Bangkok is the world’s hot spot for delicious street food. While street food in other cities around the world may be constrained to a few areas of a given city, Bangkok’s food scene stretches across the limits of the city itself. Vendors range from people setting up blankets along the roadside, to funky and very cluttered shop houses, where generations of a family may have been hawking the same dish for decades.
If you’ve never been here before it’s easy to underestimate how much there really is to try. Each week we help visitors navigate the streets, introducing them to everything from exotic tropical fruit, to deciphering the different types of meat in a specialty bowl of street-side noodles.
We are approaching the one year anniversary of our Street Food 101 Tour and wanted to offer some tips on identifying the qualities of outstanding street food tours in Bangkok. Whether you roam the streets snacking with us, on your own, or decide to take another tour, we hope the following tips will help you have an adventurous, fun, and delicious street food adventure!
1) Off the Beaten Path, Dense Street Food
Let’s face it, Bangkok often tops the list of most visited cities in the world. With hotels and luxury condos occupying prime real estate, how can we also expect to find the best food in the city’s central business district? In fact, many of these areas (Sukhumvit, Silom, Chinatown, Khaosan Rd., and similar areas) were the topic of controversy when Bangkok’s city authorities began to crack down on illegal street food vendors in the past few years.
So there’s no coincidence that the further you are from your hotel, the better the street food is likely to become. Outside of the main downtown areas, street food still thrives, and large communities of the city’s working class people are dependent upon it. This is why it’s important to choose a tour that takes you to places you wouldn’t consider visiting on your own.
Great guides are never afraid to get lost, or wander with you into the labyrinth like shophouse alleys of old town, or graffiti’d streets in parts of the city you’ve never heard of before. Often the payoff for such misadventures is finding neighborhoods where the street food is not only delicious, but dense— meaning you have a great selection of dishes to try in a small area. Bring your camera, an adventurous appetite so you’re prepared to try something new, and be extra friendly incase people are curious to know how you found their local hotspot.
2) Interaction with Street Food Vendors
The ugly truth about street food is that it’s difficult, unstable work. The expectation that food is cheap, is at odds with constantly rising food prices, unpredictable monsoon weather, and inflation. Unfortunately in our enthusiasm for $1 goodies, we tend to glaze over the struggles of people who provide this awesome cuisine for us to enjoy.
For example, there is a woman in our nearby market who sells a flavor gushing betel leaf wrap (a Thai snack called miang kham). Often when we meet her on our tour she’s still wearing her maid uniform, meaning she’s worked all day before coming to the market to sell her delectables for another 4 hours, before she can rest. We love stopping by to support her, but want to go beyond just snacking and taking pictures alone. Each time we bring guests we include a tip, reminding her we aren’t only paying for the few bites of food, but for the opportunity to interact with her and experience one of Thai cuisine’s most unique dishes.
We should note that tipping is not normal in Thai culture and can lead to tension. A vendor may initially refuse your money, or think you’ve left it at the stall accidentally. This is where tour guides who have an ongoing relationship with the vendors is important, so they understand you love their food, and that you value them as well. We would all be wise to remember that lack of support for street food vendors locally, can also exacerbate the forces depreciating the quality of food on offer in Bangkok as well.
3) Wandering Bangkok’s Dizzying Local Markets
Bangkok has her eyes fixed on cosmopolitan grandeur, but her feet remain firmly rooted in the rich merchant heritage of the past. This is a contradiction found in the types of restaurants on offer, but also embodied by Thais raised in the city themselves. You could argue that the aforementioned ‘off the beaten path’ parts of Bangkok, are merely a network of wet markets, each the epicenter of local communities sprawling in every direction around them.
People depend on the wet markets to supply them with a constant supply of affordable fruit and vegetables grown in the neighboring provinces (often called Thailand’s bread basket). Other goods, such as fresh meat and seafood, coconut milk pressed before your eyes, and even factory fresh rice noodles that are mass produced and cut to order, are indispensable in each community. Without a doubt, the wealth of ingredients available in the local markets are the backbone of the incredible street food available in Bangkok, and you shouldn’t miss the chance to explore a market with this in mind.
Proximity to the market makes it easier for vendors who push their carts up and down busy streets, but is also important for larger operations of restauranteurs, and street food vendors who’ve evolved from push carts to open air shophouses. On our tour you may spot the uncle who owns the Southern Thai curry cart praying in front of the market for good sales, just as the evening rush begins. Nearby in another corner of the market, an auntie is single handedly frying, steaming, mixing up 3-5 dishes to sale at her small rice and curry stall. We stop by to get advance access to a few sample nibbles before she loads everything on her cart to sell. On our next stop we may plop down on flimsy plastic stools in a shop house
These experiences give you a wider cultural perspective on street food, tell why it’s invaluable to people of Bangkok, and will aid you in discovering and enjoying Bangkok’s best street food on a tour, or on your own.
We love social validation when we’re shopping. This goes for everything from taking a friend shopping when you’re feeling indecisive, to asking a friend their opinion on the charity you’re choosing to support. That’s why it’s a huge accomplishment that our Courageous Kitchen cooking class for tourists has surpassed 100 reviews on Airbnb Experiences. This is no easy accomplishment, and we’re proud to have garnered so many positives feedback in less than a year on the platform.
