Visiting Thailand is like waking up in an Instagram filter. Think Mayfair or Valencia, one of the ones that take your colors and amplifies them to 11.
If Scandinavia is all clean lines and neutrals, then Thailand is an explosion of curves and gilding. Everywhere you turn there are things to see and smell and taste: pink tuk-tuks, red lanterns, yellow chrysanthemums, a jumble of neon signs, bananas, green mango, orange papaya, candied water chestnuts on ice, pad thai heavy and rich with tamarind.
There are hundreds of places to visit in Thailand, but the two most popular are the capital city of Bangkok and the islands of Phuket. Millions of people visit each year to swim in blue-green waters, visit centuries-old temples, and — of course — devour plates full of what’s become some of the world’s favorite cuisine.
People fall in love with Thai food because it’s fundamentally different from the fare we typically find in America or Western Europe. Instead of moving toward one unified flavor — like the mix of tastes in spaghetti sauce, say, or the salt and umami of a cheeseburger — good Thai food is about balancing five disparate tastes on the tongue at the same time. Dishes can be a tongue-tying mix of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter all at once, complex and genuinely fun to eat.
It could take a lifetime to taste everything Bangkok and Phuket have to offer. But if you only have a few days, below are a few must-try places for authentic, fantastic Thai cuisine.
Away from the hustle of the city lies Sri Panwa, a resort headed by 34-year-old wunderkind Wan Issara. Wan’s commitment to charming, creative comfort food can be found throughout the facility: decadent morning glory tempura, tom yum pizza, long icy sake, and watermelon cocktails.
Sri Panwa’s Baba Soul Food restaurant is beautifully appointed and remarkably unfussy. This is also how the resort does Thai home cooking, full of hearty soups and curries and deep-fried nibbles. Save room for the blistering “Hell Chicken,” and polish off your meal with a scoop of soothing homemade ice cream.
Phuket locals know Madame Rose and her decades-old restaurant — the old Portuguese building holds court downtown, and she holds court at the front of the restaurant, greeting everyone as they come for the best traditional cooking in town.
Her signature dish is her yellow crab curry, but don’t miss the whole red snapper in garlic or the sator beans with shrimp and peppers. A vegetable uncommon outside Southeast Asia, these huge, fluorescent edibles also go by a more evocative name: “stink beans.”
This small Thai-owned chain has been serving up plates for more than 40 years. The name means “eat,” but in royal language — the type of word you’d use to address the king.
Tall glasses of cold Singha beer are perfect for a lunch or dinner spent tearing through Savoey’s menu of classic Thai foods. Shrimp cakes with plum sauce are on offer for the kids, while adults can tuck into more complex dishes like squid with salted egg or sour-salty-spicy po tak, a seafood soup with mussels and shrimp.
Pad Thai is the only food on offer in this Saochingcha institution, but that doesn’t stop people from lining up across the block to get it. A tiny restaurant that cooks all its food in the open air, Lueng Pha is the place to go for pad Thai as it’s meant to be: sweet, salty, and sour all at once.
Spring for the deluxe version (which is less than $5) and you’ll get your bright-orange noodles wrapped in an omelette before the whole mess is slid onto your plate. It’s a perfect little parcel of tamarind, shrimp fat, egg, and rice noodle — an unforgettable combination.
Likit Gai Yang
Right next to Rajadamnern Stadium is an unassuming storefront, all linoleum tiles and plastic plates. But this is Likit Gai Yang, a grilled chicken restaurant so good that Anthony Bourdain made a pit stop there on his No Reservations tour of the city.
Stick with the basics: tender barbecued chicken, gently charred; hot and sour tom yum soup; perfect little square boxes of white rice. Feel free to pick up the rice with your fingers, forming ping-pong-sized balls that you can dip into whatever sauce or soup or scraps catch your fancy.