Is it safe to eat from roadside vendors in Thailand? That’s one of the questions I asked when I first came here. Like many things in Thailand, the answer isn’t as straight forward as it might at first appear. I wasn’t very adventurous when I first came to Thailand and was always worried about eating from street vendors. Looking back I was overly cautious, but there’s obviously a balance needed as not everybody will immediately adapt to the food.
The popularity rule
If the local noodle vendor has a long line of Thai customers waiting every lunch-time, then it’s a reasonably safe bet that both the food and the hygiene are good. If you are gently weaning your stomach to get used to Thai food and roadside stalls then I think it is good advice to seek out the popular places first.
Freshly prepared food
Many Thai dishes are cooked to order while you wait which means it is going to be fresher and can be eaten with reasonable confidence. By the same token, there are also roadside stalls where the food has been lying around in the sun for the past few hours with flies buzzing around it. I know which one I choose.
Up to you
Much will depend on the individual and how well their own system can cope with unfamiliar foods. I still find some foods upset my stomach, although less so than when I first came to Thailand. You will soon know what your system can or can not take so it’s up to you how adventurous you want to be. One of the best things about buying food from vendors is that it’s cheap. If you do try something that you don’t like, you’ve only spent 20 or 30 Baht to find it out.
I’ve had some really excellent food from beach vendors (see the lady in the picture from Phra Nang beach, Krabi) and I’ve also had food which has been below average from other vendors. Although it is a lot spicier, freshly prepared som tam may be a safer option than those spring rolls that have been lying around in the sun for 5 hours. I’ve had one experience of not being well after eating from a beach vendor and even then I don’t think it was the food. On that occasion I think it was not drinking enough water that made me unwell.
Thailand has some excellent street food and I think you do miss out on so much if you don’t try it during your stay here because food and eating are so embedded in Thai culture. Some of the most memorable experiences I have had in Thailand involve the hospitality and characters experienced at little roadside stalls with no other foreigners around.