Category Archives: Thailand

Thai Street Food: Papaya Salad

A recent (and very unscientific) survey taken via Twitter by Epic Asia Travel asked subscribers: What is your favorite Thai street food?  A seemingly simple questions, but in actuality, this query is very, very difficult to answer.  Why?  Because there are so many kinds of street food in Thailand that you could probably eat a different dish everyday for the rest of your life and still never have tried everything.  There’s an abundance of street meats on a stick, fruits, hot and spicy soups, fried vegetables, glutinous sweets and tangy juice drinks.  One of the greatest pleasures about traveling in Thailand is the street food, which is why this questions is really not so easy to answer.

Despite the depth of possible answers to this query, the overwhelming answer to the best street food in Thailand was: Som Tam, also known as spicy green papaya salad.  Respondents to this question sure do know what they’re talking about because spicy green papaya salad is truly fresh and incredibly delicious.  Vendors usually charge anywhere between 20-40 Baht for a heaping pile of freshly shredded green papaya pounded with spices, palm sugar, chilis, lime juice, shrimp and a number of other zesty ingredients.

Som Tam can be eaten alone for a quick and healthy snack on the go, or it can accompany a larger meal.  Traditionally (especially in the Isan

A Thai street vendor crushes the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle to make Som Tam. (Photo Credit: Ans)

region), Som Tam is eaten with sticky rice, BBQ chicken and some spicy chili sauce.  When ordered from a street-side cart, the vendor whips it up fresh on the spot.  The green papaya is shredded and all the ingredients go into a large mortar.  With the pestle the vendor pounds the many flavors together until it forms one delicious mound of papaya salad.  After the dish is plated, the vendor usually sprinkles the Som Tam with a heavy dose of crushed peanuts to add extra flavor and texture.

All street vendors who sell Som Tam in Thailand have their own recipe and they all differ slightly from one another.  Despite their differences, most have several of the same key ingredients including: shredded green papaya, cut cherry tomatoes, fresh green beans, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, dried

Some of the indredients for spicy papaya salad. (Photo Credit: WordRidden).

shrimp, whole chilis, shrimp paste and garlic.  Some papaya salad vendors add dried shrimp and some add whole crabs (shells and all) to add flavor and texture to the mix.

Check out this video below to see a Som Tam vendor in action:

From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems

You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” Alia said as he shot me an incredulous look.

I shook my head.

“It’s easy!” he said. “Here, you can give it a try.” Alia offered me the glinting, foot-long machete in his hand.

My heart pounded in my ears as I looked at the 100-pound, squealing pink pig in front of me. I told him, in what I hoped was a nonchalant way, that I would just watch this time and maybe try the next one.

Alia shrugged his shoulders, turned to the pig, and with a swift jerk plunged the machete into the pig’s soft flesh and through its ribs.

After the pig is bled out and the workers are dragging the animal away to be butchered, I kick myself for not taking Alia up on his offer. After all, I did come to Thailand to understand a way of eating that is different from the industrial model I am familiar with in the United States.

On a quest to investigate a hyper-local food system, I find myself on Amee Doyer’s Organic Farm in Northern Thailand. I’ve connected with Alia, the owner of the farm, through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF allows people who want to learn about sustainable growing practices to connect with farmers around the world. In exchange for long days of farm work, Alia provides me with food and a room.

For the rest of the day Alia’s question rings in my head: “You’ve never slaughtered a pig before?” His disbelief jolted me. As I ponder his question, I realize that in fact, I’ve never even seen an animal killed until today. This doesn’t make sense to him because everyday at the dinner table I eat meat with his family. For Alia, he must slaughter an animal before it is consumed. For me, I simply buy it pre-packaged at the store.

Alia, a refugee from Burma, has never bought pre-packaged meat in his life. He has never heard of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation where most of my meat comes from at home. In this hyper-local food system, consuming meat means slaughtering the animal first. For me, eating meat means buying a package neatly marked with weight and price at the supermarket. The idea that the animals I eat were once alive is so disconnected for me that when I do see an animal killed, I am in utter shock.

As I watch the farmers remove the pig’s organs one by one, it surprises me that the countless times I have consumed pork in my life I never connected the idea of pork with the image of a live pig. The industrial food system I am part of has created such a disconnect in my head that even as a life-long omnivore, I have never truly understood that at one point the animal I am eating was as alive as I am right now.

