For those dreaming of a cuisine and culture immersed getaway, Thailand is an excellent destination choice. With contrasting regional flavors, opportunities to get off the beaten path, interesting booze experiences and many chances to have adventures it’s definitely a place to add to your bucket list. Not sure where to begin? Epicure & Culture caught up with expat and Live Less Ordinary editor Allan Wilson for the full scoop on exploring Thailand culture.
1. Please tell us a bit about your experience traveling in Thailand. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences have you had, thus far?
In the past 10 years I’ve covered a fair bit of travel and Bangkok, Thailand is actually where I live now. I am based here for travel and I’ve owned property in the city since 2008. My wife Fanfan is also Thai. We married in Ubud, Bali, last April and she joins me on my travels. Some of our more recent adventures in Thailand were last week where we covered the islands in Trat Province; Koh Chang, Koh Maak and Koh Kood. Again later this month, when I return from the water festival in Myanmar (Burma) we will be navigating the smaller islands around Phuket.
2. What’s one attraction or experience in Thailand you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?
Walk down backstreets, eat in shop house restaurants and feast on street food. Often the simple local experiences are the one’s which are overlooked in guidebooks. Also ‘people watching’ is my main reasons for travel. I sit in a park or at a road junction and just watch local life pass by.
3. For those wanting to experience local Thai culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?
My recommendation would be boozing with locals; my favorite local route being Yaa Dong, a mixture of potent rice wine (moonshine) with ‘health enhancing’ herbs. You’ll find Yaa Dong stands dotted throughout Bangkok and Thailand and they are a favourite with local laborers. Great thing is that few travelers or expats approach them, so when you do, you’re guaranteed a happy welcome. They’ll share booze, maybe some bites and egg you on to get smashed. Great fun and costs next to nothing.
4. No trip to Thailand would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, what would you recommend they try?
Always Isaan food, a food I’m obsessed with and probably the most underrated of Thai foods globally. Isaan food comes from the Northeastern regions of Thailand and brings a tasty selection of barbecued meats, fiery salads, all scoffed down with fresh herbs and sticky rice. Being less popular with visitors means it is rarely blanded for ‘tourist tastes’ and makes for a more authentic eating experience. A couple of the more popular dishes would be variations of Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam Korat) or the minced pork salad (Laab Mooh).
5. Thailand is also known for its “unusual food fare,” at least for westerners. What was one of your most unusual meals and what was it like?
To be honest I generally avoid the “unusual food fare.” There’s so much amazing food in Thailand that weird stuff comes way down in my eating order. In normal foods, however, I would sometimes eat the less palatable entrails, maybe some blood, a popular pickled fish sauce called pla ra and I’m sure there’s a few more I don’t realize I’m eating. Booze, however, I can recommend lizard in moonshine. Otherwise I leave the bugs and insects for the passersby.
6. What are some of the regional differences you see in the food throughout Thailand?
I’ve found Chinese Yunnan food cultures in the far North of Thailand and Indian (Mamak) influences on the southern borders. The country is no doubt diverse in eating. The popular tourist menu — while only the start of food exploration in Thailand — is a good introduction and brings together many of the favorite foods from all regions. If I had to choose a selection from each region I would say from the North (called Lanna Food) definitely Khao Soi Curry and Sai Oua Sausage, from the South maybe Sataw ‘Stink Bean’ Curry and Sour Tom Sum Soup, then the Northeast (Isaan Food) Laab Moo pork salad and Isaan sausages.
7. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, what’s one etiquette rule they should remember to avoid offending locals?
Locals in Thailand are rarely offended, and even if you do fault on local etiquette they won’t hold it against you; ‘mai ben rai,’ it’s okay. Just join them with a smile and enjoy their company.
8. One of the great parts about traveling is interacting with locals. What was one of your most memorable local encounters when visiting Thailand?
There are too many to count. Likely the most memorable was in 2011 a friend of mine was ordained as a monk in his rural home town near the Thai / Cambodia border. I joined and was brought into the procession by the drunker of folk and forced to dance circles round the local temple in ceremony. The reason it was more memorable was my mum was visiting at the time and of course she was forced to do the same.
9. While most people have heard of Bangkok, what’s one lesser-known destination in Thailand you would recommend and why?
Why I love Thailand is for its diversity and deeply contrasting landscapes; white sand beaches and limestone karats in the South, and mountains and jungles up North. The popular expat haunts tend to be Chiang Mai up North. In the South the tourist island of Phuket, or maybe Koh Samui. If I had to choose only one lesser known destination, it would likely be Railay in the southern region of Krabi, a beautiful area which goes less noticed by the backpacker hordes in the area.
10. Are there any accommodations you’ve stayed in Thailand that helped introduce you to local culture that you would recommend to other travelers?
While I’ve never booked any myself I would definitely recommend homestays. I know by staying with friends and the in-laws that they are by far the more valuable of cultural experiences in Thailand and in travel in general.
Allan Wilson is a lifestyle, travel and food blogger living in Bangkok, Thailand. Originally from the UK he now lives as a gastro-tourist in Asia and much of his travels take in the region’s major cities tracking down the best street food, cheap eats and local restaurants. His adventures are shared with his wife Fanfan at Live Less Ordinary.