What is an Airbnb Social Impact Experience?
This past January we celebrated a year since the launch of our social enterprise offering cooking classes to travelers visiting Bangkok. As a new business, we really struggled during the first year to get new customers. Fortunately, we did have some success as one of the early experiences on the Airbnb marketplace called Airbnb Experiences. Most people know the company as an affordable way to find lodging when traveling, but they have recently begun offering other activities to travelers looking for things to do in new cities, including some with a significant social impact.
Without a doubt it can be hard to choose a cooking class in Bangkok. There are so many classes at different price levels and there are a variety of other online markets as well. This means when customers find our class highly recommended by Airbnb’s customers, they can expect our class is different from the run of the mill cooking classes offered by tour companies. In addition, as a recognized 501c3 in good standing, Airbnb collects no commission on the bookings made on their site. That means more money for buying quality ingredients, equipment, and funding our outreach in Bangkok!
Growing Pains and Negative Reviews
We’ve been teaching children in the marginalized community we serve to thrive in kitchen spaces for 5 years now. However, when we started this fun activity to help pump nutrition into the community, we didn’t expect it to prepare us to later host professional classes. In fact, teaching 30 children to cook at once would seem a lot more intimidating to most people, compared with the stress of teaching a small group of foreigners. However, we’ve had to learn other aspects of running the business beyond the teaching the hard way. For example, pricing can have a big impact on experience. If we’re priced too low, people book in hurry, classes are more crowded, and guests may arrive not knowing much about our organization. On the contrary, if the pricing is too high, we have fewer customers and their expectations for the cooking class are unrealistic.
Everyone who steps into our kitchen is different and we want to have an experience all can enjoy. This presents a unique challenge, however, that is especially difficult when managing different languages and personalities in a group. So while our reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, we have also had negative reviews impact our bookings. When customers are unhappy, we discuss their feedback as a team and consider how to improve the experience in the future. Here are common reasons people don’t enjoy the class, that we’re working to mitigate or have already solved:
Customer doesn’t know the class is charity run
Customer is uncomfortable because of heat, chairs, chili, amount of standing, etc…
Customer does not speak strong English
The most common problem our team has encountered when hosting guests from around the world has been around managing expectations. Since many customers book in a hurry, they often don’t read all of the info about the class. This means customers can arrive expecting to be cooking in a professional kitchen, or in today’s tense political climate, may not know until arriving they have booked a class in support of refugees — often a divisive political issue. All of these issues are exacerbated when customers don’t speak much English or Thai. We won’t be able to solve all of these problems instantly, but we strive to produce a high quality class each session, and want to be transparent about the challenges.
How You Can Help
As people learn about opportunities with Airbnb, it becomes more competitive. We have to work harder at generating more direct bookings, instead of being overly dependent on Airbnb or another third party. We always need help sharing our cooking class with friends visiting Bangkok, and need continued support for the educational support we offer those in need. Finally, if you’ve attended a class, consider leaving a review on our growing Tripadvisor profile as well!
Thank you for following our project, and until the next update stay courageous!
Several months in the works, and our 2017 Courageous Kitchen Annual Report is now available for download. The annual report is a summary of all of our activities serving up nutrition to Bangkok’s neediest communities in 2017. This recap will help give you an idea of the type of work we do, the impact of our efforts, and the direction our organization is focused on growing in 2018 and beyond. If you’re unfamiliar with our work, this is a good place for you to start to learn about our organization in more depth.
In 2017 we saw our biggest year yet, raising nearly $35,000 in combined donations and our own fundraising efforts. This was our first year gainfully employing one full-time administrative staff, and two young adults from the marginalized community we serve. While this may seem like a small stride, the changes indicate a huge leap forward for our CK family, as we transition from a miniature grassroots organization to a fledgling social enterprise.
Our team has been cooking with children for 5 years, but only in 2017 did we launch our enterprise offering premium cooking classes to tourists visiting Bangkok. Now we have different classes to choose from in Bangkok, and have begun slowly expanding classes in the US. We are also proud to announce our non-profit was awarded a Silver rating for transparency on Guidestar —one of the United States largest charity search and rating platforms.
Midway through 2018 and we’re full steam ahead preparing strategic plans and applying for grants to help us continue to grow in the coming years. Our hope is that after reading the 2017 annual report, you have a better understanding of where your dollars are going and how much impact you’re actually making. We hope that with passionate individuals like you, we will continue to create positive change in the world by aiding vulnerable communities. With limited staff and a gaggle of volunteers, we have achieved amazing results, but we are now ready to grow our team so that we can sustain our momentum and increase future impact.
$400 – helps pay for free English classes, pre-school activities, and provides hot lunches for the younger students who are unable to attend formal schooling.
$850 – provides a full month of vocational training such as; English tutoring, one on one mentoring, and cooking lessons for our students.
$1,300 – supports an entire community with food distribution, medical aid and housing relief for one month
$5,000 – helps to pay one full time refugee staff salary for an entire year.
