Food alone is a worthy reason to visit Thailand. Famous for its inimitable melange of aromatic ingredients, piquant flavors and razor-sharp spices, Thai cuisine ranks among the top culinary traditions in the world.

From street-side stalls peddling wholesome, inexpensive meals to fine-dining establishments plating exquisite delectables on par with the world’s best restaurants, Thai food checks pretty much every box on the gastronomic spec sheet, even for the most demanding and discerning foodies.

While no volume of literature would do justice to the diversity of Thai food, the following are some essential experiences that comprise a rite of passage for food lovers plotting their way around Thailand (or simply passing through the capital Bangkok).

Read more: Local Bites: the best places to eat and drink in Bangkok

1. Dig into pad thai, Thailand’s "national dish"

Designed as part of a nation-building exercise in the first half of the 20th century, pad thai (pàt tai) was conceptualized to represent Thailand on a plate. A wok-fried dish featuring flat noodles, shrimp, beancurd, bean sprouts, spring onions, peanuts, assorted spices and sauces, pad thai brings together everyday ingredients consumed in Thai households across the country.

It is wildly popular with travelers — especially those acquainting themselves with Thai food for the first time. Don't be surprised if you find yourself gorging on nothing but pad thai through your first 48 hours in Thailand. Many others have done just the same before you.

Where to try it: Thip Samai and Baan Phadthai, Bangkok.

A dish of pork pad kra pao, stir-fried minced pork with Thai basil, chili and a fried egg
Pad kra pao is a simple meal: spicy, basil-laced minced meat, served with steamed rice and a fried egg © Getty Images / iStockphoto

2. Earn your stripes with a pad kra pao lunch

After the initial infatuation with pad thai has worn off, most travelers take a cue from locals and graduate to ordering their first pad kra pao (basil stir fry). This is a simple meal of steamed rice topped with spicy, basil-laced minced meat (chicken, pork or beef) and a fried egg.

Pad kra pao is the definitive working lunch for millions of Thai office-goers looking for a quick and filling fix. The regulation pad kra pao comes loaded with bombastic chilis, so let the chef know well in advance if you prefer it on the mild side.

Where to try it: Phed Mark, Bangkok. 

Close up of two bowls of traditional Thai food: pat tai with shrimp and red curry noodles with chicken and vegetables Served on a wooden table near Sukhumvit road in Bangkok
The hallowed trinity of Thai curries are the spicy red, the piquant green and the aromatic yellow © Getty Images / iStockphoto

3. Master your Thai curries by their colors

The hallowed trinity of Thai curries – the spicy red, the piquant green and the aromatic yellow – is perhaps the most recognizable inclusion on any authentic Thai menu around the world. All three can be prepared with a permutation of meats, seafood or vegetables (the green curry lends itself particularly well to a vegetarian rendition).

After you have sampled all three, round off your curry excursion by tucking into a bowl of massaman, an iconic curry from Southern Thailand featuring potatoes and meat in a star anise-flavored gravy.

Where to try it: Sanguan SriPaste and Krua Apsorn, all in Bangkok.

Young Asian man on Khao San Road, eating pat tai and enjoying various kinds of street food
Northern Thailand has its own culinary traditions and extensive night market © Getty Images / iStockphoto

4. Explore Northern Thailand’s rustic culinary gems

The food in Northern Thailand is a universe of its own, deriving from the traditions of its resident Indigenous communities. While you're there, sample a bowl of the legendary khao soi (fried noodles in creamy soup), snack non-stop on sai oua (spicy pork sausage) and tuck into impossibly flavorful gaeng hung lay (tender pork belly simmered in aromatic red curry).

Where to try it: Kiti Panit, Khao Soi Khun Yai and Khao Soi Mae Sai in Chiang Mai

5. Sample Southern Thailand’s seafood delicacies

In the quaint urban grid of Phuket Town are a bunch of culinary institutions showcasing the best marine delicacies of Thailand’s ocean-hemmed south, prepared according to the region’s signature recipes.

Served with rice-noodle rolls, crabmeat in yellow curry is a must-try, as are deep-fried whiting flavored with turmeric and the many versions of fried grouper, bass and snapper, served with an assortment of sauces.

Where to try it: RayaOne Chun and Tu Kab Khao, all in Phuket.

: Twilight view from CRU Champagne Bar at Centara Grand at Central World, overlooking a magnificent cityscape of Bangkok.
Bangkok's stylish rooftop bars offer incredible views over the city at night © i viewfinder / Shutterstock

 6. Raise a late-night toast at a Bangkok rooftop bar

Rooftop watering holes are synonymous with Bangkok’s nightlife. There’s no dearth of options when it comes to choosing a stylish bar situated on a terrace overlooking the city’s skyline, where the cocktails are stiff and delicious, the house beer is chilled to a crisp and the company is cheerful and irreverent.

