Known for rock-bottom eating expenses, most visitors to Thailand nevertheless overspend on food, but in Chiang Mai, deals are just around every corner. The more adventurous traveler who seeks a more authentic Thai experience or wants to make his/her travel money go even further can find cheaper, and often tastier, alternatives if they know what to look for. Many other long-term visitors are baffled when I tell them of my favorite venues, where I get a huge plate of yellow rice with fried chicken, a cup of fish soup, half of a sliced cucumber, and ice water for 50 baht (1.43 USD). And that is on one of the most Westernized islands in Thailand!
In Chiang Mai, it gets even better. There is no reason why you cannot eat a full meal for 30 baht (86 cents) in this town, but I have also managed to hunt down places where you can eat a full meal with ice water included for 10 baht (10 cents) or get noodle soup for 3 baht (9 cents)!
After living here for eight and a half months, I have come up with these ten tips:
1: Take a Hike–
Forgo the motorbike or tuk tuk your first day or two in a new location. Skip the taxis and walk. This slows you down and gives you a feel for the place like no motorized transport ever can. The cheap eateries are often barely noticeable, as they are often in people’s homes, and signs which whizzed by on the bike are attention grabbers at a walking pace. Whoah–noodle soup for 20 baht! Know your surroundings, and you will know how to best take advantage of them.
2. Avoid the Tourist Traps–
This should go without saying, but most people are too tempted by the wide array of options in the main tourist junctions to bother venturing beyond the action. Even in chaotic Bangkok, all one has to do is walk one block either direction from Khao San Road to find delicious meals for around 30 baht and walk away full (free water or iced tea included). Did you come to Thailand to eat Thai food or hamburgers and pasta?
3. Don’t Judge a Book by…
Yawn. That age old adage once again…If you have heard it once…Ahem. Anyhow, it rings true yet again. In Thailand, the extra dollar or two in pricier restaurants is usually a reflection of increased decor rather than increased quality. In fact, the vice versa is sometimes a better rule of thumb. When you pay more, you are paying for ambience. That’s is great if this is what you want, but if you are looking for better food at lower prices, look for establishments with the bare necessities. Plastic furniture that doesn’t match. An absence of music. An antique television set blaring Thai soap operas. Hokey thrown-together decor. Many of these places are just extensions of the Thai entrepreneur’s home, and dining there will give you a much closer look at Thai culture.
4. You Just Can’t Beat the Streets–
The entire world over you will find open-air street food, and it is usually the best value in any given area. This is particularly true in Southeast Asia. Sometimes you will find the usual collection of plastic furniture out front and full service, but often you will just get a small, disposable dish or be expected to eat out of a plastic bag. If it is close enough to finger food, I tell them to save the plastic and eat it out of my hands, but of course it depends on if I’m eating a piece of barbecued chicken or chicken curry.
5. Forage at the Food Markets–
Chiang Mai’s cheapest venues offer an amazing culinary adventure, and the markets are a revelation to anyone who has never had the pleasure. Pick your way through the various stalls, sampling new dishes, or hit the collection of cheap roadside eateries which often accompany traditional markets. My favorite part about the markets is they stay open until the early hours of the morning, so if I am on my way back from the disco I can stop and fill up. I’ll tell you what–it’s a lot better than pulling through the late-night Burger King drive-throughs in America…The best Chiang Mai deals are found in the marketplaces.
6. Compare Prices–
Do not be shy about walking in to a restaurant, browsing the menu, and then leaving. Thais appreciate competition. If you feel guilty, simply smile and say, “Pop kan mai (see you again).” Do this on your walking tours to get a grasp of the local prices and to see what your options are.
7. Be Adventurous–
Try new things, even if they scare you. You might be surprised. Many foods which seem alien to Westerners will be cheap because tourists avoid them. Also, reconsider your notion of cleanliness. In your home country clean may mean pretty, but, to Thais, clean is simply clean. If a lot of people are eating there, you can rest assured the food is likely safe. Don’t blame me if you get Bangkok belly–it is going to happen to you whether you follow my advice or not. Stomach problems in Thailand are an initiation every Westerner experiences, but it is far more often the result of bacteria or spices your body is not used to rather than sanitation issues. Don’t worry. 🙂
8. When in Rome…
Ah! Not another cliché…Go where the locals go! This is probably the most important, and most often overlooked, guideline to eating cheaply. Many of the local Thais are living on less 10,000 baht or less a month, and even those with more money naturally seek out the best food at the lowest prices. If I want to find a new place to eat with delicious and sanitary food, I just drive around and look for a small crowd of Thai people eating outside, but it is even better if you have a Thai friend from Chiang Mai to show you around.
9. Speak Thai–
In Thailand, there is almost always a Thai price and a “farang” price. No matter how long you stay, this will apply to you as well–you will never “become” Thai in any sense. However, open up to people and try to speak their language and you may often receive a discounted price or larger portions, especially if you’re a regular customer. One time at the Chiang Mai Aquarium, I received a major discount off the stated entrance fee after attempting broken Thai. “Raakha thourai (how much)?” I repeated, thinking I had misunderstood. “Speak Thai–get Thai price,” the young girl said with a smile.
10. Manipulate the Menu–
Do you really have to eat meat with EVERY dish? I opted for a pad thai with vegetable instead of with chicken one time, and it was topped with an omelette so big it covered the entire dish to compensate (not exactly vegetarian, afterall lol). It ended up being one of the best pad thais I’ve ever had. Do they offer special dishes served on rice for individuals (always a fantastic bargain)? Sometimes, there is no apparent price motive between different dishes, and the reasoning is a mystery. If you are on a budget, choose wisely. Let’s face it-everything on the menu is delicious!
And one more, just for good measure…
11: Eat with the Thais–
Though you should never purposely take advantage of this, Thais are some of the most generous people in the world. Stumble upon a Thai party and you will be ushered into a chair to be force-fed Thai whiskey and delicious food, even if you have no reason to be there. Say you are full and you’re plate will be repeatedly refilled. If this happens to you, DO NOT offer to pay. It would be an insult, although, if you accompany less well-off Thais to a restaurant you are expected to pay. One night, while waiting to catch the morning boat across the river to Laos, I crashed a Teacher’s Cub karaoke party and ended up buddying up with the school director. We got wasted, sang “Stand by Me” for the crowd, and he invited me to come stay with his family for an extended period. If you really get in well with Thais you may have the pleasure to attend a delicious Thai home BBQ. Bring a bottle or two of beer. If you are settling in for the long-term, you may even end up throwing a few of these at your place. Not to worry–there are plenty of places to purchase heaps of cheap meat and vegetables.
In Chiang Mai, deals are not hard to come by, no matter what kind of bargain you are looking for. Even if you prefer fine dining, classy clubs, and luxury hotels, you will surely find a value that far exceeds the money you spend.
Chok dee khrab!