Again, we thank you for your continued efforts to support Courageous Kitchen. Engage with us as we grow in 2018, we appreciate having each of you along with us on this special journey.
How to Download Our Annual Report: On the page for the annual report proceed with checkout. The report is offered for free, but you do have the option to donate to help cover the costs of creating the report. If you don’t wish to donate, be sure to indicate “0” as your price, and proceed with the checkout process. However, all donations are appreciated, and each person downloading will receive a confirmation signup for our newsletter (also optional).
As our organization grows we’re always looking for opportunities to share our mission to inspire marginalized youth in Bangkok through the power of food and education. For this reason, we’re excited to announce Courageous Kitchen has just been designated as an approved charity for the Combined Federal Campaign or CFC. Never heard of it? Read below and we’ll explain:
Charity: Courageous Kitchen Inc.
What is the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC)?
CFC is a workplace giving program for federal employees in the United States. The program allows employees to designate a portion of their salary to be donated to approved charities. The program is the world’s largest of it’s kind, and helps a diverse variety of organizations fund their programs and activities. Only charities who demonstrate financial transparency in the previous fiscal year are accepted to participate.
Those interested to give to Courageous Kitchen can make a pledge to donate this year for the 2019 pay period. You can also use the campaign to make one time donations.
I don’t work for the US government, can I still help?
As a small organization Courageous Kitchen depends on the word of mouth of our supporters. So even if you aren’t working for the federal government, military, or a postal worker— you may know someone who is! We need everyone’s help to spread the word, especially during the pledge period in the fall of 2018.
Even if you or your friends don’t fall into any of those categories, don’t forget you can make an impact by going to our donation page. There you can setup a regular donation with your credit card or paypal account to help us continue our work.
Are the donations tax deductible?
As a registered 501c3 public charity in the US, all donations through the CFC campaign, and directly on our website are eligible for tax deduction.
Does my donation go directly to help people in need? What’s your AFR?
Courageous Kitchen does it’s best to make sure your donations on our website or through the CFC campaign go as directly as possible to help people in need. We can only do this by operating a social enterprise where tourists visiting Thailand can book a cooking class. The class helps offset our operating costs, including employing some of the youth whose community we serve.
The AFR stands for the Administrative and Fundraising Rate, which is a percentage automatically calculated by the CFC program to give quick insight on how a charity distributes aid versus overhead. The official percentage for Courageous Kitchen is 45.2%. This means that if you book a cooking class, about half of the cost goes back to support our admin needs. For donations made directly, however, 80-90% of those funds go directly towards feeding and educating people in need.
Please note, the CFC campaign itself also uses a small percentage of donations to cover expenses for the program. Also, it does cost money for our organization to participate. The total fees to apply and be listed each are over $1000. That’s a big fee for a small organization, but if we can convince a few friends working for the US government to show their support, the efforts could mean more funding for the important work we’re doing in Bangkok.
Still don’t get it? Here’s the short version:
The CFC program is a great opportunity for Courageous Kitchen to raise more funds. We’ll need your help spreading the word to anyone working for the federal government in the United States. Those employees can donate in the coming year directly through their job, and anyone else wanting to help can setup a direct donation on our website. These monthly donations give stability to our mission to feed and educate, while the business arm of our charity covers the costs running the charity. Thank you for empowering us to uplift communities in need in Bangkok!
June marks the beginning of summer for many of us, but it also marks the start of another significant event for the Courageous Kitchen and many refugee communities across the globe. Every year in mid-June, several organizations host what has been declared as ‘Refugee Week’, with June 20th serving as the week’s capstone — this year will commemorate the 20th Annual World Refugee Day! As we join in the double-decade long celebration, we urge you to also join us by honoring the resilience and contributions of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide by taking action in the following ways:
1) Listen – All over the world events are happening for world refugee day. Be sure you find a local event and show your support by attending and listening to the stories of struggle and triumph. Events range from food tasting parties to discussion panels, join or start a conversation near you!
3) Cook/Eat – This may come as no surprise, but we believe the kitchen is one of the best places to learn about someone new, and connect with their culture. In diverse places in the west, we may take for granted how someone, or their ancestors, made harrowing journeys and sacrifices. World Refugee Day gives us an excuse to ask people about their heritage, culture, and an opportunity to celebrate these differences over something that binds us all, food!
4) Share – In today’s political climate it can be unpopular to show your support publicly for refugees. Refugees are used as a political tool in some countries to propel xenophobic campaigns and policies. Wherever we are in the world, we can show our support for refugees and insist people recognize their human rights. If you join in the celebrations, document them by using the hashtags #RefugeeWeek2018 and #WithRefugees.
5) Give Back – When you connect with your local refugee organizations find a way to donate, volunteer, or give back another way. These organizations are often underfunded and understaffed (speaking from experience), so if you can find a way to donate funds or time consistently for a few months, you can really make a difference for people in need and small organizations serving them. We’re asking people interested in supporting our mission to help by sponsoring a family.
Photo: Courageous Kitchen’s pre-teen students pose with Canadian chef Cameron Stauch.
Doing anything special this World Refugee Day? Please reach out and let us know!