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Thailand for Foodies: Where to Eat in the Land of Smiles

Thailand for Foodies will cover must-knows about Thai food and where to get it for less money.

Thailand has been a powerhouse for tourists seeking incredible experiences for decades, for a good reason. To many, Bangkok is the first Asian city they visit. Did you know that Thailand’s capital: Bangkok, was the world’s most visited city ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic? In fact, Bangkok held that title four years in a row. Well, you can be sure the food quality plays some role in earning that title.

One of the world’s most famous TV foodies, Andrew Zimmern, proclaimed Bangkok one of his top food destinations on the planet. And if that’s not enough, Thailand is also home to one of YouTube’s most recognizable foodies: Mark Wiens. It’s apparent that Thai cuisine draws such high-profile interest from international food experts, so let’s take a deep dive into what makes it so special:

What Makes Thai Food Unique?

Thai red curry spice paste

Thai food stands out from many other cuisines for a few reasons: 

  • The geographical location of Thailand, sandwiched among a famously-flavorful collection of neighbors, directly contributes to the influence and vast array of foods you’ll find there.
  • Thailand is a tropical country, and as such, the weather system is comprised of consistent heat and lots of sun, and when it rains, there’s plenty of it. So as far as growing conditions are concerned, you couldn’t ask for better. As a result, 52 percent of its 127 million acres is excellent for growing crops, and a staggering 62 percent of its 70+ million people are involved in agriculture!
Thailand for First Timers: Thai food is tops when it comes to presentation
Thai food is tops when it comes to presentation

Why Does Thai Food Taste So Good?

Visitors who try authentic Thai food for the first time often describe the surprising flavor explosion. The cuisine typically follows the formula of sour, salty, sweet, spicy, and bitter. This is about as far away from cheeseburgers and fries as you can get! 

Thai food uses fresh and locally sourced ingredients, often of different colors and textures, making for a genuinely spectacular edible presentation. Thai people typically buy produce from local markets. This is one way to ensure freshness as they will eat what they buy on the same day, unlike many western countries where bulk shopping at a supermarket is the norm.

Thai curry beef with vegetables and white rice

What Are the Best Thai Dishes?

Choosing the best Thai dishes is easy and challenging because there is so much variety. Everyone will have their own opinion on what makes the “best.” First, however – let’s work our way around Thailand and explore what makes each region’s food unique:

Best Northern Thailand Food

Northern Thailand’s food is exceptional. Although dishes here have many of the same characteristics shared throughout Thailand’s culinary landscape, northern Thai food is also heavily influenced by the regional neighbors Laos, Myanmar, India, and China.

Chiang Mai – women from the Hmong Hilltribe cooking a family meal

Here are a few things to point out about northern Thai food:

  • It’s spicy but not generally on the same heat level as southern Thai food. 
  • Pork is the standard meat in northern Thailand. 
  • It’s not common to find red curry or green curry in northern Thailand unless you go out of your way. However, this is worth knowing as these are some of the most popular Thai dishes outside of Thailand.

Northern Thailand is bursting with flavor, but here are some of the major dishes to be found in that region:

Khao Soi Kai: spicy egg noodles soup with chicken

The most famous northern Thai dish would have to be Khao Soi. It’s a coconut curry broth with tender egg noodles on the bottom and crispy noodles piled on top, usually served with chicken. It’s seriously impressive!

Tom Kha Gai is Thai chicken soup with coconut milk

Craving chicken soup? Tom Kha Gai has you covered. This is a common, delicious soup consisting of chicken with coconut milk that is an influence of neighboring Laos.

Northern Thai spicy sausage – “sai oua” is common

Another popular food to try is Sai Oua (northern Thai Sausage). It’s readily available on most street food stalls in the north. Nope…you haven’t had a sausage until you’ve had Sai Oua!

Thailand for Foodies: family meal in Issan
Family enjoying a home cooked meal in Issan, Thailand

Best Eastern Thailand Food

The food from Eastern Thailand (or Isaan food) is perhaps the most unique in the county. 

A staple ingredient commonly used here that creates fiercely divided opinions is called Pla Ra (pronounced like “palaa”). Pla Ra is fish fermented for a minimum of six months. Then, it’s combined with salt and rice flour, and the result is nothing short of pungent. Pla ra is undoubtedly an acquired taste for many tourists. It’s a case of too much being hard to handle, but a small amount can bring food to life. 

Pla-ra is Thai pickled fish

It’s common to have Pla Ra mixed through salad and noodle dishes found throughout Isaan (eastern Thailand). If you’re planning on traveling Isaan, consider learning the following phrase, it may not be 100% grammatically correct, but it’ll get you by:

“Ra Nit Noi Kup” (if you’re a man)

“Ra Nit Noi Ka” (if you’re a woman)

These mean you’re only asking for a little bit of pla ra in your meal.

