Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand has a special place in my heart. It was the first country I’d visited in the region, introducing me to travel which felt truly exotic compared to my previous Western destinations: the scenery, the climate, the food, the language, everything looked, smelt, sounded and tasted different to what I was used to and I absolutely loved it. Bangkok was an exciting city in constant motion with enticing snacks fried-up under every arch as Tuk Tuks zipped past; the islands of the South were beach paradises with spectacular sea stacks around which you’d expect James Bond to emerge at any moment; inbetween were floating markets, deep jungles and exotic wildlife. What struck me most of all though were the people: unfailingly friendly and always welcoming. Really, what’s not to like?
Twenty years later I returned to Bangkok on a business trip, keen to fill any spare moments with pilgrimages to recommended streetfood stalls. I mined the advice of TV shows, cookery books and food bloggers, both foreign and local to Bangkok for tips on the best places. In particular many thanks to ‘Bangkok Glutton’ blogger Chawadee Nualkhair and the guide she wrote to Bangkok street food for The Guardian.
All my favourites were either found in a variety of markets or small, picture-esque alleyways, known in Thai as Soi. If you’ve not explored Thai streetfood before, be guided by your nose, eyes and the popularity with locals – if it looks clean, smells good and runs a brisk trade with locals, I’m diving in 100% even if I’m sat on an upturned bucket by the roadside. You may also notice many stands don’t have English names, so if you’re searching for a specific place, just get close using maps then ask around. Even if you get directed to the wrong place, it’ll invariably still be good!
All the photos here were taken with either a Sony RX100 Mark V premium compact or a Sony A6500 mirrorless camera fitted with the 18-105mm zoom lens. The RX100 series are fantastic travel cameras, delivering a big step-up in quality over a phone or typical point-and-shoot while still fitting in most pockets – see my Sony RX100 Mark V review for more details. Meanwhile the A6500 mirrorless gives you more control, fantastic continuous autofocus for unpredictable or spontaneous subjects and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses while remaining comfortably smaller than a DSLR – see my Sony A6500 review for more details. All the photos on this page are JPEG images taken with the default settings, and are straight out of camera. This follows my philosophy that you don’t need to always shoot in RAW with a big camera for the best results – see my In Camera book for more inspiration!
Khao Soi Noodle Shop, Soi Silom 3
My first stop was the Khao Soi Noodle Shop on Soi Silom 3, recommended in Chawadee Nualkhair‘s Guardian guide to Bangkok’s street food. I struggled to identify it by name, but nearby stores confirmed the location as a small and friendly-looking shop I’d already ear-marked as a backup. So with plan B turning out to be plan A, I went inside and in my broken tourist Thai, ordered the chicken and noodles in coconut curried egg soup (a Northern Thai speciality) for a mere 35 Baht, or about 80p. The portion was fairly small, but the flavor was delicious. I should add Soi Silom 3 and the streets leading off it were packed with other good-looking food options and not a tourist in sight. I enjoyed a fairly respectable coffee at a stand here too.
I shot this with the Sony RX100 V pointing straight down into the bowl, and composed it so the frame cropped the corner. I composed with the screen angled-out so I didn’t need to stand up and draw attention to myself, although no-one there was bothered. I rotated the camera so the lines on the table became diagonal rather than horizontal as I preferred the way they pointed towards the bowl.
Bamee Gua, 82 Soi Langsuan
My next stop was Bamee Gua on 82 Langsuan, just beyond Lumpini Park. I’d read about the minced pork noodles with egg with great interest on the Bangkok Glutton blog and was certain they’d be delicious, but as I arrived at 3pm, the gates were closing. The problem with seeking out non-tourist restaurants is they’ll generally operate on normal hours for locals. So I missed out on this one but have it ear-marked for a future visit.
As some compensation for you though dear reader, here’s a photo of one of Bangkok’s ever-present colourful taxi cabs as I waited to cross into Lumpini Park. I wanted to convey the constant bustle of Bangkok, so deployed the trusty panning-with-a-slowish-shutter trick to introduce some motion blur.
Here I used the Sony RX100 V with the lens zoomed-in a little and set to 1/15 in Shutter Priority mode. The trick is to keep panning to follow the subject as you press the shutter – don’t keep still! The panning motion will keep the subject fairly sharp while blurring the background for an impression of motion. I used it again for a Tuk Tuk photo you’ll see later.
Or Tor Kor Food Market, Kamphaeng Phet Road
When visiting a city, I always like to find a food market. I love seeing local produce, the mix of the familiar and the unknown, and in places like Thailand, there’s always going to be some type of fruit or fish you’ve never seen before. Even better if someone’s frying it up as a lunchtime snack.
