Street Food At Soi Thong Lo, Thailand
by Michael Babcock
One of the distinct pleasures of being in Thailand is the street food scene. It's great fun to stroll the streets graze delectable, delicious, inexpensive food at every corner. The street food vendors are often very friendly people, despite working long hours in the midst of traffic and pollution (in Bangkok, in any case) for not very much money. This article explores some of the street food found around Sukhumvit Soi 55, called Thong Lo (but pronounced "Tawng Law").
Click on each image to see a larger version.
In Bangkok we stay at a hotel on Soi 55 of Sukhumvit Road. This particular soi is known as Thong Lo or Thonglor in the rather idiosyncratic and inaccurate official spelling, but pronounced more like Tawng Law. (A soi refers to a tributary street off a main street. The street system is not really a grid, so a soi may or may not lead to the next main street over.) We love the location because it is a real Thai neighborhood, despite a fair number of restaurants and businesses catering to the Japanese who stay nearby. There is a very lively street scene right around the hotel, with produce, clothes and, most importantly, street food vendors, who sell everything from grilled bananas to chive cakes (picture to right). So, although the hotel has a buffet breakfast, we nearly always opt to go eat elsewhere, usually grazing the street food before we settle into a shop for rice porridge, noodles or regular Thai food.
Our first stop is nearly always to get some of the delicious coconut hotcakes called kanom krok — kanom meaning “snack” and krok meaning “mortar,” for they are cooked in a cast iron pan with indentations that are reminiscent of a mortar (see picture to left). (I won’t go into too much detail here because I’ve written about this previously in an article called Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) After purchasing a basket full of these delightful treats, we might head off to a noodle or johk (congee, or rice porridge) shop. As with nearly all Thai eateries, there is no problem with bringing food from outside and consuming it on the premises.
Many mornings we opt for real street food and eat at a kao/gkaeng (rice/curry) stall directly next to the ATM machine in front of the Thai Military Bank. As you walk past the display of around 40 pre-made dishes, you can’t help but stop — it looks delectable indeed! From the street it extends down an alley between two buildings where there are tables plus a burner with a wok for cooking.
For a street operation it involves a fair number of people. The main proprietor is the woman shown serving the food in the picture to the right. She usually starts her day around 3:00 am, going to the food market to buy the day’s ingredients. She gets back and starts cleaning and chopping. Her faan (significant other) shows up around 6:00 pm to help out and to start cooking. Dish after delectable dish shows up in the trays out front. There are also a couple other people who help with clearing, serving and dish-washing.
The only real problem is deciding what to eat! I usually go with what catches my eye the most, what looks the best to me that morning — reluctantly narrowing it down to two dishes from the initial half-dozen. The usual price is about 25 baht (say, 60 cents) for two dishes over rice. They serve food through lunch. Despite the low price, the woman is proud that she has sent two children through university. We have walked past the stall, on occasion, after eating dinner, so around 7:00 pm in the evening, and she is sitting there, relaxing after a long day of work. Even so, she greets us with a big smile.
Update, February 2005 When we visited Thailand in early 2005, we found that the food is now behind a glass display – so it is not as easy to photograph or see, but it is still delicious! And as of November 2008, it is still there.
Street food is a great option for dinner, as well as any other time of the day (or night). Actually, my very first meal in Thailand was at a night market. My flight got in around 12:30 in the morning and by the time I had cleared customs and made it to our hotel at Thong Lo, it was probably around 3:00 am. Kasma took me across Sukhumvit road to Soi 38, where there is a bustling night market. Despite the late (early?) hour, the street was lit up as bright as day as something like 15 or 20 stalls sold their food. I had a bowl of duck noodles that was absolutely delicious; perhaps this first meal explains why I always eat a lot of duck noodles in Thailand — that bowl of duck noodles imprinted me! (Or is it vice-versa?)
Quite often in Bangkok we find ourselves grazing for dinner. We start out on Sukhumvit directly out from the hotel and pick up anything that looks particularly good that night. There’s a woman quite close to where we come out on the street who has a very basic set-up — she grills on an enamel bowl filled with coals, producing sour sausage, chicken livers, other meats and rice cakes. We often start our grazing right there. Many evenings we don’t even make it to the skytrain escalator, which we use to get us up so we can cross busy Sukhumvit road — we’ll get Pork Leg over Rice (with some pickled vegetables) and eat right on the street. No extra charge for a radiant smile.
Often, however, we make it over to Soi 38. The picture to the right shows a stall taken from the walkway above the market. Expand it to get an idea of a basic street cart with tables and stool set up right in front. Usually each cart or stall sells one thing — you’ll find noodles, kanom (sweet snacks, in this case), drinks such as fresh coconut and blended drinks, and also stalls that cook food to order (essentially mobile restaurants). It’s not unusual for us to get a few sticks of satay with peanut sauce and then have a vendor cook us up an order of vegetables over rice. As usual, you can bring food from other carts and sit in another area, as long as you are ordering some food from the owner of the chairs as well; usually they’ll even collect the money and return the dishes for you. The various vendors aren’t really competing: they work more on a model of cooperating and supporting one another. It’s a very refreshing contrast to business as it is usually done in the United States where the goal often seems to be to bury the competition. I wish we would learn from the Thai people rather than the other way around.
Recently there has been a proliferation of American-style fast food places in Thailand — a discouraging sight, especially given all the healthy, delicious food already so widely available. All the Western fast-food places have signs saying you can’t bring in any outside food — not only are we exporting our lousy food, we're exporting our lousy values as well. It is apparently considered chic some people in Bangkok to eat at these places. The one encouraging thing is that, at least so far, the street food alternatives seem to always have a lot more customers. Long may it remain so!