How to order food when you can’t speak Thai

by Yin Teing on September 30, 2009

When I first started to travel to Thailand alone, ordering food was a challenge- probably because I was a new and shy traveller. Years ago, before the airport shifted from Don Meung to Suvarnabhumi airport, I arrived Bangkok alone before transiting to other towns. And I seldom ate from Don Meung because I found the airport food to be very expensive.

From Don Meung, I would cross the overhead bridge to go opposite, put my luggage at the train station- paid about 80 baht for few hours. Then I would walk over to the roadside stall and eat there before talking a stroll at nearby streets.  The hawkers there could not speak English. I used to order from a lady when I was there- by pointing at the packet of Mama (instant noddles).  She actually sold noddle soup with meat, vegetables, eggs, etc. So she would use sign language and indicate if I would like to add vegetables, meat, eggs, etc.

When you are in Thailand and choose to eat hawker food, you can always communicate using polite sign language with a smile.  Thais are genuinely friendly people- if you do not appear to be arrogant, it’s likely that you will be treated with respect and courtesy. Sometimes, you may be surprised- some roadside peddlers can speak very good English- I’ve experienced that a few times- once, I was buying coffee from a roadside peddler near Mo Chit bus station- I had just taken the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and I was quite sleepy- and I was due to take the train to Butterworth from Bangkok on the same day. So I stopped by and bought coffee and this lady spoke such good English.

And so far, I hardly ate any food that give me stomach problems- it’s just that you have to know what it is that your stomach can eat and what you can’t. A lot of Thai food are either too spicy or they put glutonous rice/coconut milk in their desserts, or dishes. You may not eat this type of food often in your home country and may not know that your digestive system cannot take this- glutonous rice is harder to digest.  When in doubt, perhaps it is better not to take it.

Another option is to visit 7 Eleven- these 24 hour convenient store are available at most towns, and almost every nook and corner of Bangkok.  I notice that staff stationed at 7 Eleven at areas heavily populated by tourists normally can speak basic English. 7 Eleven sells hot meals like  instant noddles, burgers, dumplings and sausages aside from other things that a usual store sells.

Thaifoodcourt

Another option is to eat at food courts- almost every department store have them. Food courts usually operate using a prepaid card system. You pay a certain amount, example 100baht and will be given a card that is preloaded with 100baht .  Then you go around and see what food/drinks you want, and order it. The person will swipe your card and prepare your dish. After you finish eating, go back to the counter, give them back the card and the cashier will refund you the balance.  Some places like the huge food center in Suan Lum night bazaar - you have to buy paper coupons. And when you want the refund, you have to go to another different counter for refund- foreigners were often confused with the arrangement.

Some of my Thai friends rather take new to Thailand visitors to food court because they felt the food is more hygenically prepared- so the chances of the visitors getting food poisoning is less.  And visitors get an overall picture of how the local Thai food taste like, even though the taste’s very much watered down. Food from food centers will not taste as delicious as what you get from the markets or local restaurants. 

Thaifoodmarket

If you visit the local or night markets, there would be lots of different types of food being sold that you will be spoilt for choice. For the more adventurous, I would definitely recommend food from night markets- just observe the kind of food being prepared, and if you feel you like it, point at it and make a sign language to say how many of that you would like to buy. Sometimes, I just point at something that someone else ordered and the hawker would understand.

Therefore, it depends on your sense of adventure :)

Enjoy!

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{ 1 comment }

Thais September 30, 2009 at 10:13 pm

When you done. To ask for the bill, just say “Nong check bill”.

Nong means bros
“Check bill” is the way Thais ask for the bill.

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