Thai cuisine is regularly regarded as boasting some of the finest combinations of fiery flavours of any country on the planet. In fact, when chef, author and intrepid traveller Anthony Bourdain tasted Thai cooking for the first time, he remarked: “It was like discovering a colour I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colours.” High praise indeed, which makes it no surprise that Bourdain frequently returned to the country to fill up on its delicious delicacies and mouth-searingly spicy dishes, filming no fewer than four episodes of culinary travel programmes there.
His first visit came in 2003 in the 11th episode of the second season of his debut television show, A Cook’s Tour, when he spent several days soaking up the irresistible aromas and flavours of northern Thai cooking in Chiang Mai. He would return to Thailand in the last episode of that same season, filling an eight-hour layover in Bangkok with as many food stalls, freaky fancies and exotic specialties as he could. Six years later, Anthony Bourdain’s Bangkok adventure would continue with a return to the capital for an extended shoot for episode 16 of season five of No Reservations, before coming back one last time to Chiang Mai in 2014 for episode eight of season three of Parts Unknown.
Over those four episodes, Bourdain got holed up in his hotel during political riots, gate-crashed a family get-together in the backwater boondocks in the north of the country, partook of local traditions by receiving a Sak Yan tattoo, was attacked and shaken down for any spare fruits by a mob of monkeys, kissed a ladyboy square on the lips and, needless to say, dined out at a wide variety of restaurants, shacks, food stalls and hugely hospitable homes. For those looking to beat the same path on their next sojourn to the country, here’s a rundown of Anthony Bourdain’s Thailand route.
45 Kotchasarn Road
His first stop is Aroon Rai, located right alongside the Old City canal. Here, he tucks into a simple dish of plain, sticky rice accompanied by a pulverised shrimp paste packing a hotter punch than a flaming boxing glove.
He follows that up with a whole, deep-fried mackerel that appears to have been cooked several days ago. Despite his years of training telling him he should steer clear, his intuition argues otherwise and he concedes that the days-old fish is the best thing he’s eaten so far.
Aroon Rai is within easy walking distance of most hotels in Chiang Mai and just a stone's throw from the Thapae Gate.
If you have reached a food coma already, you can either jump in a tuk tuk as Anthony Bourdain did or walk about 20 minutes down Loi Kroh Road to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. This bustling centre of food just east of the city has been serving up locals for around 500 years. Of course, today it's more modern but there is still a lot of Chiang Mai stables to try.
Bourdain wanders through the market to try poached bananas in syrup and a crispy banana roti filled with egg and covered with condensed milk and sugar.
59/3 Sri Poom Road
The next morning, Bourdain eschews the offer of a hotel breakfast in favour of something a little more authentic. He finds it in the shape of a Thai congee at Jok Sompet, comprised of pork meatballs, coconut and ginger, served in a thick rice porridge.
Jok Sompet is still as popular (and their morning jok congee just as good) today as it was all those years ago. Like many of Chiang Mai's restaurants and street stalls, it's not far from most of the hotels and just a short walk from the North Gate along the canal.
131/3 Mun Mueang Road
Next up, he has a hankering for a home-cooked meal, and so contacts a local guesthouse owner to cook him up something tasty. He hosts take him on a tour of a local food market and while it's unclear which it is in Chiang Mai, it's almost certainly Somphet Market just a ten-minute stroll from Jok Sompet.
The outcome? Bourdain enjoys a steaming hot bowl of tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup with prawns, followed by a gaeng kiew wan, a Thai green chicken curry with coconut-based curry.
169 Ratchapakhinai Road
Bourdain's insatiable appetite leads him to a small roadside stand doing sai oua, a type of Northern Thai grilled pork sausage made with lemongrass, galangal ginger and herbs.
The stall no longer seems to exist, but fear not because if you head north to Thanin Market (around 10 metres by tuk tuk), you can eat the best sai oua in Chiang Mai. When you enter the market, head to the west side and look for the unnamed stall that solely sells grilled sai oua, you can't miss it.
Mae Taeng District
Having given Chiang Mai’s culinary catalogue a thorough flick-through, Bourdain then decides it’s time to stray off the beaten path.
