Real Thai food is famously complex. Salty, sweet, spicy, and sour notes overlap for cuisine that is both deeply flavorful and light enough to enjoy on the hottest Bangkok day.
It’s a cuisine that is rarely duplicated properly outside the bustling night markets of Chiang Mai and the balmy beaches of Phuket. During my three years in Thailand, I rarely set foot inside of a formal restaurant, preferring to sample the culinary delights of the country’s street vendors.
There are plenty of favorites that didn’t make the cut, but these are the street foods that I would fly halfway around the world for in a minute!
1. Khao Man Gai (Thai Chicken With Rice)
Singapore gets much of the credit for khao man gai, but it was Thailand that perfected the art of serving succulent sliced chicken breasts over rice lightly coated in chicken stock. The simple meal is made of fresh ingredients that will fill you up for just a few baht. Most stalls serve their khao man gai alongside freshly sliced cucumber and a side of ginger-chili sauce. The cucumber cuts through the fat of the dish, and the sauce takes it to the next level.
2. Kway Teow Rua (Ayutthaya Boat Noodles)
You can get noodle soup all over the Land of Smiles, and I strongly suggest that you slurp up as much of it as you can eat, but if you want to take it to the next level, you need to try boat noodles.
Known as kway teow rua, boat noodles are a specialty of the ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya, a tourist destination just a few hours north of Bangkok. Ayutthaya is famous for its astonishing ruins as well as its decadent boat noodles served in a hearty broth of blood and spices. If the thought of blood in your soup stops you in your tracks, consider this: Blood has been used to flavor dishes for most of human history. Give it a whirl. You won’t be disappointed. The blood lends a rich flavor to the noodles and makes them one of Thailand’s most savory comfort foods. You can get these delicious noodles at the Krungsri Market in Ayutthaya.
3. Cha Yen (Thai Tea)
Walk down any soi (street) in Thailand, and you’ll see neon orange cups of cha yen in the hands of the locals. Cha yen, or Thai tea, is sure to get your blood pumping thanks to its mixture of tea, evaporated milk, and plenty of sweetened condensed milk.
Thai people also use sweetened condensed milk in their iced coffee, and it’s not uncommon to see cans of it piled high in the street carts, ready to be pried open and swirled into a sugary cup of cha yen. You can get cha yen hot, but it’s most popular served over ice. My favorite vendor is on Sukhumvit 19, right at the Asok BTS station. Simply get off the train and head down Sukhumvit 19 past Terminal 21. There are vendors near the end of the road, close to the school.
4. Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad)
Som tum is the best example of how Thai cuisine blends flavors for unexpected and delightful profiles that you won’t taste anywhere else in the world. The dish’s primary ingredient is unripe papaya that has been shredded and pressed in a mortar and pestle until it’s pliable. The rest of the ingredients vary depending on where you get it, but the basic components are a splash of fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, chili, shrimp, tamarind, garlic, palm sugar, tomatoes, long beans, and crushed peanuts.
The resulting dish is fiery, sweet, bitter, and sour. Even so, it’s not cloying or heavy in the sweltering Bangkok weather. Remarkably, som tum remains delicate thanks to the base of green papaya. A good som tum is a thing of beauty, and you can get a fabulous one at Som Tam Jay So, a local favorite.
5. Khao Soi (Northern Noodles)
Khao soi, often called northern noodles, is a rich curry-based dish that consists of egg noodles in a silky coconut curry broth. It’s topped with a nest of deep-fried egg noodles and served with traditional Thai condiments. It’s a DIY dish that allows you to add shallots, lime, cilantro, and chili to your taste.
The harmony of the crispy deep-fried egg noodles with the decadent curry-soaked ones is something you won’t forget any time soon, and there is no better place in the kingdom to get the dish than Chiang Mai. This mountainous city is a Thailand must-see, and its Night Bazaar is the best place to find authentic, wallet-friendly northern noodles.
6. Sai Oua (Northern Thai Sausage)
You’ll find skewers of sausage balls sold everywhere from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, but you’ll need to head up to Thailand’s mountainous north to get some authentic sai oua. This sausage is the real deal -- fresh, grilled, and delightful. Its unique flavor comes from the bouquet of herbs that’s lovingly packed into each coiled sausage. You’ll taste kaffir lime, lemongrass, and coriander in each bite.
As with most of the foods listed here, the composition varies from stall to stall, but my favorite can be found at Ton Payom. This market sells everything from fresh flowers to unique souvenirs, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t seek out the sai oua vendor who sells delicious rolled sausages for a song.
7. Roti (Pancake)
The beaches of Phuket are lined with roti vendors who will whip you up a thin, sweet pancake in a matter of minutes, right before your very eyes. The roti vendors of Patong Beach delight in using unconventional ingredients and inventive techniques to create dessert masterpieces that rival those of any five-star kitchen.
Rotis are slathered in butter, sweetened condensed milk, Nutella, chocolate, and fruit. Some vendors let you customize your own with sprinkles or candy. These tasty treats are best eaten at night when the chocolate is less likely to melt, and you can stroll and people-watch to your heart's content.
8. Fresh Fruit
You haven’t tasted fruit until you’ve been to Thailand. Every street corner in every city, town, and village is home to ice-packed carts full of vibrant fruits that the owners will chop for you on the spot. Golden mangoes sit alongside fiery dragon fruit and creamy dark orange bags of papaya. You can even buy tiny coconuts that the vendors will open up for you. Locals like their fruit with lime and chili, another nod to the sweet and salty marriage that makes Thai food so extraordinary.
Incredible street food is putting this Southeastern Asian country on the culinary map. Don’t be shy; you’ll be getting authentic cuisine for a fraction of the price, and it will likely taste loads better, too. If you’re still unsure, consider the story of Jay Fai, a Bangkok street-food sensation whose crab omelet won her a Michelin star! She has a brick-and-mortar location now, Raan Jay Fai, which you should check out for some of the best food you’ll ever eat. You’ll also have the chance to sample all of the other culinary treats listed here!
Planning a trip to Thailand? Check out these eight things to know before you go, this guide to cultural etiquette in the country, and this list of the best things to see and do while you're there.