Bangkok: how to eat like royalty for five dollars a day

I am not a backpacker, and I don’t even consider myself a budget traveler, particularly.  When we got to Bangkok and settled into our very comfortable hotel, my plan was simply to eat all of the best food I could find.  But I gradually realized that the best food around cost practically nothing, and the pocketful of Thai Baht (THB) I started out with was lasting me a very long time.  You don’t have to be a backpacker to enjoy that.  Finally, I started doing a little mental arithmetic.  Assuming an exchange rate of around thirty THB to the US dollar, we were only spending about five US dollars per day on food, plus a little more for bottled water and Orange Fanta to cope with the heat.  Here’s how a typical day of eating breaks down:

Breakfast: More than I love a hotel breakfast buffet, I love not having to get dressed or do any thinking whatsoever before I eat breakfast.  I like to make a cup of coffee using the supplies in the hotel room, and then take my cup of coffee and a pastry back to bed or out onto the deck, and ease into the day.  When we travel, I keep my eyes open for the bakery or supermarket nearest the hotel.  Every night, often on the way back from dinner, we stop for some muffins, rolls, or croissants.  It is always interesting to see the inside of the local supermarket while travelling: similar to home in many ways, utterly foreign in others.

In Bangkok, the place to go was 7-Eleven.  They were as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Seattle—that is to say, there were several on any given block.  And the large one we found on the corner of Convent Road and Silom Road had a complete bakery case, with fresh croissants, muffins, donuts, danish, etc.  Even late at night, the store was incredibly crowded, but we were able to thread our way through the press of bodies, and stock up on breakfast pastries and liter bottles of drinking water for the next day.

  • Two croissants each=22 THB per person

Lunch: There was no shortage of enticing lunch options on the streets of Bangkok.  The food carts were everywhere and the options were endless.  A bowl of noodle soup with pork was 30 THB, and could be packed to go, in a series of plastic bags like the kind in which goldfish ride home from the pet store.  Even better, we happened upon a covered market near our hotel.  Under a giant metal roof, a series of food vendors set up each morning, and were gone by mid-afternoon.  The variety was amazing: soups, noodles, fried egg rolls, and several curry options.  We stopped at a vendor that offered Curry on Rice, and chose the “Two Thing” menu item, for 30 THB.  The choices of meats, vegetables, and rich sauces made it difficult to decide, but the vendor smiled patiently as I chose one scoop of ground pork with vegetables, and one scoop of something pale and mysterious (some sort of fish cake, I think) with green peppers.  She ladled generous portions over rice and handed it to me.

We found spots at the red plastic tables and went in search of silverware.  Finally, we found a basket of what appeared to be clean forks.  The people ahead of us in line searched through the basket, selecting their forks with care.  Then they swirled the forks in a crock pot of barely simmering water.  What criteria were they using to select a fork?  Was the hot water meant to sterilize the utensils?  I turned off the part of my brain that was screaming, “That cesspool of water isn’t even boiling!  It’s not going to sterilize ANYTHING!” Then I chose two forks and swirled them around in the crock pot before returning to the table.

And that lunch was utterly delicious, filling, and I suffered absolutely no ill effects from the mystery crock pot.

  • Plate of rice with two curries: 30 THB per person

Snack: Every time we left our hotel, the door man smiled and said “Sawadee krup” (hello), then the security guard at the end of the driveway gave us a snappy salute.  The very next ritual was passing the food cart on the corner, where a man and a little boy cooked up skewers with all sorts of sizzling, lightly charred, smoky, delicious meat.  My tummy growls just thinking about it.

After I pointed at the skewer I wanted, the vendor put it back on the grill to bring it to hot, sizzling perfection before handing it over with a grin.  I love that food cart because it was the very first place I stopped for street food upon arriving in Bangkok.

  • Chicken skewer: 10 THB

Dinner: Again, street food is the most obvious answer to the dinner question.  But sometimes it’s nice to get at least a few feet away from the rush of traffic, peruse a menu, and relax.  When we found Hai Thai and Seafood Restaurant on Convent Road, we had arrived.  Hai was simple, unpretentious, and offered indoor or streetside seating, and delivery.  The menu offered extensive options, including grilled chicken or fish, and all the usual rice, noodle, and curry dishes.  Most of the entrees were in the 55-75 THB range.

We ordered two plates of steamed rice, a spicy pork salad, and a grilled chicken quarter.  The pork salad was juicy, tangy, and had just the right amount of crunchy shallots.  The chicken was perfectly grilled, crackly-tender.  Each bite was a pleasure to be savored.

  • Two plates of rice: 30 THB
  • Grilled chicken: 60 THB
  • Pork Salad: 60 THB
  • Total per person: 75 THB

The bottom line?  Less than $5.00 each per day.  We would have happily paid much more to experience a day of such adventurous, delicious food together.  But the best meals are not always the most expensive.   The fact that it cost so little to eat so well in Bangkok added to the novelty and pleasure of the experience.

And why not save a little money for the really important stuff, like Dr. Fish pedicures?  The fish are hungry, too!  Hungry for human flesh, that is…


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