Heading to the tiny village of Ban Mueang Kuat around 65 miles north of the city, Bourdain crashes a local celebration and manages to convince his gracious hosts to include him in the forthcoming feast.
This time, it’s a sit-on-the-floor affair with a myriad of different dishes on offer, including chicken soup filled out with veggies, fried pork rinds, mangosteen, salads, dips and, the centrepiece, water buffalo meat, served cooked and sliced or as a spicy tartare. Recreating this particular experience might be a little tricky, but you shouldn’t fail to find water buffalo on the menu if you search hard enough.
Charoen Prathet Road
There’s still time for one last meal before the end of the first Anthony Bourdain Chiang Mai episode, so back in the city, he consults the locals for advice. Specifically, he places his faith in his tuk-tuk driver, who takes him to a small locale where he and the other chauffeurs regularly eat, Rot Nueng.
Bourdain orders fresh noodles with wonton, but soon has his head turned by the driver’s choice of a noodle dish containing fish balls, fish sausage and all manner of other fishy accoutrements, accompanied by the usual condiments of fish sauce and white pepper. It’s these additions which make the meal, according to Bourdain, so don’t forego them on your visit.
If you need to end the night Bourdain-style, try the nearby Boy Blues bar which has live music every night of the week and is just a short stroll from Rot Nueng Noodle Shop.
45/1 Sukhumvit Road
The tuk-tuk recommendation might close out Anthony Bourdain’s Thailand episode for now, but it’s not long before he’s back. In fact, just two episodes later, the man returns, this time looking to make the most of an eight-hour layover in the Thai capital.
Conscious of his small window of time, he enlists the help of ex-pat and well-known author of Strange Foods, Jerry Hopkins, who’s been living in Thailand for the best part of a decade. At Hopkins’ suggestion, the pair head to a restaurant to try out some of the lesser known Laos delicacies. It's a little unclear which restaurant they visit, but it was most likely the Lao Garden on Sukhumvit Road.
The meal includes anchovies that have been salted and tossed into a ceramic jar for three months to a year. After they’ve rotted to just the right degree, it’s time to whip off the lid, serve them up with some vegetables and voila! We have pla ra. Sound disgusting? Bourdain thinks so too, but he’s not about to turn his nose up at anything, and wolfs the dish down with relish.
That’s followed up with some dried frog skins that are salted and fried, then served as crunchy nacho-like snacks. With French blood in his veins, Bourdain confesses he’s a big fan of the frog and gorges himself on them, before realising it’s time to move on and make the most of his short time here.
89 Sukhumvit 24 Alley
The next stop is a supermarket-restaurant-casino recommended by Hopkins with the name: “If it swims, we have it!”. Keen to take advantage of their eclectic menu, Bourdain loads up his trolley with a veritable banquet of local grouper, freshwater prawns, chilli crab and baby clams. The beauty of this unusual spot is that the staff allow you to specify how you would like everything cooked, offering maximum customisability to cater for all tastes.
Unfortunately, the Seafood Market and Restaurant is now permanently closed.
Then, just before it’s time to board his plane again, there’s still room for a bag of deep-fried insects from a roadside stall, followed by a coffee, shisha pipe and sweet raisin cake at a tranquil Egyptian café in the Arab quarter of the city. While it looks as though the same shisha bar still exists, there are plenty more places along Soi Arab in Bangkok.
1391 Charoen Krung Road
Of course, the man was always going to return for a longer run in the capital, and Anthony Bourdain’s Bangkok exploration continues in 2009 when he filmed a full episode on the city’s streets.
Unfortunately for him, those streets were not the safest place to be at that time given the country’s ongoing political struggles, but nonetheless Bourdain still manages to fit in a fair few mouth-watering meals and adrenaline-raising excursions.
His first meal is a simple breakfast gruel comprised of soft-boiled eggs and miscellaneous pig parts at Jok Prince. Despite its simplicity, Bourdain maintains that the Thais know how to do breakfast much better than his countrymen.
Despite the turmoil, celebrations for Songkran (Thai New Year) continue unimpeded, with children and adults of all ages taking the opportunity to drench each other with super-soakers, water pistols and balloons filled with H20 for the mother of all water fights. If you want to get involved on your visit to Thailand, make sure to plan your dates around the 13th to the 16th April when it runs. After becoming so saturated his “nipples are hard enough to dial a phone”, Bourdain makes a break for the countryside. Specifically, his target is Samut Songkhram, a small province on the Gulf of Thailand.
