If Bangkok is a big pot of curry, street food vendors are the flames that make it simmer — and the spices that make it worth dishing out. In addition to churning out delicious eats at any time, anywhere, they bring color and energy to the pavement. Though some mansion dwellers and government officials would like to see them disappear into Singapore-style food malls, most Bangkokians rely on them, and many, like us, cherish their presence out in the open air. This post is a tribute to the men, women and ladyboys who keep the street food coming. Without them, Bangkok simply would not be Bangkok.
In the photo below, fresh veggie vendors chat while awaiting their next sale in Pak Khlong Talad. Huge markets like this one come with a built-in social scene, not unlike the villages of yesteryear.
Unlike many vendors who buy the pre-made variety, this vendor in Nang Loeng Market wakes up early to make sai grok (Isaan sausage) by hand — nice and plump.
Trok Mor Market‘s king of noodle supplies strings up some fishballs. He’s been open seven days a week, for decades, and many of the Old Town’s noodle vendors rely on his consistency.
This mother-and-daughter assembly line churns out terrific khanom pat jang, sticky rice with Chinese sausage and other fillings steamed in bamboo leaf. When finished, they sell out in less than an hour at Phran Nok Market in Thonburi.
Pad Thai Fire Look‘s legendary wok star works the flames on Sukhumvit Soi 38:
A master of vegan Chinese-Thai cooking, she opens daily at Arawy on Dinso Road in the old quarter.
Our go-to nam prik gaeng (curry paste) vendor in Or Tor Kor Market can be found near the seafood section if you’re looking for exceptional handmade curry pastes.
The one-and-only Pornchai whips up his signature kuay-tiao lod at his late-night cart on Yaowarat Road.
While Pornchai is known even to members of the Thai royal family, most vendors work their carts in obscurity. This modest young man grills skewered meats down an alley in Pathumwan, one of the city’s ritziest areas.
Now in her eighties, this lovely woman has been selling khao niao bing since she was young. We love these grilled sticky rice treats with banana, taro and other fillings, and she makes the best we’ve ever tried. She can usually be found somewhere (she moves around) amid the Old Town streets east of the Grand Palace from morning to early afternoon.
At halal food court A-isa Rot Dee on Tani Road, this merry guy proudly dishes out melt-in-the-mouth chicken and beef for khao mok (turmeric rice) and kuay-tiao gaeng (curry noodles).
Anonymous grilled chicken vendors smoke up a Chinatown alley:
One thing that you can say about virtually all street food vendors is that they work hard. That’s certainly true of this fish man in Trok Mor.
Back in the Old Town, a woman was up bright and early to stock her shop. If street food vendors are the glue that holds Bangkok together, tuk tuks are the tubes that make sure they can stick where they need to be.
Before many of Bangkok’s khlong, or canals, were covered over to make roads, what we now think of as “street food” was sold on the water. Especially in Thonburi, where many of the khlongs were spared, a handful of vendors still make a living selling food out of boats. This woman is one example, offering meat on sticks along Khlong Bangkok Yai.
Nowadays, most get it done with a cart on the pavement. As a som tam and grilled fish/meat seller shows, street food vendors have to contend with Bangkok’s notoriously dangerous roads. The police can be another difficulty, “requesting” that vendors pay regular fees to ensure they can keep selling on footpaths where designated “vendor zones” can be murkier than the khlongs mentioned above. Since the military took over Thailand (again) in May ’14, officials have forced many vendors to stop selling before 7:00 pm.
Other vendors, like this man selling grilled century eggs and sticky rice in the Old Town, get by without wheels or boats.
As this khao lam (grilled sticky rice in bamboo trunk) vendor shows, selling food in bustling markets like Wang Lang can be safer and more pleasant than roaming the streets.
Another option is to beat the traffic by joining it, demonstrated by this pick-up truck orange dealer on Phra Sumen Road.
Speaking of fruit, you gotta love the roving watermelon/papaya/mango/guava/cantaloupe vendors quenching the thirst of the masses all over the city. This particularly friendly guy gave us a great pose near Khao San.
Our friend and author of Thailand’s Best Street Food, Chawadee Nualkhair, writes that for some, the only qualification for “street food” is that it’s “sold from any open-air place (or, as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration puts it, an establishment with ‘no more than three walls’).” By those guidelines, 40-year-old Nai Soey and its beef noodles on Phra Arthit Road make the cut.
Near the Baan Bu bronze village in Thonburi, this grilled banana vendor has been at it for even longer. Her elder wisdom is obvious in that smirk.
A baseball cap donning dude at Krua Muang Ling in Ratchathewi shows that the younger generation isn’t scared to throw down on the street.
Speaking of baseball caps, these two grill workers near Tha Din Daeng would be scary if they weren’t dishing out phenomenal satay.
Some might find vendors scary for other reasons, as this roast pork vendor in Nang Loeng displays.
