Exploring Bangkok’s culinary delights can be a little intimidating for first-time, or even third-time, visitors. Little English is spoken and hygiene standards at some food stalls can sometimes leave tummies feeling more upset than content.
Lifting the lid on “the real Bangkok”, the Anantara hotel group has started street food tours led by its hotel’s chief concierge, the jovial and food-obsessed Khun Chettha Khambunditkul, aka the “Streetwise Guru”. My husband and I meet Chettha, who hails from Thailand’s north-eastern state of Isaan, at busy Saphan Taksin pier one sunny July morning. Bounding off the Anantara Riverside Resort’s shuttle boat, he clutches our hands and sets the record straight: “First things first,” he says. “I’m not a guide. I’m your friend for the day.”
Now that’s sorted, we skirt the back of the pier and walk to Wat Yannawa, a 300-year-old Buddhist temple. For Thais, marginally more important than eating is praying, or at least asking the heavens for some good luck. Translated as “craft boat” after a life-size toy boat plonked in the temple’s grounds, Wat Yannawa is one of many temples belonging to Thailand’s royal family. Leaving our shoes at the door, we enter the garish, fluorescent-lit prayer hall lined with caskets of crystals, which Chettha tells me, with a wink, are fossilised monk bones. We buy candles and flower garlands from a stout shopkeeper and, on our haunches, place them at the altar – before the shopkeeper retrieves them to resell to the next worshipper. I marvel at her business skills and pay an elderly monk draped in marigold orange robes to bestow me such ingenuity as he splashes water from a holy drum.
For one last stroke of luck we head to the temple pier where a woman is selling baby eels, catfish and local river fish for devotees to release into the river. We purchase a baby catfish, for success with our new-found business skills and a river fish for health. Being holy waters and protected from fishing, there must be several hundred pudgy catfish, their eyes bulging and mouths gaping, swirling around the spot I want to throw in my fish. We buy pellets for the hungry hordes and slip our babies into the water further upstream. Think they will survive? I ask Chettha. He laughs. I guess not.
Next on the itinerary is a roadside cart selling takeaway iced tea, in this case a strong dash of tea with a liberal addition of sweetened condensed milk. The plump Chiang Rai lychees and the mangosteens we find next go down a treat. Legend says that Queen Victoria, besotted with the mangosteen’s delicately sweet centre, offered £100 to anyone who could deliver the fruit fresh to London; hence its nickname “the queen of fruits”.
This is all just a prelude, however, for the fried chicken dish we drive halfway across the city (a hair-raising tuk-tuk ride) to find. Working from a stainless-steel trolley shaded by an old beach umbrella in Pak Khlong Talaat, Bangkok’s central flower market, a mum-and-dad team dish up what may be the most extraordinary fried chicken in Thailand. Smothered in salty Thai spices and deep fried, the crunchy skin reveals a super succulent flesh on the bone. We devour a few sticks (20 baht each, or 60¢) while watching traffic zoom by, before heading to a herbal drinks stall to repent for our sins.
We trail the flower market, swooning over the cheap prices – three dozen China-red roses for 50 baht – before ducking through the quiet fabric market, Pahurat Talaat, otherwise known as Little India, and on to frenzied Sampeng Lane. Chettha tells me this is where Bangkok’s Indian and Chinese neighbourhoods meet. It’s a chaotic bustle of shoppers, cloth, plastics, dried fruit, men riding motorbikes, others pushing carts piled high with knick-knacks fresh off the manufacturing line, wind-up toys and the odd sweaty and bewildered tourist.
From Sampeng Lane we head to a local Isaan restaurant for lunch. Son Tam Ratchawon doesn’t have a street number, let alone a sign. That lack of advertising doesn’t stop hordes of diners flocking to its bare wooden tables to devour Isaan favourites such as salt-crusted barbecued fish and the raw papaya salad from which the restaurant takes its name, here laced with tarty pickled crabs.
We also order the unusual catfish laarp- a mushy concoction of the other Isaan staple, laarp- served with cooked catfish mixed with ground rice, chilli, shallots and fresh mint. Next up is a sensational nam tok moo: pork neck with laarp seasonings. The fatty pork neck is scooped up with balls of khao niaow, a glutinous sticky rice, then dipped into burnt chilli and tamarind.
Thailand’s predominantly rural north-eastern state gets a bad rap from many southern Thai people, who see its stagnant economy and quieter cities as less sophisticated. But on the origin of many street foods, most Thais, no matter their class or origin, agree on one thing: Isaan food rocks. We agree.
Anantara has three hotels in Bangkok. Rooms at the Riverside Resort and Spa cost from 4000 baht ($124); at the 425-room Sathorn hotel from 2700 baht with breakfast; at the city-central Baan Rajprasong from 5414 baht. All have free internet in public spaces. See anantara.com.
Anantara’s Streetwise Guru tours run every Thursday morning and cost 2000 baht a person; book a minimum of three days in advance. The tour is also open to non-hotel guests. See bangkok-riverside.anantara.com.