Many have a smart-casual dress code so make sure you don't turn up in a T-shirt, shorts or flip-flops.

Where to try it: Above 11Moon Bar and Octave, all in Bangkok. 

7. Splurge on a high-end Bangkok dinner

Home to some of the world’s most renowned contemporary chefs, Bangkok is a fine-dining wonderland, where a jaw-dropping number of haute cuisine kitchens jostle for position on best-of lists year after year.

While a single meal at any of these perpetually booked-out places can easily make your wallet lighter by several hundred dollars, the intangible experience of being served by the best names in the business is priceless.

Where to try it: Gaggan AnandSühring and Sorn, Bangkok. 

Wat Arun Great pagoda on Chao Phraya riverside view from Chom Arun Thai food restaurant
For a memorable Bangkok dining experience book into a riverside restaurant along Chao Phraya  © AlivePhoto / Shutterstock

8. Enjoy a riverside dinner on the Chao Phraya

If you are a romantic who values ambience as much as food, book yourself a dinner table at a riverside restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya. Enjoy a memorable meal while gazing out onto the dark waters of Bangkok’s principal waterway, beaming with a magical glow cast by city lights as it snakes its way through the metropolis. You could also book yourself a dinner cruise, allowing you to savor the electric atmosphere from a boat cruising the placid waters. It’s a quintessential experience without which no culinary adventure in Thailand is complete.

Most restaurants and cruises get booked out days in advance, so grab your spot well ahead of your date.

Where to try it: Chakrabongse VillasSteve’s Café & Cuisine and Asiatique, Bangkok. 

Mango with sticky rice, a Thai dessert
Mango sticky rice is a simple but thoroughly enjoyable dessert © Getty Images / iStockphoto

9. Lap up a sweet serving of mango sticky rice

A simple but thoroughly enjoyable serving of sticky jasmine rice, sliced ripe mango, crisp-fried lentils and coconut cream, this balmy dessert provides the perfect balance to close out a spicy Thai meal.

Practical tip for vegetarians with a sweet tooth: this dish makes for a fantastic meal option if you find yourself in a Thai restaurant with a meat-only menu.

Where to try it: Ban Khun Mae and Eathai, both in Bangkok. 

10. Vegetarians and vegans, head to Bangkok

In spite of its robust meat-and-seafood reputation, Thailand’s capital boasts an enduring vegetarian and vegan food culture. To let people know "I’m vegetarian" in Thai you'll need to master "pŏm gin jair" (for men) or "dì chăn gin jair" (for women).

A selection of stylish Bangkok vegan eateries whip up refreshingly creative meals suitable for global palates and healthy lifestyles, while a formidable line of Indian restaurants belts out iconic vegetarian dishes. The annual Vegetarian Festival – a nine-day celebration of plant-based food, usually held in September or October – is a great time to be in the city as Chinatown comes alive with innumerable street stalls selling a mind-boggling variety of vegetarian delights.

Where to try it: VeganerieBonita Cafe & Social Club and Saravana Bhavan, all in Bangkok. 

11. Crunch into the local insect specialties

While the eco-foodies from some parts of the world have begun championing insects as an excellent source of environmentally friendly protein, these creatures have been part of the menu in Southeast Asia for centuries. Normally served with soy sauce and pepper, bamboo worms (rót dòo an) are an excellent beer snack and a good introduction to bug dining. Fried grasshoppers (tak kâ tan) and crickets (jîng reed) are also a popular crunchy beer snack: remove the wings and legs before consuming. Silkworms (nhon măi) are soft and mushy in the center and are normally fried with kaffir-lime leaves. Often used in salads and omelets, red ant eggs (kài mot daeng) are white in color with a sour, lemony flavor for a taste contrast.

12. But wait, there's so much more to try... 

A few more must-try dishes before you leave Thailand include:

Larb: Salad of boiled minced meat (chicken, pork or beef), seasoned with lime juice, crushed rice powder, fish sauce, chili, onion, lemongrass and mint.

Pad see ew: Stir-fried soy-glazed flat noodles with leafy greens, featuring beef, seafood or tofu.

Kor moo yang: Slices of charcoal-grilled pork shoulder, served with spicy sauce.

Seafood spaghetti: A unique Thai concoction of stir-fried spaghetti and assorted seafood in a super-spicy pepper sauce, flavored with kaffir lime leaves. 

Thai coffee: Locally grown organic coffee – particularly from the Chiang Rai highlands – has a loyal fan base across Thailand. You’ll find innumerable cafes in the country’s urban centers serving the beverage in a plethora of different brewing styles and traditions.

This article was first published November 2012 and updated February 2024

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