Fat Rice & chicken (kao mun gai) is one of the most common and traditional meals throughout The Kingdom. My favorite rice & chicken eatery is in Old Chiang Mai. (see video below) This restaurant is always hustling and bustling. But White people don’t eat there, just Thais.
From inside the restaurant, you can watch the farangs walk by. (Chiang Mai is swamped with White people.) The white tourists are unaware that they’re even walking past an eatery that the locals consider one of the best rice & chicken places in Chiang Mai. A few farangs stop briefly to look inside, but quickly continue walking.
The white tourist sees only Thai faces eating there; plucked chickens hanging upside down where the food is prepared; chalkboard menus only in Thai; and an eatery looking dingy and “dirty” to their white eyes. The farang tourists (or at least those who even noticed the restaurant) quickly conclude that this eatery isn’t for them. Thais only. A cultural chasm opens before them.
I find this behavior quizzical. If you ask a white tourist if they’d like to eat traditional Thai food – the same food that Thais eat – they’d say “of course”. If you ask them if they’d enjoy dining in an old-style manner, they’d say “absolutely”. If you ask them if they’d like to pay $1 for lunch, they’d say “great”!
But tourists don’t eat at Kao Mun Gai in Chiang Mai even though they’ve traveled half-way round the world to get here. They want a place where other tourists eat. A place that has English menus and Westernized Thai food. A place that fits with their notion of restaurant cleanliness. A place where the mung bean sauce isn’t ladled out of a pink plastic bucket. A place where East meets West and the West wins.
It took me years to cross the great Siamese cultural chasm. And of course, I have a Thai wife and family that dragged me kicking and screaming across. But the casual white-farang tourist doesn’t have 10 years to acclimate herself to Thai life, nor a Thai family. So what’s the best way to deal with this cultural chasm? Simply realizing it exists is the first step.
Three tips for eating at traditional Thai eateries
1. When you see a Thai restaurant where lots of Thai people are eating, you’ve probably found a Thai restaurant that serves good Thai food.
2. Go take a look at the Thai food. See what’s cooking. Literally sniff around. Traditional Thai restaurants often prepare the food at the front of the restaurant in an open area where you can see the food being prepared and cooked.
3. If the food, preparation and cooking are to your liking, then get some. Communicate with your hands or whatever gets the job done. Point a lot and nod your head in agreement. Smile. Throw out a few Thai words that you know. You don’t have to speak or read Thai to order your food.