5 Tips for Cheap Eats in Thailand

If you venture off the beaten path in Thailand, away from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or the southern beaches, the English signs and menus start to fade away, and Western faces are fewer and further between. In a city like Surat Thani, where the few tourists are usually on their way to somewhere else, it’s not hard to walk a few blocks away from the hotels near the ferry pier and eat your fill for $5 a day.

1. Moo, gai, goon

These might just be the most important Thai words you will ever learn, after sawa-dee-ka (hello/goodbye) and krop-kun-ka/krop (thank you). Moo is pork, gai is chicken and goon is shrimp/prawn. Along with khao (rice), pad (fried), thod (deep fried), and kaeng (curry), these words will ensure you can order something to eat in most establishments. Unfortunately, it will seem like there are as many words for noodles as there are noodle dishes (few of which are actually named for the type of noodles they contain!). This is where pointing comes in handy.

roast chicken, Thailand

2. Ask for neung

One of the most common places to dine like a local is a one-dish shop. Small eateries that specialize in one particular dish—roast chicken, stir fried pork, pad thai, noodle soup—have their kitchen at the front of the shop so they’re easy to identify. Ordering at one of these restaurants is dead easy. Hold up your finger, smile and say “neung” (one). This will bring you one serving of the main dish. If there is any variety, it will be variation on a theme. The best part about a one-dish shop is that they do one thing, and they do it very well!

one dish chicken shop, Thailand

3. Stir the pot

If asking for one order of the number one dish on the menu is too limiting, check out a ran a-han khao rad kaeng or a “curry to put on rice” restaurant. These places are easy to spot, as they have a line of pots or bowls at the front of the shop that contain various curries and stewed meat and veg. Sometimes you simply eyeball the selections, and other times you lift the lids and stir the pots to see what’s what. Pick the one you like, point to it and say “khao” for good measure, then take a seat. In a few moments, a plate of rice and your selection will arrive at your table.

pot restaurant, Thailand

4. This wok’s for you

A ran a-han dam sang or a “make from what you order” restaurant is much like an old-school diner with a short-order cook. These restaurants have a few woks on the go and all the ingredients they need for most of the rice and noodle basics you find on Thai menus at home. Menus here are quite thick, outlining the particulars of the dishes and variations available. But, if the basics are what you want, any short-order wok can give it to you. In larger towns and cities, there may be at least one English copy of the menu, if not for tourists, then for the English teachers. But, once you’ve mastered the names of a few food items, you can order whatever you want without even looking at the menu: tom yum (soup), khao pad (fried rice), pad see ew (stir fried noodles), kaeng (curry) and kraphao (spicy basil).

pad see ew, Thailand

5. Takeaway is where it’s at

Whether at a stall at the daily market, the night market, the Sunday market, the street corner, or on the move, some of the best food you can get comes from market vendors. And there is no limit to what’s available at vendor’s carts or stalls: some of the best fried chicken in the world, fruit smoothies, iced coffee and tea, pad thai, bags of curry, desserts, meat on a stick, fried rice, grilled bananas, dim sum, and the list goes on. And most basic restaurants will also do up your order to go. Even soup is sold in to-go bags, ballooned up and sealed with an elastic band like a goldfish from the pet store. Getting it to go is easier than making it at home!

takeaway pork, Thailand

A final note about your caffeine fix

While they may not be Starbucks, there’s no shortage of coffee shops in provincial Thai towns and cities. Fancy and air conditioned, these places are expensive—your coffee will cost more than your lunch–and like any Starbucks at home, they are frequented by the local hipsters and well-to-do. They can be a great place to soothe your culture shock, but for the true local experience, try ordering Thai tea or coffee at a local eatery or vendor’s cart.

cha-ron, Thailand

Served either hot (ron in the north and lon in the south) or over crushed ice (yen), gaffe and cha are a unique experience—one part thick, strong coffee or tea, one part condensed milk, one part sugar, and a fraction of the cost of a Frappuccino. Cha yen is almost the national drink—a strong, creamy, icy orange brew. Given the sugar content, best not make it an everyday treat—but once you’ve tried it, you’ll have to use all your willpower to resist the smell of the tea cart.

Note: If you have plans to spend any length of time in Thailand, pay special attention to your dental hygiene—with the sugar-laden cuisine and no fluoride in the bottled drinking water, first-time cavities are not uncommon among expats.

This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape.

For more, check out my tips for eating like a local.