Back in the old days, it’s thought that most Thais refused to slaughter animals due to their Buddhist vows. This was probably one reason why hundreds of thousands of Chinese, who for the most part didn’t mind the killing, were welcomed to Siam/Thailand over the centuries. To this day, many butchers still trace their ancestry to China. That’s true of the fresh pork seller pictured below in Trok Mor Market.
Many Muslims from Malaysia and India also migrated to Siam/Thailand over the years, contributing especially to the beloved cuisine of Southern Thailand. Seen here in Phran Nok Market, a woman dishes out curry paste for the painfully spicy Southern dish, kua khling.
In fact, we’d guess that the most of Bangkok’s street food vendors are not actually from Bangkok. This Northern Thai woman serves a couple of her home region’s staple noodle soups, khao soi and khanom jin nam ngiew at Happy Land Market in Bang Kapi.
Also at Happy Land, this seafood curry slinger hails from Isaan.
We’d bet that this straw-hat wearing strawberry vendor is also not a native of the big city.
This chaa yen (Thai iced tea) craftsman is from Southern Thailand, but he clearly feels right at home showboating in Wang Lang Market.
We can’t neglect to include one of Khao San Road’s ubiquitous pad Thai vendors who perpetuate the myth among foreigners that pad Thai is by far the most popular dish in Thailand. No, pad Thai is not Thailand’s version of the hamburger, but that didn’t stop this guy from sticking it to Ronald.
Most Thais eat meat daily, but every year in September or October (depending on the moon), millions celebrate Thailand’s considerable Chinese roots by observing Tesakan Kin Jay, the vegetarian festival. These vendors on Tanao Road did a roaring trade while selling trays of very tasty vegan food.
Speaking of Chinese influences, Chinatown is considered by many to be the heart of the Bangkok’s street food scene. Here, a vendor takes a break from dishing out stir-fries to count the morning earnings at Khao Thom 24, which never closes, ever. (How’s that for a business plan?)
If you happen to walk past this fresh-baked sala bao (Chinese steamed rice bun) joint near Ratchawong Pier, do grab a bundle for the road.
Then walk over to Charoen Krung Soi 23 for Ba Mee Jap Kang, or “coolie noodles,” so called because the hearty egg-wheat noodles slathered in pork fat provided a satisfyingly cheap meal for the many coolies working the docks and warehouses in the old days. As this seasoned vendor shows, everything is still cooked over open charcoal.
In Chinatown’s tightly packed maze of alleys around Sampeng Lane, this fellow struck a “yeah yeah you can take my photo” pose after we’d purchased some of his lime juice.
This vendor set up in a less hectic corner of Chinatown, though we imagine she didn’t feel lonely.
Yaowarat Road really ramps up after dark, when the durian addicts come out in force. Thankfully, this woman is there to ensure they get their fix. Think we’re joking? Look, she even has a website for those wanting to deal in weight!
Of course, Chinatown isn’t the only part of Bangkok where the street carts come out to satiate the masses after the sun goes down. On Phetchaburi Soi 10, a gai yang (barbecued chicken) doctor quietly mans his grill in the shadows.
Meanwhile on Sukhumvit Soi 38, a young man whips up a kai jeow (Thai omellette). He’s a member of an elite group of spatula-wielding knights: the made-to-order chefs, who can cook up a breathtaking array of different dishes, often ordered to tedious specifications, in dazzling displays of speed and fire.
Way out in West Bangkok, things move a little slower. This floating noodle vendor echoes back to the days when kwit-tiao reua, or “boat noodles,” got their name.
Sampling Bangkok’s bountiful street food is so entertaining and delicious that it can turn a dining experience into a big blur, like a roller coaster ride or a wild night at the clubs. We hope that this post serves as a reminder that none of it would be possible without the hard-working street food vendors. In the end, it all comes back to the people, like this nam prik pla-tuu (mackerel chili paste) team in Tha Din Daeng Market …
… Or the steely faced man who sells fresh pla tuu in Thewet Market …
… The lighthearted guy who sells nam prik kapi to go with your pla tuu on Phran Nok Road …
… The sometimes salty ladies in Chinatown who keep the munch-and-go goodies coming …
… The pink-apron-donning woman who sits in a boat, under a tollway overpass in Pak Kret, selling tom yum noodle soup that has legend status among many North Bangkokians …
… The soft-spoken Thai coffee vendor in Nang Loeng who makes everyone’s mornings easier …
… The crew at 70-year-old Nuttaporn who spend hours scraping out young coconuts to make the city’s best Thai-style ice cream …
… The two friends who set up together every morning in Trok Mor to sell temple offerings and fried fish …
… The 86-year-old woman who sits next to her daughter’s Trok Mor stall, chatting with the same old faces and boasting to new ones about her nine beloved children …
… The som tam seller in Pak Khlong Talad who always seems to have a smile under that mask …
… The loyal man who wields his pushcart to supply his wife’s street stall with mackerel …
After he shot us this super-fly thumbs up, we couldn’t help but say: “Bangkok: best fuckin’ street food in the world.” Many thanks to the people who make it possible.
If you want to meet some of these vendors and try their food, check out Chin’s Chili Paste Tour.