Thailand is famous for its white sand beaches, friendly people, wild parties, and of course mouthwatering food. In particular, the country’s cities are dotted with night markets that serve delicious – and sometimes interesting – street food that many locals rely on for some of their regular dinners. In major tourist cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Samui, these night markets also cater to a significant number of tourists and expats.
For first time visitors, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed by the vast range of options to choose from. I remember my first time at the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai’s old town. I was basically full after one block because every single stall had something that looked better than the last one. I liked many of them but obviously didn’t love everything.
Here’s my list of the top 5 most delicious street foods in Thailand that all first-time travelers should try.
1. Mango Sticky Rice
(Khao Neeo Mamuang in Thai)
My personal favorite. This is a sweet dish made up of sticky rice and fresh mango slices, all soaked in a generous dose of coconut milk.
It’s one of the most popular street foods in Thailand as it’s made with literally three of the country’s biggest productions – rice, mango, and coconut. Because of that, it can be easily found in any night market across the entire country.
While it’s usually considered a dessert, I find the sticky rice to be pretty filling and have on many occasions eaten it as my entree. This dish is completely vegan, but if you’re on a gluten-free diet you will need to avoid it as the sticky rice is very heavy in gluten.
2. Papaya Salad (Som Tam in Thai)
This spicy dish is both delicious and healthy. Despite its simple set of main ingredients, the dish just bursts with so many flavors that it’s really hard to describe exactly what it tastes like.
It’s spicy, salty, savory, and sour, all at the same time; and in terms of texture, it’s crispy with lots of substance and satisfaction to every bite.
As its name suggests, the main ingredient used is green papaya, but a significant portion of asparagus beans and cherry tomatoes are mixed in.
Besides those, lots of other ingredients are used to add flavors, like dried chili peppers, lime, garlic, and fish sauce.
3. Pad Thai
This dish needs no introduction. Pad Thai is famous throughout the world and is the Thai dish that most people think about. But while it’s mainly served in restaurants outside of Thailand, this dish is equally – if not more – popular as a street food dish inside the country.
On top of that, from my experience, the creativity with flavors and ingredients are much more interesting with street vendors than sit-down restaurants. In fact, my favorite Pad Thai spot in Chiang Mai is this old lady that comes to the Sunday market and makes an amazing edible-flower infused Pad Thai.
4. Khao Soi
You will find this dish mainly in northern Thailand – of which Chiang Mai is the main city – and less so in the central and southern part of the country like Bangkok and the islands.
It is a heavy dish made with egg noodles soaked in a thick curry soup, with slices of chicken, beef, pork or shrimps added in.
Like Pad Thai, you can find this dish in many restaurants as well as street markets, but I find the street vendors to be a lot more daring with interesting ingredients. Despite the heavy flavors, this dish is not particularly spicy, so it’s quite accessible for most people.
5. Braised Pork Leg on Rice
(Khao Kha Moo in Thai)
Its name may not sound appealing but it’s simply delicious.
This dish is made with the meat and skin of pork shank, tenderized by being slowly marinated and stewed in a flavorful stock (exactly what kind of stock I can’t tell you). It is served by being poured over a bed of white rice, and usually with a slice or two of boiled eggs on the side.
If you like pork as I do, you’ll probably be asking for another serving as soon as you finish what’s on your plate.
Bonus: Fried Scorpion or Tarantula
This “dish” is only found in Bangkok around the famous (or infamous, depends on who you ask) Khao San Road night market.
I hesitated for a whole day before deciding to give this a try. I’m not going to lie, this is a pure novelty food, it won’t fill you up, and it certainly can’t be described as delicious by any definition of the word.
However, where else in the world can you eat something as outlandish as this? And you know what, it’s not half as bad as you think it is, and to my untrained palette it tastes just like crispy pork.
So, close your eyes, eat the whole thing in one bite, don’t think about what you just put in your mouth, and it’ll be over before you know it.
As you can probably imagine, the prices of street foods are generally low. A typical dish will cost you between 40 to 70 Thai Baht, or USD$1.25 – $2.25. The most expensive “normal” street dish I’ve come across cost 80-120 Baht ($2.5-$3.75). I usually need to have 2-3 dishes to be full, so dinner will cost me anywhere between $2.5-$7.
Of course, this varies by cities too. The capital Bangkok has the highest prices in the entire country, while prices in other cities are lower. Furthermore, generally speaking, there is not much room for haggling on food items. Numbeo is a great website to use to look up prices in Thailand and other countries.
Health and safety
One of the biggest concerns many travelers have around eating street food is cleanliness. After all, these stalls are open air in the middle of the city where dust and car exhaust abound, and it’s unclear what kind of regulations are in place for safe food handling.
Obviously, I’m not an expert in public health, but speaking from personal experience living in Chiang Mai and relaying the experiences of many of my expat friends, the vast majority of travelers do not encounter serious issues with street foods in Thailand. Of all my friends, I know only one couple that got severe food poisoning in Chiang Mai, and even that was from a restaurant rather than a street food vendor.
Still, it’s never a bad idea to be cautious. Go to the night markets early to get the freshest batch of food, and especially avoid meat dishes that have been sitting around for more than 2 hours. Watch the food handler and ensure that they are not using the same hand to handle money and food without using gloves.
And as a peace-of-mind measure, take Dukoral before you visit Thailand and check with your doctor to see what other medications they suggest.