A lot of tourists eschew the huge range of Thai places to eat, despite their obvious attractions, and opt instead for the much “safer” restaurants in guesthouses and hotels. Almost all tourist accommodation has a kitchen, and while some are excellent, the vast majority serve up bland imitations of Western fare alongside equally pale versions of common Thai dishes. Having said that, it can be a relief to get your teeth into a processed-cheese sandwich after five days’ trekking in the jungle, and guesthouses do serve comfortingly familiar Western breakfasts.
Throughout the country most inexpensive Thai restaurants and cafés specialize in one general food type or preparation method, charging around B40–50 a dish – a “noodle shop”, for example, will do fried noodles and/or noodle soups, plus maybe a basic fried rice, but they won’t have curries or meat or fish dishes. Similarly, a restaurant displaying whole roast chickens and ducks in its window will offer these sliced, usually with chillies and sauces and served over rice, but their menu probably won’t extend to noodles or fish, while in “curry shops” your options are limited to the vats of curries stewing away in the hot cabinet.
To get a wider array of low-cost food, it’s sometimes best to head for the local night market (talaat yen), a term for the gatherings of open-air night-time kitchens found in every town. Sometimes operating from 6pm to 6am, they are typically to be found on permanent patches close to the fruit and vegetable market or the bus station, and as often as not they’re the best and most entertaining places to eat, not to mention the least expensive – after a lip-smacking feast of savoury dishes, a fruit drink and a dessert you’ll come away no more than B150 poorer.
A typical night market has maybe thirty-odd “specialist” pushcart kitchens (rot khen) jumbled together, each fronted by several sets of tables and stools. Noodle and fried-rice vendors always feature prominently, as do sweets stalls, heaped high with sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves or thick with bags of tiny sweetcorn pancakes hot from the griddle – and no night market is complete without its fruit-drink stall, offering banana shakes and freshly squeezed orange, lemon and tomato juices. In the best setups you’ll find a lot more besides: curries, barbecued sweetcorn, satay sticks of pork and chicken, deep-fried insects, fresh pineapple, watermelon and mango and – if the town’s by a river or near the sea – heaps of fresh fish. Having decided what you want, you order from the cook (or the cook’s dogsbody) and sit down at the nearest table; there is no territorialism about night markets, so it’s normal to eat several dishes from separate stalls and rely on the nearest cook to sort out the bill.
Some large markets, particularly in Bangkok, have separate food court areas where you buy coupons first and select food and drink to their value at the stalls of your choice. This is also usually the modus operandi in the food courts found in department stores and shopping centres across the country.
For a more relaxing ambience, Bangkok and the larger towns have a range of upmarket restaurants, some specializing in “royal” Thai cuisine which is differentiated mainly by the quality of the ingredients, the complexity of preparation and the way the food is presented. Great care is taken over how individual dishes look: they are served in small portions and decorated with carved fruit and vegetables in a way that used to be the prerogative of royal cooks, but has now filtered down to the common folk. The cost of such delights is not prohibitive, either – a meal in one of these places is unlikely to cost more than B500 per person.