If Thailand were a scented candle, it would be lemongrass with a faint hint of coconut and ginger. I know it sounds wacky, but it’s hard to find a dish without one of those scents wafting up from your plate.
Few countries compare to Thailand in terms of soulful cooking and the worldwide popularity of its cuisine. As an American venturing to the Far East, I figured I’d have some good pad thai and maybe a nice tom yum but I had no idea of the variety of flavors I was in for. Even a dingy little food stall had infinitely better Thai food than I’ve ever had back home.
If you’re a foodie like me or just enjoy unique flavors and adventures, this is the country to explore and this is the 8-day tour to do it on. Each region of the country has its own type of cuisine, cooking style and dishes for even the pickiest eaters.
Here are some of the best dishes and best places to find them around Thailand.
Walking through the streets of Thailand’s capital city you’ll experience a slew of new smells and sounds. You may have to dodge some scooters as well as some fish heads as you make your way through the local markets, but Bangkok is synonymous with street food culture and an ideal place to sample it all.
During my food tour through Bangkok we were stuck in the cities infamous traffic for almost two hours and end up eating the city’s best pad thai in our tuk tuk. If you want to experience the street food scene in a little more of a structured setting, check out Urban Adventures and their local-led trips.
If you’re the type of traveler that prefers to wander the streets for a late-night snack, walk down Charoen Krung Road. Bangkok’s oldest road is home to dozens of sizzling street food stalls and a resurgence of hip art galleries and boutiques. Remember, on Mondays vendors have the day off so get your fill Tuesday through Sunday.
Although there is a ton of incredibly cheap and delicious street food Bangkok has some of Southeast Asia’s best restaurants. As seen on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Gaggan is the country’s only restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Lists. You may shell out a few more dollars than expected, but the Indian meal and experience is worth it.
My partner and I (who actually met on an Intrepid tour; story here) decided to get dressed up and treat ourselves to a five-course dinner at Nahm. We did not regret it!
Fly over the fog-covered mountain of this ancient city and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The air is fresher than congested Bangkok and there is a calming vibe to be found throughout. The Northern Lanna cuisine popular here is spicier than other parts of the country so have some Thai iced tea on hand. Beware of the classic dish Nam Prik Ong. This red and green chili dip will leave your mouth on fire after just a bite.
Chiang Mai is also known as one of the more affordable parts of Thailand, so street food is king. If you want to discover some can’t-miss spots the locals love, sign up for one of the following tours: ‘A Taste of Chiang Mai’, in which you wander morning markets and enjoy a local-style breakfast, or ‘Chiang Mai’s Off-Grid Food Adventure’, where you meet street vendors and explore the city’s back alleys that brim with authentic dishes.
One of the most infamous street food stalls is the beloved Cowboy Hat Lady at Chang Pheuak North Gate. If you can’t find her just do what I did and ask any local for the woman wearing the cowboy hat. She’ll cut you some of her iconic Khao Kah Moo aka the best-stewed pork leg you’ll ever eat.
Another famous dish for locals and tourists alike is Khao Soi. It’s a savory egg noodle soup with chili, lime, coconut milk, meat and traditional goodies like pickled mustard greens. One popular spot is Khao Soi Khun Yai serving up heaping bowls for less than $10.
And if you’re feeling fancy, head over to the stunning dining room at 137 Pillars house for this dish or other Northern Thai classics. I loved the chic dining room and elaborate presentation so much that I ate here twice!
Krabi & the islands
This is the part of Thailand you see in the movies. The part you daydream about at your desk. Those mystical white-sand beaches and limestone rocks are a highlight of the country and not to be missed. I opted for Krabi over Phuket because I wanted a less-touristy and more authentic experience.
However, no matter where you go in the islands, they do cater to tourists so you won’t find the kinds of Thai dishes like you can farther North. Here you’ll get your classic fried rice, noodles and maybe even a pizza on the menu.
One of my favorite dining experiences happened while walking onto Ao Phra Nang beach for the first time. I was hungry for lunch and the first thing I saw on the pristine beach was a long boat cooking and selling food off the side.
I walked over and couldn’t believe the variety of dishes this tiny boat was churning out. I ended up getting mango sticky rice, my favorite dessert of all time, and a fresh watermelon juice for less than $10.
Krabi is also home to one of the world’s most beautiful dining rooms. A few steps from the beach is a pricey hotel restaurant known as The Grotto. An outdoor dining experience set inside a limestone cliff with unobstructed views of the beach. Book a reservation early as first pick goes to guests of the Rayavadee Hotel.
You can’t go to Krabi or Phuket without doing a bit of island hopping before you leave. One of my favorite little getaways was Ko Lanta. Relatively unknown compared to the popular Phi Phi, this island is home to some of the friendliest locals I’ve ever met abroad.
After I gracefully rolled off my scooter onto the road, I was helped up and cleaned off by a handful of locals in a surf shop.
Of course, this happened on the way to my favorite restaurant on the island, Shanti Shanti. This grass-roofed beach hut serves pineapple-fried rice inside an actual pineapple. But if you’re sick of Thai food (gasp), they do serve Western dishes like burgers.
No matter which region to you visit, you’ll find a dish you just cant stop eating. It’s an ideal place to sample $3 noodles for lunch and a pricier prix fixe menu for dinner.
I’ve been to Thailand twice now and no matter how often I go back, I know there will always be new flavors to try.
Ready to dive into Asia’s tastiest food scene? Check out Intrepid’s 8-day food trip in Thailand, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
(Hero image c/o Intrepid Travel. All other images c/o Katie Lockhart.)