spot for sampling a variety of Thai delights in the evening.

The action starts around 5-6 pm and some stalls remain open well into the hours past midnight, perfect for late night snacking should you wish to.

The vendors along the streets of Sukhumvit are happily engaged in brisk business in the mornings when workers, students and even housewives pack a variety of food for lunch later in the day
The vendors along the streets of Sukhumvit are happily engaged in brisk business in the mornings when workers, students and even housewives pack a variety of food for lunch later in the day

As this area is relatively popular with tourists and expatriates, the menus are well-established with English descriptions, and some of them even come with pictures for easier decision-making.

But this comes at a price; local folks lament about the slightly pricier fare compared to suburban eateries or even food stalls across the city.

In its defense, I would say Sukhumvit Soi 38 is a convenient introduction to eating Thai street food, pooling several noteworthy street food highlights within walking distance of one another.

The dining environment is very typical of the Bangkok style of hawkers; you are free to roam around the vicinity and find a table (if you’re lucky, if not then you need to share with strangers), grab a metal/plastic stool, and start ordering from the 20 odd stalls lining the sides of the lane.

But the question of course is which vendor do you choose then?

If you come in a group, you can sample more food since there are more mouths to share whatever you order.

But if you are not able to (like my case), then you may need to focus on picking the stuff that matters. For a start, the mango sticky rice stall run by a couple of young ladies (slightly off Sukhumvit Soi 38 but still highly visible) is rated as one of the best mango sticky rice stalls in all of Bangkok.

Mango sticky rice, a popular dessert or snack, comprises steamed sweet and slightly salty glutinous rice served warm with coconut milk and sweet Thai mangoes, sprinkled with crispy mung beans on top for a pleasantly-contrasting texture.

Prices start from 60 bahts (about RM6) per portion, and other options include whole mangoes and even premium varieties for about 100 bahts per serving.

But if you are seeking the most highly-sought after mango sticky rice in Bangkok, then Maevaree at Sukhumvit Soi 55 is the place.

Although technically you will not be able to dine-in (lest standing by the sidewalk and digging in counts), people come to take away packets of what many have termed the BEST mango sticky rice in Bangkok thus far.

This stall opens 24 hours (although the mango sticky rice is only available from 5am until 11 pm, the rest of the time you can purchase mangoes instead), and is easily accessible from Thong Lor BTS station, but the drawback is the price which can easily double what you are used to paying at other stalls.

However, the quality of their offering is worth the premium price charged, so you won’t feel short-changed by the experience, I can assure you!

A pile of freshly deep fried pork is a common sight for breakfast, where you can choose to have it served with sticky rice or as it is (left). A bowl of piping hot, spicy and soupy noodles with dumplings, barbecued pork and crab meat from a stall on Sukhumvit Soi 38 is a tummy-warming experience of another level (right)
A pile of freshly deep fried pork is a common sight for breakfast, where you can choose to have it served with sticky rice or as it is (left). A bowl of piping hot, spicy and soupy noodles with dumplings, barbecued pork and crab meat from a stall on Sukhumvit Soi 38 is a tummy-warming experience of another level (right)

Back at Sukhumvit Soi 38, I decided to try the wanton noodles with crab meat topping in a spicy and sour-ish broth; almost like tom yum but not quite.

The bowl of noodles (60 bahts) came with plenty of ingredients including sliced lean barbecued pork (char siew), boiled dumplings and fried dumplings, few stalks of choy sum and the icing on the cake (or in this case, noodles) are the flaky bits of crab meat on top.

Of course, as with any Thai soup noodles, the condiments of crushed peanuts, chili powder, sugar (!) and pickled red/green chillies are served on the side And let’s not ignore that magical dash of fish sauce.

Although I was left without an eating partner, the makan spirit did not waiver a bit and I proceeded to eat a few skewers of grilled pork (moo ping in the local language) brushed with a coating of sweetish honey-based, dark soy sauce.

“Moo Ping” or grilled marinated skewered pork is one of Thailand’s most popular street snacks; follow your nose and you should stumble upon at least one stall selling them on the streets of Bangkok (left). Bottled fresh pomegranate juice is a refreshing change from the more common freshly-squeezed tangerine juice (right)
“Moo Ping” or grilled marinated skewered pork is one of Thailand’s most popular street snacks; follow your nose and you should stumble upon at least one stall selling them on the streets of Bangkok (left). Bottled fresh pomegranate juice is a refreshing change from the more common freshly-squeezed tangerine juice (right)

This famous Thai street snack is sold in almost every corner of the city, day and night, hence don’t worry if you cannot make it to Sukhumvit Soi 38 for a taste. I remember having one equally tasty version from a street vendor during the day (for breakfast, no less) outside Novotel Bangkok in front of Ploenchit BTS station. The grilled skewered pork is usually sold for 20 bahts each.

To wash down the street food, nothing hits the mark more than a refreshing glass of fresh orange/tangerine blended with ice. Or if you are game for a sweeter finish, there are at least a couple of Thai desserts stalls (almost like our tong sui) with fanciful toppings available for your choosing.

One word of caution though, the Thais have a somewhat heightened threshold for sweet stuff, so you may need to caution the vendor against drizzling too much syrup onto your serving.

Falling into a deep post-gluttony coma, I woke up the next morning eager for more. Half-heartedly nibbling on a few items from the hotel buffet line, I made my way to the streets immediately after and treated myself to a serving of glutinous rice (not sweetened this time) with pork floss and fried pork for 20 bahts.

Mixed rice is a common staple of the Thais, even for breakfast in some areas. The Thai fish cakes (Tod Mun Pla) is a very common dish that goes well with rice, or on its own
Mixed rice is a common staple of the Thais, even for breakfast in some areas. The Thai fish cakes (Tod Mun Pla) is a very common dish that goes well with rice, or on its own

The stall offers chicken as well and at least four options of pork to go with the glutinous rice. Then, to jump start the day with a boost of caffeine, I walked into Tea Etc. a Thai tea specialty store and ordered a cup of Thai iced milk tea with coconut jelly (like our cendol).

No doubt the other stalls selling sweet and savoury light bites and even mixed rice stalls with a mind-boggling array of freshly cooked Thai delights were just as tempting, but the inability to stomach more than a pack of glutinous rice on my own led me to already start planning my next trip to Bangkok.

Oh yes, and this time, I will be sure to gather a pack of (hungry) wolves and devour the street food. Just you wait.

  • To get to Sukhumvit Soi 38, take the BTS skytrain to Thong Lor station, alight and take exit #4. You should be able to sense a festive food camaraderie under the sky bridge. That’s Sukhumvit Soi 38 for you. The morning stalls including Tea Etc. are located along the main Sukhumvit Road, just slightly beyond BTS Skytrain Phrom Phong station where Emporium Mall is at.

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)