When travelling, sometimes even the smallest things can have a steep learning curve. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that in a city obsessed with food, Bangkok locals commonly eat at mall food courts! Not only that but these mall meals are often fresh, local dishes not mass produced fast food.
One hot, sweaty afternoon I took refuge in the MBK Center which has the somewhat overstated tagline – Bangkok’s most enjoyable shopping destination. While browsing through endless stalls of cheap clothing, accessories and knockoff electronics is not my idea of enjoyable, discovering a new dining destination is. The sixth floor food court boasts over 20 different stalls each serving between 5 to 20 dishes. At first, I just walked up and down the stall fronts overwhelmed by choice and tantalizing smells. Just when I’d wrapped my head around the quality of mall meals available, I was plagued with the very tricky issue of paying for my food.
My First Meal at a Mall Food Court in Bangkok
The less than straightforward payment system resulted in a laughable learning moment. Instead of paying each stall directly, customers need to add cash to a reloadable card, order their meal, then have the amount deducted by the stall. Not really a very difficult system, but when you have recently arrived to a country and are not yet familiar with the currency or the average price of a meal, it can be tricky to estimate the amount to load.
Believing, incorrectly, that they didn’t offer refunds, I cautiously loaded a meagre 20B ($0.55US)! After surveying the mall meals once more, I realized that most costs between 50 and 60B ($1.38-1.65US), so I added another 30B. Finally having chosen my meal and ordered it, I realized it came out to 55B and I was short 5B! I returned yet again to the loading counter not daring to look the staff person in the eyes. I’d now completed three visits each time adding less than eighty cents to my card. Sometimes all you can do is laugh at yourself and accept that you are in an unknown environment where everything is by definition, foreign.
[bctt tweet=” When you travel to unknown environment, everything is by definition, foreign. #ttot” username=”globallocavore”]
After all that effort what did I choose to eat? Based on the skill in which I’d navigated the payment system, I ventured a guess that ordering might be complete chaos keeping in mind the lack of menus and dishes listed on the wall in Thai. I shouldn’t have feared as Thai cuisine is abundant with pre-made curries and at several stalls I could simply point to a dish to have it heated for me. I chose a red chicken curry and a glass noodle dish with egg. The noodle dish was not spicy, just a little sweet, a little salty and contained a nice selection of vegetables. The curry is really good but from my first bite, my face starts to sweat with the heat of the chillies. I consider ordering a cool drink, but but couldn’t stomach thought of reloading my card for a fourth time!
The Pros of A Mall Food Court Meal
While I ate, I took in my surroundings. Based on appearance, those who enjoy midweek mall meals are mostly young, professionals out on their lunch break. As I ate, I realized I feel quite comfortable here and could see myself returning to try some more of the endless variety. I later discovered that the area in which I was staying, Siam, is known for malls of all shapes and sizes.
Over the next several days I would try a deliciously spicy eggwrap pork from Food Republic at Siam Center, a pad thai from Yum Saap at CentralWorld, a green curry from Fifth Street another MBK food court, and a fancy birthday cupcake from a French bakery in Siam Paragon. These mall food courts offered a huge selection of local and international foods, reasonably low prices and great people watching opportunities all with air conditioning!
The Cons of A Mall Food Court Meal
Now for some hard truths. Food courts in Bangkok do have cockroaches. You can often see them scurrying across the floor or climbing the walls. Was this slightly off putting? Yes, of course! My natural reaction as a Canadian is to be repulsed and assume the worst. However, whether you’d like to admit it or not, cockroaches are common in industrial kitchens around the world. In Canada they tend to be kept out of sight as cooking is done behind closed doors, whereas in Bangkok cooking is done out in the open and you can watch your meal being prepared, for better or worse. Do I pretend that the health and hygiene standards are equal in Southeast Asia to those in Canada? No, they simply are not. But can you get a complete, healthy meal for less than $2.00 at home? No, you simply cannot.
More than that, I believe that the point of travel is to place us outside of our comfort zone, both in fun ways like meeting new people and going on unexpected adventures, but also in challenging ways like eating insanely spicy street food and converting currencies on the go. My thought is, if you want the same experience as you’d get at home, you’re missing the point of travelling.
Did you ever think I’d be recommending a mall meal as an ideal way to grab some local food? Would you be willing to try an unknown dish?
Now It’s Your Turn: While in Bangkok if you need a break from the heat, the humidity and the traffic without blowing your budget, try one of the many food courts located inside the malls of Siam district including MBK, Siam Center and Siam Paragon.