Som Tum is Thai spicy green papaya salad

Another must-try meal in Isaan is Som Tum. Som Tum is a sweet, salty, sour, and spicy green papaya salad that encompasses almost everything amazing about Thai food.

Pad Thai with shrimp

Best Central Thailand Food

Central Thailand, where you’ll find Bangkok, dominates the global gastronomic scene. So many famous Thai food dishes known worldwide call central Thailand home. Pad Thai, anyone? Just about everything you can imagine about Thai food or expect to experience can be found in this cosmopolitan megacity. 

Buying Pad Thai from a street vendor

Yes, Pad Thai is a foodie favorite. It’s delicious and not overly intimidating compared to other Thai food, but some central Thailand dishes you’ll also want to sink your teeth into include Pad Krapao and Tom Yum:

  • Pad Kra Pao is one of the most common dishes found throughout Thailand simply because most love it. It’s minced pork stir-fried with lots of basil leaves, chilis, garlic, etc. Served with rice and the best thing you can do is get a fried egg on top to make it perfect. 
  • Tom Yum is a sour soup packed with flavor and healthy ingredients. It’s common to see Tom Yum served with prawns, but chicken is a good alternative. If you’re fighting a cold, forget basic chicken soup – have some Tom Yum!

Best Southern Thailand Food

Southern Thailand is a dream destination for travelers seeking amazing beaches, epic sunsets, and a GREAT party. But if it’s the food you’re after, you’ll be happy with what’s available in this magical region.

The Chinese-influenced pork belly stew Moo Hong

Like the other regions of Thailand, southern Thai food shares many similarities but also some unique differences:

  1. Having direct access to the ocean means fresh seafood, and if you’re a seafood lover, southern Thai food is for you, but there are plenty of other delicious choices regardless.
  2. Southern Thai food takes some influences from its neighbor, Malaysia. This results in some amazing curries and diverse ingredients and flavors.
Khao Mok Gai is Thai chicken curry (served with yellow rice)

Some excellent Southern Thailand Food includes:

  • Yum Talay – a hot and spicy seafood salad. The words literally translate into “hot + sour” = Yum; Talay = “the sea”.
  • Moo Hong – a Chinese-influenced sweet pork belly stew prepared with black pepper, soy sauce, sugar, and coriander roots
  • Khao Mok Gai – marinated turmeric-flavored chicken on a bed of yellow rice. The Malay influence is strong with this one and is very popular within the Thail Muslim community.  
Dining high above Bangkok

7 of the Best Restaurants in Thailand

Chiang Mai Restaurants for Foodies

  • Kiew Kai Ka has been a Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant for five years running. Located in expat-friendly One Nimman, it’s an easy restaurant to find for those visiting Chiang Mai. They serve a range of popular Thai dishes. Not the cheapest food around, but definitely delicious. Find Kiew Kai Ka at: l Room D116 & D120, One Nimman l, 1 Nimmanahaeminda Road, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand.
  • Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm – Best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai? It’s been praised by Mark Wiens as one of the very best around. Khao Soi has to be on your foodie to-do list, and you’ll struggle to find better than right here. Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm is slightly south of the old city and offers a truly authentic local experience. Find Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm at: 53 Suriyawong 5 Rd, Tambon Hai Ya, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand.

Nakhon Ratchasima (Eastern Thailand) Restaurants for Foodies

  • Laeb Som Pith in Nakhon Ratchasima is the place for excellent Isaan food and is central and easy to find for tourists on the Thai food trail. You can expect authentic eastern Thai food. Find Laeb Som Pith at: 169 Jant Rd, Tambon Nai Mueang, Mueang Nakhon Ratchasima District, Nakhon Ratchasima 30000, Thailand.

Bangkok Restaurants for Foodies

  • Jay Fai is an inspiration. This is one of only two street food stalls in the world to hold a Michelin star, and it’s all because of the passion of one remarkable woman, Bangkok’s queen of street food: Supinya Junsuta. Now in her mid-70s, her world-renowned food has seen tourists come from near and far to taste her food. Perhaps the most epic crab omelet you could imagine. Jay Fai is costly compared to regular Thai food. So be prepared to pay more, particularly her world-famous crab omelet at 1200 Thai Baht. Find Jay Fai at 327 Maha Chai Rd, Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200
  • Phed Mark – Mark Wiens may be the most famous foodie on YouTube; he’s been everywhere and eaten everything! Mark opened his own restaurant, Phed Mark, serving only Pad Kra Pao. Either served with beef or pork and a range of spice levels. Prices are slightly higher than your typical local restaurant, but the food is good, and being in Phed Mark makes for a good Instagram photo. Find Phed Mark at 300 Sukhumvit Rd, Phra Khanong, Khlong Toei, Bangkok 10110