Bangkok has a number of markets, but I found Or Tor Kor kept cropping up from Top lists to TV chef Rick Stein. It’s way across town, so the easiest way to get to it is to take the elevated Sky Train to the final BTS stop at Mo Chit. The Sky Train is very easy to navigate – just two lines which intersect at Siam station, and a simple map with the ticket price marked next to the destinations – typically 30 to 50 Baht for a one-way trip. Once at Mo Chit, exit onto Phahonyothin Road which runs alongside Chatuchak Weekend Market. I’d recommend getting off the main road and dipping into the market as soon as possible even if it’s a weekday when most stands are closed – there’s lots of atmospheric photo opportunities waiting for you.
Or Tor Kor market isn’t however part of Chatuchak market – it’s a separate market on the other side of Kamphaeng Phet Road, about 15 minutes walk from Mo Chit station, or opposite Kamphaeng Phet station if you’ve arrived on the Metro system. Depending on where you cross, you may come across the farmer’s market auction building first. If so, just walk parallel with the road or nearby river away from the Sky Train line for 50m or so until you reach a covered market area packed with food stalls, selling unusual fruits and exotic spices – look out for the bunches of Plum Mangoes, compact but juicy versions of the larger fruits we’re more familiar with in the West.
My first impression of Or Tor Kor was the high quality and beautiful presentation of the produce in immaculately clean surroundings, followed by surprise at the correspondingly high prices. It’s effectively Bangkok’s answer to London’s Borough Market: it looks great and tastes great, but by targeting tourists and up-market locals, the prices are fairly high. At the far-end though, the produce stalls give way to a small food court where you can order a variety of affordable cooked dishes, in particular duck noodle soup. I ordered a bowl from Duck King for 50 Baht, which seemed reasonable value compared to the prices of the nearby fruit stalls. I shot this with the RX100 V at 24mm to include both the bowl and some of the stall behind it, but opened the aperture to f1.8 to introduce a little blurring in the background. In these situations it’s easy to find yourself automatically pointing straight down at the bowl or plate’s contents, but I always like to mix in some alternative angles with some of the surroundings where possible.
After this late lunch I fancied a sweet treat, so made a beeline to a pastry stall near the food court. Displayed pride-of-place were buns stuffed with a green paste which I later discovered was custard flavoured with Pandan leaf. As I recall these cost 14 Baht each. The first was so delicious I simply had to order a second!
When faced with a bun or a burger, I admit to being fond of the POV (point-of-view) angle as if you were about to take a bite – but equally I’m also keen to include a nice background, so adjusted my position until there were some nice lights in the distance. I shot with the aperture wide open and focused close to the subject to minimize my depth-of-field.
With the abundance of lovely fresh mangoes in the market, also keep an eye open for anyone serving them with sticky coconut flavoured rice, a simple but stunningly delicious combination that’s rightfully become Thailand’s most famous pudding. In fact seek out this dish everywhere you go as I promise you mangoes are rarely better than those you’ll find in Thailand.
Nuttaporn Ice Cream, 94 Phraeng Phuton Square
Thanks to ‘Bangkok Glutton‘ food blogger Chawadee Nualkhair and The Guardian’s Bangkok streetfood guide for this one: Nuttaporn Ice Cream. If the name itself wasn’t sufficient to justify a visit, anywhere that manages to be within five minutes of the Grand Palace and yet be featured in every respectable food blogger’s top list should not be missed.
Nuttaporn is located on the corner of an unassuming square just off Bamrung Muang Road, itself only a few minutes walk from the outer walls of the Grand Palace. If you’re on the main river side of the Palace, cross through the grounds and over the small river.
Anything this close to a major tourist attraction should be terrible, but Nuttaporn defies traditions by serving absolutely delicious home-made ice cream; indeed I believe it’s one of the oldest ice cream parlours, if not the oldest in Bangkok. I couldn’t see an English sign, nor indeed any Western tourists, but the square is fairly small and there’s only one place that’s clearly serving ice cream on one of the corners. There’s only a handful of flavours, all home-made, but really you only need to know about the mango and coconut – oh, and with a choice of toppings if you like, including corn kernels. My photo here is of the coconut flavour that made their name, shot here with the Sony A6500 and 18-105mm lens.
