In the West, the term street food has been hijacked by the hipster crowd, and if you've never been to Asia you'd be forgiven for thinking that what you get is the real deal.
In Thailand, as in most of Asia, there is very little regulation regarding opening a restaurant, it's as easy as strapping a bbq or hot plate onto your scooter's side car and away you go (not a VW camper with a $30k makeover in sight). There are some advantages to lack of regulation, you get cheap, authentic Thai food, often costing around $1 a dish. The downside however, is if you aren't careful, you could end up with a serious case of food poisoning.
What's Out There
Broadly speaking, street food in Thailand falls into a number of categories, this list is by no means exhaustive:
Cooked to order stall/restaurant
Usually more of an informal restaurant than a stall, these places cook your order to specification. They're a little slower than some of other street food options but at least you know your order is fresh and as spicy as you want it to be (more on that later).
Specialist Food Stand
These stalls do one thing and one thing only. These stalls usually prep in advance, turn up to where they vend from and start cooking their food in big batches. The food choices are endless; steamed dumplings, bbq chicken, and rotisserie carp to name a few.
Noodle Soup Stand
Often these types of stands will have a couple of different styles of broth bubbling in a pot and a range of different meats, vegetables and noodles to choose from. If speaking Thai is not your strong suit you can often get by aiding the conversation with hand motions to get what you want.
The final option is a bit like cafeteria dining, there are a number of different pre-cooked curries in various pots on display, you tell the vendor which one you want and hey presto, here's your meal.
Tips and Etiquette
What to Look Out For
The most important thing to be on the lookout for is basic hygiene standards, are the ingredients on display packed in ice, is the fresh orange juice vendor wearing gloves as she presses the oranges? Standards that are common practice in the west aren't always a given here. Ideally, try and eat where the Thais are eating, a place that has a lot of regular customers is less likely to be making people sick on a regular basis.
What to Avoid
Unless there is a lot of passing traffic,or you're at a busy night market, avoid vendors that pre-cook all their food and pile it up. That food isn't going to stay fresh for long in the tropical heat.
That raw, Isaan style beef and tripe (Sok Lek) may look super appetising. Do. Not. Do. It. There are numerous parasites in raw meat, and they are rife throughout Asia. Ahh what the hell, you can pick up worming medication from any pharmacy for about 100bht, i'm sure no one will mind if you sprinkle it on top.
Raw Meat Not Your Thing?
You can pretty much always order your food vegetarian style anywhere you go but if you go somewhere that pre-makes broth, say for noodles, it more than likely has been made from bones.
"Jay" Restaurants are Buddhist vegan restaurants, where all animal products, including dairy are banned. They are usually depicted by a red and yellow sign out front.
If you're given anything at all from a street vendor to eat your food, you'll usually be given a spoon and fork. In Thai culture, it is considered uncouth to eat with the fork, only the spoon should touch the mouth. Chopsticks are only for Chinese style meals, and are often given at noodle shops.
At Thai restaurants, it is not uncommon to flavour your own meal once it's been served. Most places will have a selection of condiments such as fish sauce, dried chilli etc so that you can customise your meal.
Some of the best Thai food can be found on street corners, hopefully this guide will help you discover Thailand through its amazing cuisine. If you want to take it a step further and order like a local, take a look at chanchao's travel menu here. It's an invaluable tool if you don't speak the language.