Phuket Restaurants for Foodies

  • Baan Ama is located very close to Phuket airport. If you’re staying at a nearby resort, this local restaurant is a relaxing place to eat away from typical tourist spots. They serve a great selection of southern Thai food, so expect excellent flavors. Don’t miss their soft-shell crab! Find Baan Ama at: 50 Mai Khao, Thalang District, Phuket 83110
  • Tumz Seafood Restaurant – located on the western side of Phuket town, Tumz Seafood Restaurant is a must if you’re up for eating some of the best seafood in southern Thailand. The restaurant can be found in the Naka weekend market and therefore gives you a chance to eat a plethora of great food, shop for cheap clothes and explore local crafts for sale. Find Tumz seafood Restaurant at: 63/672, Alley 4, Soi 22 Shops 67,68, 69,70 Wirat Hong Yok 3 Rd, Wichit, Mueang Phuket District, Phuket 83000
Green market produce seller in Phuket

Is Food in Thailand Cheap?

One of the many benefits of eating your way around Thailand is that it’s very affordable! This is one of the reasons people love to travel to Thailand – your money goes a long way. But of course, prices will vary depending on what and where you eat. So instead of frequenting western-style restaurants, stick to authentic Thai food and benefit from the much lower prices.

Heading into rural Thailand will give you even lower prices:

  • It’s not rare to find a bowl of delicious noodles for only 35 Baht.
  • Famous Thai food dishes such as Pad Thai, Khao Soi, or Pad Krapao usually sell for anywhere between 45 and 70 Thai Baht. 
  • It’s common to find fresh fruits and vegetables very cheap, a bunch of bananas may be 20 Thai Baht, and a bag of fresh tomatoes may even be 10 Thai Baht.
At fruit stands, expect a freshly-squeezed bottle of pomegranate juice for around 50 baht.

Thai food is cheap, and if you can eat as locally as possible and shop from local markets, you’ll see your money go a long way. 👍🏾

Moo Krob (หมูกรอบ): crispy pork served with rice and eggs. It is a Cantonese-influenced dish that is a trendy street vendor dish in Bangkok.

Things to Know About Eating Thai Food

Before you pack up your bags and fly straight to Thailand, here are a few things you may need to know ahead of time:

  1. Eating Thai street food is a great way to keep costs down; street food is what many people live on.
  2. Rice is the staple food in Thailand. It’s important to note that many Thai people only consider a meal complete if it involves rice.
  3. It’s common to use your hands to eat. Don’t be afraid or put off by this. It’s totally normal! It’s advised that you wash your hands before and after a meal.
  4. Thai food, broadly speaking, is spicy! So don’t be surprised to find chilies in your food; most dishes use them.
  5. If you’re into fruit, you’ll be pleased to know that Thailand has an unbelievable amount of fruit to eat. Super fresh, super tasty, and super cheap.
  6. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, then don’t panic. The quantity and quality of vegan-friendly food and ingredients in Thailand are impressive. 
  7. There are some exotic food items in Thailand, but not for the faint-hearted. However, you’ll not be bored if you’re an adventurous eater!
  8. Sometimes dishes are cooked using all the animal or plant parts. This can catch tourists off guard but makes for an enjoyable Thai food experience.
  9. It’s not common to eat with a knife and fork in Thailand. So more often than not, you’ll be given a spoon and fork.
  10. Many places operate a two-price structure for their business. One price for locals and one price for foreigners. The latter is more expensive.
  11. Thailand is a cash-based economy. Don’t expect Thai street food stalls or local Thai restaurants to accept credit cards. Some will, but most won’t. Always have enough cash.

Fun Foodie Activities in Thailand

There are many really cool Thai food activities you can participate in during your time in Thailand. Two of the most popular allow you experience being a maker and discover of Thai cuisine:

Take a Thai Cooking Class

Thai cooking classes are a great way to learn how Thai food is made (and you will also get an amazing lunch or dinner). You’ll learn the recipes of the most famous Thai dishes, which means you can take what you’ve learned and show it off to your friends and family back home. In addition, by learning Thai recipes, you’ll be well-equipped to enjoy Thai cuisine at home. There are many simple Thai recipes you can learn quickly and easily. 

Take a Foodie Tour

You’ll find a selection of market and street food tours in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. These tours can show you where to find the best produce at the best prices and can also show you where to find the best street food to eat. Thai street food just about embodies everything that makes Thai food unique. So no matter where you go in Thailand, you’ll always be close to a delicious meal.

Ready to go? Check out our posted global tour events, or contact us for a customized small group tour.