Street food smarts: Bangkok nights and the art of eight knives

It’s another muggy Friday night at Lumpinee; there is a sweet and thick scent suspended in the air, which I can only imagine being a combination of cheap tobacco mixed with rambutan, tiger balm, and ringside grilled meats.

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With the place filling up from all flanks, the first fight is scheduled to start shortly at the most revered Muay Thai stadium in all of Thailand. It was here at Lumpinee, many moons ago, where I was brought back to celebrate my victory over a Thai fighter following our scheduled bout at a nearby boxing camp. I vividly remember that I was beat up, humbled, yet invigorated, and nothing could shake off that overwhelming feeling while watching other fighters do what they were trained to do since a young age. And so I came back to reminisce on that very moment while showing my wife, Zara, a unique and grimy side of what makes Bangkok one of my favorite cities in the world.

As the traditional and entrancing sarama music started to ring across the stadium, the first set of garlanded fly-weights began their ceremonial ritual of Wai Khru Ram Muay or Ram Muay for short, prior to starting the fight. It is not an intimidation factor they were aiming for, but rather an homage to their khru (instructor) and camp they came from, which in and of itself can become an unspoken intimidation tactic.

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Fighters performing Ram Muay before the fight.

To our 3 o’clock, the stands are full of local fans interspersed amongst a litany of gamblers inscrutably gesturing hand signals throughout the entire performance. The fighters exchanged thunderous blows round after round until the best man came on top, under or at the end of an excruciating five rounds of tug of war.

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Muay Thai’s lineage comes from various styles eventually converging into the present form. Commonly known as the art of the eight knives (or limbs), the fighter does not discriminate using any part of the body to inflict damage upon an opponent, including fists, elbows, knees, and shins. In the ancient predecessor form of Muay Boran, they even used the head as the ninth point of offensive, but that is no longer around in current regulated bouts, unless, of course, it goes underground, but that’s a different story altogether.

We watched every match intently as they escalated in weight before the prime event went on. It was a long night while the beer was flowing and after wrapping up another amazing time at Lumpinee, we found an outdoor omelette vendor just after exiting the stadium. I did break one of my cardinal rules, which includes not eating seafood abroad if it’s past a certain time of the day, but darn did it look amazing.

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After 57 years, the legendary Lumpinee recently hung up its gloves to reopen its doors at a larger and more modern location.
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Vendor preparing a Thai classic, the Kai Jeow omelette.

A street food culture

Bangkok is an assault on the senses from every front, and its street food, as in the rest of Thailand, is a truly authentic experience for the budget-minded traveler, as well as for anyone willing to help boost the microeconomy. It is generally safe as long as you keep an eye on its preparation, but it’s also a good opportunity to interact with a mixed bag of locals ranging from proprietors, students, hard working folk, lady boys, and everything else in between.

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If you are looking for variety, walk over to the end of Khao San Road, right around the corner past the police station you’ll find many food vendors lining each block. But don’t forget to also try the streets adjacent to Khao San, including Soi Rambuttri, which really come alive once the sun comes down. Your choices vary from meats on a stick, fried wieners, stews, a wide range of fruits, grilled fish and seafood, pad thai, and if you feel adventurous, a copious amount of stir-fried bugs.

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Khao San Road.
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Pad Thai right on the spot.

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Other places such as Sukhimvit Soi 38 (Thong Lo) offer additional staples as well as crowd favorites, but when it comes to the crown jewel of Thai food on-the-go, nothing beats the noodles dishes, particularly the beef noodle soup (Kuay Tiew Nuer Nam Tok), or a bowl of Guay Jab, made from pig offal and/or meat. Part of the culinary heritage influenced by Chinese immigrants that were brought in as hard labor in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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Beef and pork noodle soups. Another version is the sought after red pork noodle soup, Kuay Teow Moo Daeng.

One of our favorite outdoor eating areas was the ever colorful Chinatown, locally known as Yaowarat. We walked around for hours through the many entangling corridors that ebbed and flowed between merchants shops and back alleys.

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A few words of the wise

A favorite pastime of mine whenever I travel abroad is to get to know the regional street food scene, but one needs to take certain precautions to avoid getting sick. Some of my considerations include:

  • Fruits and vegetables with edible skins can retain some of the bacteria in the water they have been washed in. For this, I generally stick to items that I can peel myself (mangosteens, bananas, etc). Same applies to salads, juices from stalls, and ice cubes served in drinks. Salads are typically washed in non-purified water which could cause some issues. And when it comes to drinking water in foreign countries, we always bring our handy Steripen purifier. We’ve even purified tap water in Mexico City (which is not recommended to drink as a newcomer) without any issues.

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  • Bringing your own set of utensils might be a bit overkill, but if you can you may want to check out where they are being cleaned and rinsed.
  • Drink plenty of coconut water. In Bangkok, a single fresh coconut costs around 30 baht (less than $2) and it will keep you very hydrated while taking in some much needed electrolytes.

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  • When choosing a fish for street grilling or to bring home, ask where the fish and seafood comes from, and stay away from anything that doesn’t smell fresh and fish with cloudy eyes. This is even more important in land-locked geographies. Also, keep an eye out on how well any food is covered.

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  • Try to eat at the popular spots, particularly where you see locals eating at or hovering by.

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  • Acclimate over a few days to give yourself some time to adjust to the local cuisine, especially when it comes to spicy food, which Thailand has plenty of.
  • Be mindful of local cocktail concoctions throughout South East Asia. There have been plenty of documented and undocumented cases from people, especially foreigners getting sick (and worse) from drinking cocktails made by vendors striving towards higher profit margins. I usually tend to gravitate towards bottled beer and wine, but you can trust establishments such as higher-end restaurants and fancy hotels.

Getting around town

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There is so much sightseeing to do in the capital, and I personally prefer to walk everywhere my feet can take me to so I can get an honest feel of the city. If traveling longer distances, for shorter trips your best bet is taking a tuk tuk. Do keep in mind that they’re not the safest vehicles on the road, but it is cheap and can maneuver with ease through the many congested streets. Your other options are to take taxis, the underground MRT, the less effective Sky Train BTS, or the more interesting boat rides zig-zagging up and down the banks of the Chao Phraya river.

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Many canals are teeming with Komodo dragons and monitor lizards. To say that the canals are a health hazard is an understatement, but environmental issues aside for some locals they do provide an important means for transportation, recreation, and at times even as a food source.
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Chao Phraya river taxi.

Bangkok can not stand still and as an ever-changing city there are new places popping up every day. We were able to cover decent ground while on this trip, but as always there is so much more to discover; nooks and crannies and holes in the wall to stumble upon while in the search of fresh and exotic street food options.

thankyou

Khob khun krap.

: Jaime

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