Later that night, Alia passes me a bowl of stew, which includes pig liver, intestine, and boiled blood. I eat my bowl with satisfaction and a new-found sense of respect for myself as an omnivore and for the animal I am eating.

The fundamental difference between the meat I eat at home and the meat I eat here is that this animal was cared for and respected from the moment it was born to the moment it passes through my lips. I know exactly where this food came from and that makes every meaty morsel even more delectable.

Photo Supplement: From Sty to Stew

The pigs are the farm are cared for every day.  There are several farm workers whose sole job is to mix food for and feed the pigs.

Several of the farmers at the farm clean and cut the pig up into parts.  Almost none of the pig is wasted slaughtered.

Thailand’s Lady Boys

It’s the witching hour in Thailand.  It’s around 10 p.m., right when the night life starts pumping, the Beer Chang flows freely and the country’s signature sticky, sexy heat bears down on merry revelers, preparing for the night ahead.  Neon signs buzz and blink and the waitress brings another round of drinks.  From down the soi, a lithe young woman walks towards the bar.

Someone comments, “Wow!  Look at her!”

It’s true.  Look at her is right.  Her skin is the perfect tone of brown, her arms are toned and lean.  She has long, silky black hair that cascades down her back and she’s wearing an impossibly tight pink mini-dress that not many people in the world could pull off.  Her cleavage bursts from her dress top and the strappy white stilettos fit her feet like gloves.  The woman looks at men seated at the bars with a cloyingly sweet, flirtatious gaze.

She walks closer.  That skin!  That hair!  She looks like a model.  She comes closer still.  Wait a minute… What’s that on her throat?  Is that…. Really?… An adam’s apple?

It's a man... It's a woman? It's a lady boy!

It turns out that in fact, this beautiful, gorgeous, model-of-a-woman is in fact not a woman an at.  She’s a man.  She is a Thai lady boy.

Lady boys in Thailand, also known as Kathoey, cannot be defined with one definition.  Some lady boys have had sex changes to become women, some have simply had breast implants to impersonate women, and some simply dress like women (but continue to have all the requisite male body parts attached).  It’s not uncommon to see a group of lady boys out on the town in places like Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok.  The tall-tale continuously floats around: the foreigner who had a steamy night out with a gorgeous Thai woman, took her back to his room only to find out that, in fact, she’s one of the infamous Kathoeys.

Whether this is true or not, lady boys are an integral part of the Thailand experience.  Lady boys can be seen in bars, flirting with men, dancing in cabaret shows and performing in various events.  Many foreigners are fascinating by this group of people: not exactly men and not exactly women.  The Kathoey subculture is especially fascinating because of their acceptance by other members of Thai society.  Despite the conservative country, lady boys are very open about their sexuality and have no problem flaunting their fake breasts or their smooth nether regions.  The Buddhist religion is often credited as the reason for the acceptance of sub-groups like lady boys in Thailand.

Many people have seen drag queens in their own home country, but Thailand’s lady boys are a special breed because of their seamless beauty and charm.  The smaller stature and fit bodies of Thai males makes those that choose to become lady boys seem even more convincing: a good majority of Kathoey’s are very beautiful and convincing women.

To experience Kathoey culture for yourself, some good places to meet them are Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok.  For a real show, buy a ticket to a lady boy cabaret: a show where kathoeys sing and dance in amazing costumes.  For a more up close and personal understanding of lady boys, have a night out on the town and see if you can spot the beautiful women who is actually a man.  Strike up a conversation and fall under their flirtatious charms!

At a Kathoey Cabaret Show in Koh Tao, Thailand.

At a Cabaret Show.

Lady Boy in Chiang Mai. (Photo:

WWOOFING: Asia and Beyond

What is WWOOFing

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  It is a network that connects local farmers with peopleinterested workers, horticulturists, botanists and travelers.  WWOOF started in 1971 in the United Kingdom and has since expanded to almost every continent around the globe.  For a small membership fee, people can log-on to the WWOOF website, pick a country of interest and connect with organic farmers around the world.  In exchange for work, WWOOFers get a free place to stay, food and an amazing opportunity to understand a country and it’s people in a deeper way.  WWOOF volunteers gain an intimate knowledge of a country through work and interaction, an experience many tourists and backpackers never get.

