The cost of eating out in Bangkok can be less than cooking at home. My post on our apartment in Bangkok (our apartment blog post) prompted some questions about the other costs of living here. In particular, people wanted to know about the cost of food and eating in restaurants.
As always, costs can vary depending on your tastes and eating preferences, but in general, the cost of eating out in Bangkok is quite low. Many Thai people, especially singles or students, rarely cook at home. If you just eat at inexpensive food stalls or pick up something at a convenience store, you could probably eat for about $5 per day. This may be one reason that Thai apartments have kitchens that Canadians and people from the USA would say are too small or too poorly equipped, i.e. no oven, only two burners on stove top, small refrigerator.
As we travel, we have learned that the least expensive meals in any country are what the locals eat. Tastes, customs, and what grows well in the country will significantly affect the price of food. In Thailand, beef, cheese, cured meats like bacon, salami, ham, etc. are rare and quite expensive. However, chicken, pork, seafood are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Sticking with the more common foods in a country helps the food budget go a lot further.
Listed below is what it costs for a meal per person at a variety of types of eating places. The current exchange rate is about 100 Baht to $2.92 USD. The price indicated is the approximate USD price for the various food items at the time of this writing.
Least Expensive – Convenience Stores and Street Vendors – $0.58 to $1.75 per meal
In Canada and the USA, the type of food you get at a convenience store like 7-Eleven can be pretty nasty and not even that cheap; things like microwaved burritos, mystery meat hot dogs, etc. However, convenience stores in Thailand are more like mini grocery stores. You can buy fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and many prepared foods in addition to the typical chips, soda and other junk food common to US and Canadian convenience stores.
There are a lot of 7-Elevens here in Thailand. Max Valu and Family Mart are other large 24-hour convenience store chains. There is a Max Valu just a block or so from our apartment. Every day you can find a variety of prepared meal packs. For $0.58 you can get an omelet on rice. For $0.88 you can upgrade to the omelet on rice with a side of pork stew. If you go late enough in the evening, they will mark any remaining meals down to half-price.
A bottle of water will run you $0.22, a can of Coke $0.38, and $0.28 will get you a Thai Red Bull. Red Bull originated in Thailand, but I have been warned to stay away from it here as it is pretty potent.
Street vendors are just about everywhere on the streets of Bangkok. Some are just carts where you take away your food, others provide tables and chairs where you can sit down and eat your meal. Here you can get a light snack, like a skewer of meat for $0.29 – one of my favorites. Or you can get a meal of things like Pad Thai, Tom Yun soup, curried chicken or some other basic meal. Prices for these types of meals range from $1.17 to $3.50.
One thing to note is that at street vendors and lower end restaurants, things that we take for granted in the USA and Canada are not free. There is no free ice water. In fact, if you buy a bottle of water or soda and want ice, you will pay $0.10 to $0.15 for a plastic cup with ice in it. You will not get napkins at these restaurants for free. You just know to bring your own or they may sell you a packet of napkins for $0.29.
Thai Food Courts – $1.46 to $4.38 per meal
Thai food courts are different than the typical mall food court you would find in the USA or Canada. In the USA or Canada, a mall food court is a collection of restaurants, typically fast-food, all next to each other, sharing a common seating area.
The food courts are filled with stalls that each sell only a particular type or range of food. For example, there might be a Pad Thai booth, a curry booth, noodles booth, etc. In practically every large shopping mall in Thailand, and there are lots of those here, or at every large grocery store, there is a food court.
The key differences between Thai food courts and USA or Canadian mall food courts are that in the Thai food court, all the booths are owned by the same company and the way you pay for your food is different. The individual booths only accept a food court card for payment. You go to a central booth and tell them how much money you want to put on a card and then they load up the card with that amount of credit. When you get your food from the particular booth, they swipe the card and deduct the amount from your balance. When you leave, you can take the card back to the cashier and they will refund you the balance left on your card.
The prices at these food courts are about the same, perhaps just a little bit higher, than an outdoor food stall, but offer the tremendous advantage of being air conditioned. Believe me, on hot days, that can be a real advantage! The selection of foods is close to what you can get at the outdoor food stalls.
