Scott Thomsen with some insider information.
TO EVEN VAGUELY UNDERSTAND Bangkok is to understand that life transpires out on the streets. Not the main roads mind you, but the tiny neighborhood sois that unite the community. People flood the sidewalks each night as soon as it starts to cool off — men match wits over chess, teens gather to watch soccer, lovers stroll as lovers always do.
And at the heart of it all is the street food. Tuk-tuk drivers recharge with a quick bowl of soup, students chat over shaved ice, and old men scarf down chicken rice while nursing a Singha.
In Bangkok’s Ratchathewi district, just a 15-minute walk from the megamalls of Siam, you can find vendors hawking everything from spicy stir-fried pork to toxic durians.
Unless otherwise noted, directions start at the soi that intersects the Ratchathewi BTS station and the Asia Hotel.
Chicken soup soothes the soul
Drift past Asia Hotel, turn left before the huge construction site with the large cranes that seem comically out of place. Say a quick hello to the ladyboys smoking outside the Calypso Cabaret and walk straight for a good five minutes. When you spot the dying tree awash with Christmas lights on the roof of a house on the left, prepare to turn right to enter the main soi of the area. You'll see a myriad of little soup places and I guarantee they're all fantastic. But for the ultimate bowl of piping hot broth in Ratchathewi, wander until you find the stand next to the bootleg DVD table plastered with stickers touting The Lion King, Cars, and The Smurfs. Grab a stool and elect for the guay thiew gai thunn. Simple but immaculate.
The classic: Koa niew ma muang
Come mango season, you'll be unable to escape Bangkok's most ubiquitous dessert. To find the toothless salesman serving up the sweetest mango sticky rice in Ratchathewi, amble in the general direction of Banglamphu. Eventually, you'll run across the laundromat manned by the frequently shirtless owner. Give his black and grey mutt a quick pat and call out "Sawatdee Krab!" to his daughter. Follow the eclectically colored tuk-tuks (I prefer to ride the bright green and pink ones) past the fruit vendors and look for the table covered in enormous yellow mangos. You have reached your destination.
This guy may not sell the finest bananas, but let me tell you, nobody in the greater Bangkok area rocks the mesh cowboy hat as effortlessly as he does. Note: the hat comes off when the sun goes down so get there early. After you pass the packed pool hall, head west down the narrowest of alleys and look for the affable barber with the ironically long hair in the shop filled with marathon trophies. If you see him and his adorable little girl, you're doing ok. Keep walking until you emerge onto the main soi, then turn right and hang a quick left when you see the pedestrian overpass. Our banana cowboy will be at its base. Buy a bunch for 10 baht.
Soul food: Gai tord
Bangkok's a lot like the American South in that it's hot as hell and fried chicken is the comfort food of choice. Unfortunately, such an abundance of gai tord often leads to a dearth of quality. But at this halal stand, directly across the street from the banana cowboy, the chicken is fried to order - therefore each piece is piping hot and crispy as your grandmother used to make it. For the ultimate soul food treat, enjoy your bird with the miniature waffles that can be found around the corner. Sadly, it's BYOS (bring your own syrup).
Thai waffles are a bit different than the ones I grew up with. They're a little bready and quite sweet - eaten as dessert rather than breakfast. For pure enjoyment, I recommend the banana with sugar on top, but to accompany your fried chicken feast, I'd recommend either almond or classic. From the chicken stand, head east like you're going to the Coco Walk bars and turn left as soon as possible. Your waffles will be on the right, just past the woman serving up deep fried sticky rice on a stick.
I myself would never actively endorse durian - the fruit so foul it was banned from Bangkok subways. But if you must indulge, this stand offers the best prices on the block. To find it, head over the bridge next to the banana stand and descend to the east. Take your first left onto the buzzing soi 12 and walk until you find these guys glaring at you. They'll be on the right about 100 feet past the smoothie stand that sells hard fruit shakes.
Late night eats
It's 2:30am and you're hankering for a snack. At this time of the night, although you still have a bounty of options, you're going to have to work a tad bit harder. Walk north all the way past the BTS station and cross the huge street as soon as you can. If you safely reach the other side, turn left and keep walking until you find what has to be the only place in the city selling hairdryers this late. Turn right and head deep into the soi. Eventually, you'll stumble upon the stand hawking a very satisfying khao mun gai (chicken rice). Ask for extra sauce.
Nam khang sai
For a sweet treat to help you beat the Bangkok heat, look no further than a syrupy bowl of shaved ice. To find the only purveyor in the neighborhood, go west past the streetside washing machines and the lounging mechanics. Head down the soi on the right that ends in the glowing red shrine. Go left because that's your only choice and follow the road until it spits you out onto the main drag. The stand should be just past the market touting every tropical fruit you could ever imagine.
With Thai food, you often have no idea just what the hell you're eating. The contents of these deep-fried, spicy balls completely baffle me. To find the woman selling this strange concoction, head into the neighborhood and turn right when you see the restaurant proudly proclaiming their "French fried." After the row of barbershops on the right, turn left asap and walk until you intersect the popping little soi. She'll be on your right, opposite the electronics shop selling batteries and old cell phones.
Exit the BTS station and stroll past Asia Hotel in the direction of the khlong and the quintessential Asian megamall, MBK. Ignore the tuk-tuk drivers promising cheap rides and look for the forest green temporary fence covered in graffiti. At 20 baht, orange juice is a bit pricey, often costing just five baht or about 16 cents less than a plate of chicken rice or a bowl of soup. But it's ice cold and wonderfully fresh, squeezed either in front of you or earlier that morning. Props to this vendor for sporting a mask that perfectly matches her juice.
From the OJ vendor, continue heading south past the massage parlor and teeth-whitening clinic. Look for the always packed stand featuring a lady dishing out some of the best basil, chili stirfry you'll ever taste. I prefer it with pork, but the seafood medley seems to be a top seller as well. Note, regardless of what you get, it will be spicy as hell - even by Thai standards. Basically, the wok accumulates ground-up pepper after ground-up pepper so your meal ends up marinating in pure fire. Enjoy.
If you find this place, serving a moist and simple marinated grilled chicken, you, my friend, are an intrepid adventurer. Head south to the putrid khlong and turn right opposite the water stand. Walk past the volleyball court strewn with beer bottles and keep going until you hear a blaring call to prayer. You're now in Baan Krua, one of Bangkok's oldest Islamic communities. Turn right down the narrow alley just past the convenience store left of the bridge. Stay left at the two or three forks and continue down the alley. About 50 meters down, look for the grill team on the right.
Walk past the elementary school that doubles as the site of the local seniors aerobics class in the late evening. Proceed onwards until the middle-aged woman on the stool asks, "You like Thai massage?" Smile, shake your head no, and stroll across the intersection to the stand with the glaring yellow sign celebrating the eggs noodles with roasted pork. To impress the chef, instead of pointing, ask for kuay teow moo daeng. And make sure she throws in a handful of hand-rolled wontons for good measure.