How Does WWOOF Work?

Interested WWOOFers must first sign-up for membership on the WWOOF website.  For a small fee, members gain access to all farmers postings around the world.  Farmer postings list things like contact information, what sort of farm they have, minimum or maximum stay for volunteers, restrictions (such as alcohol or tobacco) and what sort of volunteers they are interested in hosting.  Some postings are very specific.  For example, the farmer may only be interested in hosting woodworker vegetarians who can stay for a minimum of 6 months.  Others are very broad.  For example, the only restriction may be to stay for at least a week.

Once you find a farm that is in the country of your choice, you send a personal email to the farmer, specifying dates, interests, previous experience with farming, etc…

What To Expect?

WWOOFing around the world allows you the opportunity to experience a country like you never could as a tourist or a backpacker.  You’ll get to know your hosts, meet other people working on farm, and gain a deep understanding about how subsistence farming and local food systems work.  WWOOFing enriches knowledge about agriculture and how people around the world eat.

Expect a lot of hard work.  Each farm’s expectations differ: some expect you to work 6 days a week, 7 hours a day, other farms expect 4 days a week, 4 hours a day.  Make sure you sign up for a farm that suits your interests and physical capabilities best. Farming is not easy: expect to sweat (a lot), to work harder than you’ve ever worked and to be worn out a lot of the time.  In return for your hard work, you can expect to feel an incredible satisfaction and happiness with your work.  You’ll learn about local agriculture: plants, growing techniques and farm systems.

The sort of work you’ll be doing completely depends on what farm you visit.  Some farmers request that volunteers help tutor their children in different languages, others request that volunteers help with planting and harvesting in the fields.

From your WWOOFing experience, you’ll no doubt gain a new understanding and appreciation for farming and agricultural work.  You’ll meet amazing people (both your hosts and other workers) and you’ll be able to explore places, often very remote, that are completely off the tourist trail.

Where Can I Go?

You can literally travel all around the world volunteering on WWOOF farms.  There are farms in North and Central America, South America, Europe and the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific.

Because this website focuses on Asia travel and adventure, here are places you can WWOOF within Asia:

Four Money-Saving Travel Tips

Although the open road may beckon us, there are often road blocks between the dream of backpacking around Asia and living at home.  One of those road blocks is most often money.  Traveling around the world can be expensive, but it can also be very cheap depending on your living standards and your money-spending habits. The following are four techniques you can use while traveling to stretch your dollar, euro, rupee, or whatever, as far as possible, because every dollar saved means more time living your dreams on the road in Asia.

Tip #1: Eat Street Food!

Omlette vendor in Vietnam There’s a great deal of misconception about eating street food in Asia.  Depending on who you ask, what guide book you’re reading, or what travel doctor you see before your trip, they might give you one major piece of advice: “Don’t eat the street food!”  They’ll probably tell you horrible stories about food poisoning from eating street meat in Bangkok or fish in Vietnam.  But, don’t let these horror stories deter you, because this advice is absolutely false.  If you adhere to those misguided words or wisdom in Asia, you’ll be missing out on some of the most INCREDIBLE meals of your life, not to mention some of the most important local food culture.

The other major perk of eating street food in Asia is the price. Good, incredible, spectacular food is cheap. For example, a bowl of steaming hot pho in Vietnam ranges anywhere from $0.25 to $1.50. A few thick, chewy roti prata made in front of your eyes on the streets of Malaysia will run you about $1.00.  Eating street food will save you loads of money compared to if you were to eat all your meals in sit down restaurants and, honestly, street food is often better than restaurant food.  In some parts of Asia, like Thailand, street food is a major part of the culture.  To not eat street food in Bangkok would be about as sacrilege as going to Siem Reap, Cambodia and missing out on Angkor Wat.

Delicious and fresh papaya salad for about $1.

Some people are concerned about health issues and sanitation of street food vendors. But, not to worry.  You won’t have a problem with most street food carts, just make sure you keep your eyes peels and if the food doesn’t look very cleanly, don’t worry, another street food cart is likely only a block away.  The glory of the street food cart is that you can watch your food being made right in front of your eyes, while at a restaurant, the food is made behind closed doors.  Just remember that if you stomach does become upset from eating something, don’t blame it on street food in general!  Remember that it’s one isolated incident that shouldn’t be applying to the street food category as a whole.