My latest favorite meal is Hoy Tod. This is best described as an oyster omelet. They are also available with mussels or mixed seafood. It is made with potato starch or rice flour in addition to egg, giving it a crispy pancake texture as opposed to a traditional omelet. My Hoy Tod costs $2.19 at my regular food stall place.
American Fast Food Chains – $1.75 to $6.40 per meal
Many popular USA fast food restaurants are in Thailand. For example McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut. We typically stay away from American fast food for a few reasons: been there – done that, we don’t find typical fast food that appetizing or healthy, and it is usually more expensive than other options.
If you are in the mood for a Big Mac meal, it will set you back $5.38. The same Big Mac meal will cost $7.01 in Washington State. So, it will cost you a little less in Thailand to eat an American fast food meal, but not that much less. The good news is that many of the American chains have local foods on the menu that you won’t find in the USA or Canada. For example, McDonald’s offers a spicy chicken and rice meal that includes a Coke. This meal only costs $2.30, a lot less than a Big Mac meal, and in my opinion, it tastes a lot better. Interestingly enough, this meal is served on a real non-disposable plate and with a metal fork and spoon.
At KFC, you can get a drumstick and thigh, fries and a Pepsi for $3.46. In the USA, that would probably set you back $5.99. So again, less than in the USA or Canada, but considering you could get a plate of Pad Thai and a Coke for $1.75 at a street vendor or food court, why would you go to KFC?
Shopping Mall and Local Table Service Restaurants – $5.40 to $10.50 per meal
I am typically not a shopping mall kind of guy. In the USA and Canada, I usually try to avoid malls like the plague. In Thailand, I probably go to a shopping mall 5 times a week. Here are the reasons why: the subway station is at the bottom of the mall so I am there anyway, the two closest grocery stores are in the malls by our place, all of the banks, cell phone and internet stores have branches in the mall, and the mall has lots of restaurants. Two-and-a-half floors of the seven floors dedicated to restaurants.
Sit-down, table service restaurants in Bangkok differ in a few ways from those in the USA or Canada.
- No free ice water
- No free refills on soft drinks
- No tipping culture (some restaurants add a 10% service charge)
While things you purchase at a convenience stores and at street vendors include tax in the item price, table service restaurants add the 7% tax to the entire bill, some also add a 10% service charge and a few add a 3% fee if you pay with a credit card.
There are a wide variety of restaurants in Bangkok. Thai and Japanese restaurants are very popular. There are a few American chains like Sizzler, Tony Romas, and Pizza, but we typically avoid those types of places. First, they tend to be a poor value – more expensive than other foods. Second, we try and avoid chains even when we are in the USA and Canada, we prefer independent restaurants or a place with local flair.
More Expensive Restaurants – $12.50 to $118.00 per meal
According to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants (www.theworlds50best.com), Bangkok has two of the fifty best restaurants in the world. For reference, the USA has six restaurants on this list. We haven’t been to either of these restaurants, but they are relatively inexpensive compared to other restaurants in the top fifty in the world. A meal at Gagaan in Bangkok, number 7 on the list, costs $116 per person. At Nahm, number 28 on the list, a meal costs $79 per person. In contrast, a meal at the number one restaurant on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants in New York City will cost $300 per person.
On the BTS (Skytrain) one day, we spotted a restaurant that advertised eggs Benedict. We both love eggs Benedict and hadn’t had any for quite some time. I put this restaurant in the more expensive category since the restaurant is an Australian chain and serves items like bacon and ham that are not really common in Thailand.
The most expensive meal we have eaten in Bangkok has been at Pla Dib. This fusion restaurant is in the trendy Ari neighborhood. We like it a lot and have been there twice since coming to Bangkok. This past time, we started with braised ox tongue with basil salt and lime, and our main meal consisted of wood grilled vegetables and pork ribs. The ribs were a true full rack and we ended up taking about half of them home.
I am sure we could find some more expensive restaurants, especially if we looked for steak houses – beef is not commonly eaten by Thai people, so it would be rare, imported and expensive. However, we are perfectly happy with the Thai and other international choices that offer a much better value.
Great Food at Great Prices in Thailand
I have always been a fan of Thai food. It is great living in Thailand and having access to it all the time. In addition, we have found there is a wide variety of other types of cuisine at more than reasonable prices. We probably eat out once a day even if just for a coffee and a snack. The great thing is that it doesn’t break the bank.