Eating out in Thailand ranges from being ignored to receiving lots of help with your order. It is that extreme. On top of that, sometimes you are not sure how to order because each establishment has their own set of rules that you must intuit – or ask for divine intervention.
This post was inspired by Biscuits & Brioche’s A Snob’s Guide to Restauranting. I’m surprised that after all my years abroad I haven’t written about this. Then again, because it’s been sometimes embarrassing, frustrating, and I’ve gotten used to it, who wants to share those moments?
Thailand’s nickname is “The Land of Smiles”, but it’s unofficial one is TIT or “This is Thailand” as if to say, this is the way things are, shrug or laugh or scream, what are you going to do, nothing. Some restaurants are normal, you know, the wait staff approaches you with a menu or points to one on the wall. Other places, you sit down and are ignored until you get someone’s attention. I’ve seen this with all customers.
Funnily, there are times when the waiter or waitress only gives your table of five only one menu. Menus are precious and the common customer needs to be deemed worthy to touch it. Other menus are on slips of paper in a cup on the table, and you have check off what you want, and hand it to the staff. Or there are blank slips of paper and you have to write down what you want. But my favorite is when they give you a menu in English with higher prices than the Thai menu.
So, you can see, there’s a threshold that the foreigner must pass through which is why I completely understand why tourists and expats eat in places where there’s a shared dining culture, or set of similar rules that allow all of us to have a pleasant experience (aka feed me). I was with a friend many years ago in Chiang Mai, and we stumbled upon a restaurant, but couldn’t figure out how to order, it took some time, but eventually the staff understood we wanted to eat (as opposed to renting a boat or catching flies with chopsticks).
After we left he said, “I’m never going back to that place again.”
For me, I thought we “cracked it” so why not? But for him, he was so put off by the whole thing, he was still frustrated. To be fair though, there are plenty of times when you can be surprised by a waitress speaking English (Thais can be rather shy about using English), and asking you lots of curious questions. I think this is what most of us expect, but you can’t.
Thai cuisine is internationally famous, and you can tell what foreigners feel comfortable ordering because more touristy restaurants will know fried rice and pad Thai. In fact, there’s a popular Thai song that makes fun of this. We believe though that because we are in Thailand that all the food will be AMAZING. But that’s not always the case, you can get bad Thai food here, and often the cooks in the kitchen will change the taste to accommodate what they think foreigners like (i.e. less spicy).
Or if you say, you can eat spicy food, they might decide to “challenge” you and throw in as much chili peppers as they think you can possibly stomach. I accept the challenge and eat as much of it as I can, but usually I push aside the peppers, but those spices spread like an invisible virus. It feels personal until you talk to other foreigners who’ve had the same experience.
One of the adjustments that you get used to is food is served at different times at your table. It’s common to eat your entire meal before your friend receives theirs. So, those days of waiting for everyone to get their dish before you start? Yeah, out the window. I always insist friends eat their food while it’s hot.
It’s also commonplace to receive the wrong order, no matter how clearly you said it, or pointed or whatever, (yup TIT), it’s best to roll with it. I’ve eaten my fair share of things I didn’t order just for the sake of being pleasant and getting something in my belly.
Which reminds me, appetizers do not necessarily come first. In fact, it’s best if you plan on it not coming until after the main dishes.
Dry wall does not exist here, so prepare yourself for a lot of concrete. This can create horrible acoustics. Thais like to play (usually lame) covers of pop songs and/or very loud music at events. I’m convinced that the majority of the population is functionally deaf before 50.
Meh. If where you are dining has reservations, you’re probably eating at an establishment that will be used to foreigners, or what we consider a predicable experience. I’ve generally not had a problem with making reservations. (Now please prepare yourself for having problems with reservations…)
Extras / Ambiance
Oh, Thailand. You taught me so much. Eating out can be an adventure. You have to be up for it. I’m okay with walking in and making a fool of myself because I’ve lived here long enough. Sure, I’ve gotten angry, but that’s usually the hunger talking. I’ve walked out, too. Without a Thai boy/friend taking charge, we have to muddle through the process. My biggest cheat though is that the BF can read and write Thai. (My Middle-Earth Elvish doesn’t come in handy here.)
But these days, there are so many creative ways to get around the language barrier. First, you can look at what folks are eating around you. Second, you can learn a few dishes in Thai. (My vocab is the strongest regarding food.) Most places have photos. And even if they don’t, you’ve got your smart phone with photos that can help bridge the gap. I’ve seen travelers draw pictures, too. I’m sure I’m missing something though, what workarounds have you seen or done to order food in a different country?
// At food courts, you have to get a card in order to pay for your food. There are plenty of photos if there isn’t any English. You can do it. Very local.
// As a rule of thumb, we don’t eat food that has been sitting out. If it has, we take it home and nuke it.
// Sometimes they freak out when they hear you speaking English, so you have to wait until they get their English-speaking friend. It doesn’t matter if no language is necessary, you have to starve a little longer.
// I know you want to show off your mad chopsticks skills, but no one here uses them except with noodles with broth.
// Sometimes the silverware is already on the table in plastic or metal containers.
// Sometimes water is self-serve. Look around, you’ll find it.
// I like to quote my friend Lauren during her trip to India because it is so true, it’s funny. “Cleanliness is overrated.”
Generally though, ambiance can include the cook sneezing violently in the kitchen due to a cold or frying peppers. Lizards crawling around the lights at night. Loud motor vehicles driving by or belching exhaust. Sewage smells. Persistent mosquitoes or flies hanging around your table. Toilet paper “napkins”. Classic rock music. Friendly and attentive staff. Wonderful food. A super cheap (or damn reasonable) bill. Experiences that don’t feel like home, but an adventure.
What’s it like in your country, or what’s a memorable eating out story for you?