Tip #2: Be Mindful of Your Books

Books from a used bookstore in Thailand

Used books are your best friend!

Long travel stints often mean a lot of free time: waiting at bus stations, nights along in hostels, 24 hour train trips.  What better way to fill your free time than with a thick, worn-and-torn book?  When you’re traveling, this often means you are looking at and thinking about the world in totally new ways and reading new material can make this fresh experience even better.  And let’s face it, on those nights when you just can’t stand the thought of going out for beers again, sitting on the roof of your hostel with a book is probably the most delightful alternative.  Whether it be classic novel, a historical narrative or a non-fiction work, books are a traveler’s best friend.  So, what’s the problem?  Although books are one of the most necessary travel accessories, the problem is that books can be very expensive while traveling.  There are several solutions to this problem of expensive books.

The first solution is to trade books with other travelers looking for some new material.  This is one of the best approaches because it is completely free.  It’s also fun to read books that dozens of other people have read, made notes in, folded the pages of and loved.  Add you own little note (maybe your email?) at the end of the book and see what comes of it!  The other good thing about trading with fellow travelers is that you get to talk about other recommendations for similar books.

The next solution is to go to a used bookstore where you can often find some stellar deals.  Many of the used bookstores in Asia also sell some new books, so if you’re craving some brand spankin’ new pages, you can get them there.  The benefit of going to used bookstore is that they will often buy your finished book for about half the price they’ll sell it for and you can use that money as a credit for your next book.  This ends up being a pretty good deal if you’re swapping out books at used book stores.  Some regions have a sparser selection of used book stores, but in places like Thailand and Malaysia, used bookstores abound.  The draw back of too many used bookstores is that you’ll be tempted to buy too many books and then end up carrying around 10 extra pounds in your pack.

**Travel Tip: Some of the best places for English-language used books stores in Asia include Chiang Mai (Thailand), Bangkok (Thailand), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Hanoi (Vietnam).

Tip #3: Stop Spending So Much Money on Your Room

Simple hostel bed

Nothing wrong with this simple hostel room for only a few dollars.

Because really?  How much time do you spend in your room when you are traveling anyway?  A comfortable room is always nice, but is the TV, in-room bathroom and sink, air-con and refrigerator really necessary?  Probably not.  One of the best ways to shave money off your travel expenditures is to settle for no-frills, basic rooms.  You can find a room in Asia for anywhere between $1,500 (and beyond) and $0.50.  Spending $2-$3 on a room means you’ll probably just get a bed and a closet-like room.  This is fine if you’re planning on spending the majority of your time out-and-about (which you probably are).  For a few bucks more, you can get a room with air-con, which is always nice if you’re in a place like Bangkok where the heat can be sweltering.

What you’ll get with a very cheap room:

1) A bed.  It won’t necessarily be comfortable but it will most likely be clean and sleepable.

2) A pillow.  It won’t necessarily be soft, but it’s still a pillow.

3) A shared bathroom.  Some travelers steer clear of the shared bathroom, but it’s really not so bad.  You share one bathroom and shower, sometimes more, with other travelers.  People generally keep this communal area clean.  In larger hostels, each floor may be equipped with as many as 5 shared bathrooms for easier access.

Tip #4: Walk!!!!!!

Walk! Walk! Walk!

One of the best ways to save money is to forget the taxis, the rickshaws, the tuk-tuks and even the buses.  Walk!  It’s free, fun, good exercise and is probably the best way to intimately get to know a place.  Taking the occasional taxi for long journeys is ok, but getting in the habit of hailing a cab every time you need to get somewhere will surely put a damper on your travel budget.  The best perk of walking is that you see exponentially more things, details, people and events than you would see while in a moving vehicle.  The best way to get to know a new place is to get lost on foot and then find your way back to your hostel or a major landmark.  It is essential that this be done on foot.  Make sure you take comfortable walking shoes with you on your travels!  This tip will help your wallet, will increase your knowledge of a place and will help you stay fit while on the road!

Still nervous about street food? Click below for some great advice from bad ass and traveler extraordinaire, Anthony Bourdain: