The Ultimate Newbie Guide to Thailand

Diet & Food Safety in Thailand

Most people who visit Thailand and who are introduced the food rave about it. There, however, are a few matters to keep in mind including spices and purity.

Spices: Some Thai food can be very spicy, but then again some are not spicy at all. You presumably know your own tolerance of spicy food, but even if it is not very high visiting Thailand certainly is an opportunity to experiment a little with tasting different Thai dishes. If you worry about the spices, you may want to visit a Thai restaurant in your home country before going and let them know about you upcoming trip and let them help you with some samples. If the staff is Thai it is all but certain that they will take pleasure in helping you. It would be a good idea to try several different dishes, perhaps you want to take a few friends with you and share dishes. As was mentioned above it is easy to get Thai dishes in Thailand with little or no spices. It could come in handy to know the Thai expressions for various levels of spicy food.
Mai ped = No spicy
Ped nid noi = spicy little bit
Ped nid nid noi = spicy very little bit
Ped hasip-hasip = spicy 50/50 (good starting point if you like some spicy)
Ped or ped dee = spicy (average for Thai)
Ped mak = very spicy
Ped mak mak = very very spicy.

Western Style Food: In the major tourist areas it is easy to find western style food which may include English/American breakfast, steaks, pizza, mixed buffets, fast food, etc. Often the prices are reasonably comparable with Thai food prices in Restaurants, however, food at McDonalds (and the likes) is a bit on the pricy side and so are the higher end western restaurants, especially if all or part of the food is imported.

Street Food: One of the joys of eating in Thailand is the many vendors preparing and selling food from carts on the street. They are everywhere and offer a lot of variety of food. Fried food, grilled food, stir fry, soups ... heck even a variety of cooked insects if you dare to taste them. One question quickly arises concerning street food: Is it safe? This is a natural question to ask since the (yet) unprepared food is generally not refrigerated. See the notes on Food Safety and Bacteria below, but it should be added that the food hygiene among the street vendors is quite good and they cook the food well and at high temperatures.

Fresh Fruits: There is an abundance of fresh fruit available in Thailand and that includes varieties rarely seen in the west. Local fruits are relatively inexpensive (at least when in season). This may be an excellent opportunity to try as many of them as you can. You will probably find many sorts that you like and will surely will be back for more. A small portion can be as little as 10 baht so even if you don't a particular one ... no real loss. Some fruits look quite strange, such as mangosteen or rambutan, but are very tasty.
Many street vendors also offer some fresh fruits which will be cut and diced as you order them and are usually served in a small plastic bag with a long pick to eat them with. The typical cost for 1/2 a pineapple is 20 baht. A similar size serving of watermelon or cantaloupe is about the same. Thais commonly use fresh fruit as a snack or as desert.

Food safety: On one side many restaurants and food vendors would likely not pass an FDA inspection mainly because of refrigeration or lack thereof. On the other hand Thais are obsessed with cleaning and watching them in action could put most western restaurants to shame. They wash, wipe and sweep like it is going out of style. Further, they cook meat products quite well and that largely makes up for the reregulation concerns.

Germs and Bacteria: Most people in the west cringe when these words are expressed and the very need to mention this could be over the top. The fact is that we are all exposed to a large amount of germs and bacteria every day and much of it in the food we eat. The reason that most of the bacteria that we encounter at home has little or no adverse effect on our digestive system is that our bodies know how to digest them. When visiting a region like Asia we will get exposed to some new and different bacteria. No better or worse than the ones we have at home, just different. This fact means little concerning a travelerís health and safety, but may cause a reaction in the digestive system, often resulting in loose stool or short term diarrhea. This is perfectly normal and does not equate to food poisoning. Few people actually display symptoms that require any medical intervention and when this happens some Imodium, bought at the next-door pharmacy and taken as directed, usually does the trick. If you do see the need to take Imodium, make sure to drink plenty of fluid as it is a diuretic.
The condition that causes a stool change is called "Traveler's Diarrhea" and the most common cause is E. Coli. Read more here: Mayo Clinic: Traveler's Diarrhea.

Food Poisoning: Often the change in stool is confused with food poisoning; however, while usually not so food poisoning does sometimes happen. Very few travelers to Thailand get food poisoning, although it is arguably more common here than in the west. If you fall ill do drink loads of clean water and seek medical assistance. Medical attention is not expensive in Thailand, even without insurance coverage you will probably spend less on the doctorís bill than you would spend on a night on the town.
If you do end up with food poisoning it is worth to note typical onsets before "blaming" the last meal. Most foodborne illnesses take many hours if not days before exhibiting the first symptoms. E. Coli and Salmonella (two of the most dreated) typicall have symptoms between 6 hours and 8 days. More info: FDA: Foodborne Illnesses

The Ultimate Newbie
Guide to Thailand

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