Jay Fai, 327 Mahachai Road
A very quick but respectful nod to Jay Fai at this point, chef at the highly regarded streetfood stall of the same name. So legendary are her dishes, such as spicy lemongrass soup with seafood, that prices have reached Western restaurant figures. While sceptical whether a streetfood dish could really be worth ten to 20 times what I’d been paying elsewhere, my inner foodie had to investigate further. Unfortunately her stall was shut during my visit so I never got to find out, but plenty of similarly-named stalls had sprung up around her to capture unsuspecting tourists. So if you want the real thing, beware and be-warned.
On the upside even if Jay Fai is shut, you’re very close to Wat Saket, or The Golden Mount. It’s a very touristy temple, but worth the visit for the expansive city views at the top, and the back streets around it are full of atmosphere. Plus, you’re less than half an hour’s walk from the next place, my highlight!
Nang Loeng Market, Nakhon Sawan 6 Alley
Nang Loeng is another market frequently touted on best foodie destinations and once I’d arrived, I knew it was the real deal. Nakhon Sawan 6 Alley leads to a large square with long communal tables surrounded by streetfood stalls, all mercifully sheltered from the baking Sun. Clean, but not clinically so like Or Tor Kor, it was populated entirely by locals and as such, be warned there’s little in the way of English signage and it’ll probably close by 3pm.
At this point in my trip, the one Thai speciality that eluded me was the famous oyster-stuffed omelette, so upon spotting a vendor with one on a plate, I made a beeline for them. Some pointing later and the display omelette was recooked with a variety of additional ingredients before being cut into squares and served with some chillis and onions on the side. I paid 35 Baht for this and it turned out to be one of the most delicious things I ate in Bangkok. As I left, another omelette was assembled for display once more.
My travelling companion that day, fellow photographic journalist David Schloss, opted for that other famous speciality, Pad Thai which, while looking familiar, also turned out to be absolutely delicious. We sat and ate our meals with local workers who generally grinned at us or simply got on with their day. We may have been the only Westerners there, but always felt safe and very welcome. That said, do always keep a close eye on your valuables.
Nang Loeng was also packed with all manner of sweet-looking treats, several of which David bought. It’s always a bit of gamble with Southeast Asian cakes as some can turn out to be surprisingly savoury, but when you score one which resonates with your tastebuds, all is forgiven. If you only visit one streetfood market in Bangkok, make it Nang Loeng.
Bangkok’s streetfood scene is said to have started in Chinatown and there’s certainly plenty to see here. The main drag is stuffed with stalls spilling onto the street and back into alleyways. This is where you’ll find most of the tourists, with the vendors upping the drama and theatre to fulfil their desires. Expect to see flamboyant chefs tossing the contents of their woks over powerful flames, and all manner of skewered beasties on the grill to challenge braver visitors. While I didn’t partake in the food this time, there’s plenty to photograph and it’s well worth a visit for street snaps.
There’s no trick to capturing the flames in shots like these, although I did boost the exposure compensation by 0.3EV to ensure the bright flames didn’t fool the metering into under-exposure. It’s really more about finding a good angle – I favour a jaunty diagonal here – and timing the shot when the pan is lifted and the flames burst free.
While it’s hustle and bustle for the tourists, many of the locals are simply relaxing between jobs. One of my favourite shots was this one of a Tuk Tuk driver waiting for a fare as hoards of visitors passed by. I shot this with the Sony A6500 and 18-105mm at a 57mm equivalent, repositioning the focusing area over the driver’s face and relying on Aperture Priority in Auto ISO to balance the exposure.
Here’s a selection of other images from around Chinatown, Bangkok.
Thailand had certainly changed in the 20 years since my first visit: it felt less dirty and more refined, with fewer backpackers and more resorts. In short it had gone upmarket, inevitably becoming more exclusive and less exciting for this traveller. But I still didn’t need to walk far to find myself in less visited areas, eating some of the best streetfood I’ve tasted alongside some of the friendliest locals around. I highly recommend a visit and would return in an instant.
As for the cameras I shot with, I remain convinced mirrorless and premium compacts are ideal travel companions, the former providing the quality and flexibility of a DSLR without the bulk and the latter offering a significant step-up in quality and control over a smartphone while still squeezing into a pocket. The supremely quick focusing of Sony’s A6500 responded effortlessly to spontaneous opportunities on the street, while the RX100 V was small, discreet and far more confident than my phone in low light. Both performed admirably and I’d be happy to take them travelling again. See my Sony A6500 review and Sony RX100 V review for more details.Check prices at Amazon, B&H, Adorama, eBay or Wex. Alternatively get yourself a copy of my In Camera book, an official Cameralabs T-shirt or mug, or treat me to a coffee! Thanks!