En route, he and his guide head to Ban Leam train station, a sleepy transit hub south west of Bangkok, to wait for a locomotive to Maeklong that, his fellow passengers inform him, is invariably late.
While waiting for his carriage to arrive, Bourdain indulges in a bowl of noodles, accompanied by fish balls, sliced pork, bean sprouts, crunchy wonton and, of course, the ubiquitous condiments. While slurping contentedly on their meals, they’re joined by an elderly Thai lady, who shares her favourite dish from the country: a spicy mixed salad called ruam mit. Filing that away in his memory, Bourdain vows to try it later on.
Once the train finally arrives, Bourdain, guide and crew pile on, only to find it has just two carriages and an uncomfortably abundant number of passengers. He’s also amazed to learn that it drives right through the centre of a rural marketplace, which must hastily rearrange its stalls before and after the train passes by.
Having finally arrived at Maeklong, the gang then hop aboard a small speedboat and make for a nearby mud beach where they can collect cockles. A gang of merciless monkeys waylay them en route, plundering all their edibles, while the elements upset their party after gathering the cockles themselves. Though they arrive at a diminutive shack on stilts in the open sea, choppy waves and inclement weather mean they turn back almost immediately. Perhaps this is one part of the itinerary that doesn’t come so highly recommended.
Not to worry, though, because back on dry land, they happen across the Amphawa market, where Bourdain handily remembers the tip from his aged friend at the train station.
With a name that translates as “everything mixed together”, the salad consists of barbecued pork, mussels, mushrooms, fish sauce, crab juice, syrup, spring onions, chilli, vegetables and chicken feet. Accompanied by the cockles, Bourdain is truly content, asking the question: “Why would you ever eat in a restaurant when you can just kind of sit here and eat like this?” Why indeed.
Chim Phli Road
After that slightly failed sojourn to the country, Anthony Bourdain’s Bangkok escapade continues with a reunion with his writer friend Hopkins, who this time takes him to Taling Chan Floating Market.
Here, the pair dine on a whole snakehead fish that has been stuffed with herbs, rolled in salt and grilled over an open flame. An invasive species in the USA, Bourdain comments on how tasty the snakehead is – and how he had no idea before trying it.
85-89 Yaowarat Road
Later, he meets up with local celebrity chef McDang, who feeds him a street sausage (there’s that addiction again) made of pork, pepper, ginger and salt, before taking him to Tang Jai Yu to try a Hong Kong-style suckling pig. After eating the pig’s crunchy skin, the meat is grilled and served to them alongside a range of veggies and dips.
31, 1 Phaniang Road
The last stop on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Bangkok adventure sees him reunite with Eric Rivera, a Muay Thai boxer who auditioned to accompany Bourdain on his travels in 2008.
In preparation for a big bout against a much more experienced fighter, Rivera takes our host to eat gai yang (chicken grilled with coriander and white pepper) and a papaya salad which packs plenty of heat.
After a commendable loss in the fight, Bourdain, River and his opponent all tuck into a massaman curry, with lemongrass, pork, mackerel, cumin, garlic and chilis, as well as a creamy coconut curry with frog.
32 Moo 3
But wait, there’s more! Just when you thought Anthony Bourdain’s Chiang Mai exploits had come to an end, he revisits the city in 2014 to hook up with restauranteur Andy Ricker, who’s something of a specialist when it comes to Thai cuisine.
Perhaps due to Ricker’s influence, this episode promises to be far more whisky-sodden than any of the previous ones, with things kicking off at a distillery in Ban Mai. Armed with that Dutch courage, they head off to try some truly outlandish dishes.
There are few things which you can put on a menu and unnerve Anthony Bourdain. Blood soup in Thailand – where the liquid is not even cooked before being served – might just be one of them. Accompanying this exquisite delicacy is grilled pig tail and minced pig brain. Yum!
