5 Tips for Eating Like a Local in Thailand

The two things that everyone seems to know about Thailand are that (1) the food is great, and (2) the food is cheap. But, if you wander away from tourist areas and join the locals for a meal, you’ll find that the food is even better and even cheaper. If you want to eat like a local in Southern Thailand, here are a few things you should know.

1. Avoid the indoors

Four walls and a closed door? Back away—such establishments in provincial towns and cities are usually expensive and tend to cater to locals who want to spend their money on a Western experience. An indoor restaurant means air conditioning, and AC means high electricity bills—which translates into expensive food. As a general rule, locals eat al fresco.

street vendors, Thailand

2. Do drink the water, and the ice

You don’t need to keep your mouth shut tight in the shower or worry about brushing your teeth when you stay off-resort, but even locals don’t drink the tap water in Thailand. Homes and commercial establishments have water delivered in five-gallon jugs. That means the pitcher of water on the table at your local eatery is safe to drink. And the cup or bucket of ice they bring to your table is also good to go—ice is delivered to restaurants on a regular basis. Locals enjoy their beverages iced cold, including their beer, so you should too! You might be charged for the ice, but it’s usually a nominal fee, and the ice with the pitcher of water is much cheaper than if you crack the bottled water that’s often sitting on the table when you sit down.

3. Eat with your right hand

Local restaurants often provide communal plates of fresh veg—cucumber, green beans, cabbage and various unidentified leaves. There’s also sticky rice, meat on sticks and various other finger foods to try. All of these should be eaten with your right hand. As is the custom in many non-Western cultures, in Thailand, the left hand is reserved for hygiene, and the right for eating. Even if you are reasonably sure that your hands are equally clean, it’s best not to gross out your fellow restaurant patrons.

roast chicken, Thailand

4. Chopsticks are for China

You may eat your Thai food at home with chopsticks, but even in restaurants that serve noodles, the general custom is to eat with a spoon in your right hand, aided by a fork in your left. Noodle soups are eaten with chopsticks and a “Chinese” spoon, but the tablespoon and fork combo is the norm for everything else. You may be given a fork and spoon with your meal, or there will be a box on the table with forks, spoons—and chopsticks, when called for.

5. Pad Thai is not the hamburger of Thailand

In the West, we’ve come to believe that pad thai is as common in Thailand as the hamburger is at home—something you can get in almost any restaurant. It’s certainly a popular dish, but it’s specialized. You’ll find it on the menu of any restaurant that caters to tourists, but not in your run-of-the mill Thai eatery. For their fix, locals usually go to restaurants or market stalls that do pad thai only.

This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape. 

Check out more tips on cheap eats off the tourist track.