While Bourdain is initially sceptical, claiming that he’s “eating from an open wound,” one mouthful is all it takes to elicit an “Actually, this is delicious.” Maybe it’s the fact that the chef has been preparing her luu (Anthony Bourdain’s blood soup in Thailand) for well over a decade, perhaps it’s the unique mix of flavours brought to the dish, or perhaps it’s the copious amounts of beer and rice whiskey he’s put away over the course of the meal, but Bourdain proclaims the gory feast “the best meal I’ve had in Thailand – ever.” Give it a try yourself if you think you’re brave enough.
Nong Pa Khrang
Thankfully for TV host and viewer alike, the next few meals are positively tame by comparison. Bourdain and Ricker head to the low-key roadside restaurant of Laap Khao Cham Chaa to share a meal of one of northern Thailand’s specialties: larb. Unofficially the national dish of Laos, the Thai version of this meat salad is less sour than its better-known counterparts.
80/1 Sirinthorn Road
After some heavy drinking accompanied by spicy yam salad and French fries at a secret roadside karaoke outside of Chiang Mai, the pair return to the city to visit Soom Sien Bar. Grilled pork intestines is paired with a lot of ya dong (rice whisky infused with herbs) and Thai whiskey (which Ricker points out is actually a type of rum).
Chang Phueak Market
Elsewhere, the team swing by the so-called Cowboy Hat Lady at the Chang Phueak Night Market, where they try khao kha muu (stewed pork leg with rice). If you're only going to do one thing on this list of haunts visited by Bourdain and Ricker, make it this. It's one of the first stops on our Chiang Mai food tour.
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Next stop is at Gai Tod Teing Keun, often called Midnight Chicken, where they try the house special gai tod fried chicken, nam prik num and nam prik ta deang chilli dips, kai tom boiled egg and sai oua Northern Thai lemongrass sausage. It's an easy spot to find just a short walk from the bars along Loi Kroh Road.
Chareonprathet Lane 8 Alley
Does the night end there? No way. In a haze of beer and Thai whiskey, they end up at the Chiang Mai Cabaret Show. Here, the pair imbibe more alcoholic delights and are accosted by some of the showgirls, one of whom plants quite the smacker on Bourdain. Play your cards right and you might be able to follow in his footsteps here, too.
1001, Chiang Mai-Mae Jo Road
For one last eat of the night, the pair head to the popular restaurant of Raan Kaphrao Samrap Khon Chawp Kin Phet to have a trio of spicy dishes that’ll be sure to set your split ends on fire.
The menu consists of pad khii mao moo (drunken noodles), krapao gai (spicy basil chicken) and pad cha ta-le (sizzling seafood stir fry). Given that the restaurant’s name loosely translates to “Holy basil shop for people who eat spice”, you can expect some firepower.
352/22 Chareonrat Road
Mere mortals might be forgiven for taking the following day off after such a heavy night on the booze – but not Anthony Bourdain. To soak up last night's booze and try to cure his handover, he heads to Khao Soi Lam Duan for a bowl of Chiang Mai's most beloved dish - khao soi - a type of coconut and noodle chicken curry along with a spicy som tum papaya salad and Thai iced tea.
Mae Yoi Intersection
During the second evening, Bourdain meets Ricker again to visit Pa Daeng Jin Tup north east of the city way they try a local favourite - hammered meat.
As the name suggests, pork and beef is charcoal grilled before being 'hammered' into a stringy texture best eaten with the spicy chilli and galangal dip and more Sangsom. If that doesn't cure the hangover, the buffalo tendon and bile stew will surely do the job.
Along his travels, Bourdain learns that instead of greeting each other with a “Hey!” or “How are you?”, many Thais open a conversation by asking “Have you eaten yet?”.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to understand how food is such a fundamental facet of everyday life over there – and it should certainly comprise an integral part of your Thai experience. Whether it’s inviting the attentions of a cabaret act, getting a ringside seat for a Muay Thai bout or eating something you’d never dream of putting in your mouth at home, the best approach to visiting this incredible country is one which Bourdain himself advocated – embracing each opportunity presented with open arms.
Still confused about where to eat in Thailand? You could always hop on this Chiang Mai food tour or Bangkok food tour to discover the best things to eat in Thailand with the help of an expert local guides. You won't regret it.
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