All the basics
Oh Bangkok, sometimes smelly, sometimes ridiculously humid, always full of amazing architecture! We arrived very late at night, but I always travel with snacks. To learn more about what kinds of foods I typically travel with, and navigating airports, check out the TRAVEL TIPS page.
If you want to skip right to the restaurants I visited, skim down to the bottom.
Although we booked a tour for this trip, we were in Bangkok mostly on our own for a few days. I'm not going to lie, as much as I LOVE to travel, whenever I get in a new situation like this, I tend to get a little nervous and take it out on my husband. I wasn't brave enough yet to pull out my gluten free translation card - I didn't actually know what it said. Although it wasn't the easiest, I was still able to eat!
We didn't get to see a lot of Thailand, but we had a few days in Bangkok. That being said, I researched as though we were moving there for a month! I gathered the below information from a number of other celiac sites and travel blogs (listed at the bottom of the post).
Generally speaking, there is very little understanding of allergies or celiac in SE Asia. No one really knew what I was trying to avoid, but I didn't meet anyone that wasn't willing to check and re-check food for me.
Flour vs Flour
I discovered somewhere in Cambodia (out next stop after Bangkok) that there was a miss-understanding on my translation. To be fair, I did not buy one of the Thai translation cards, I had a friend from Bangkok write it out for me. That being said, it didn't come out quite right. Maybe I'll try the card in the future ;) Then one day it dawned on me why there was so much confusion- the problem was in writing "wheat flour"! After showing my card numerous times I, I kept being asked if I could eat rice. My best guess, is that "wheat flour" is just "wheat". "Flour" would automatically be considered "rice flour". So when they saw "wheat flour" I think they interpreted it as no "wheat" or "flour (aka rice flour)" and automatically wanted to leave rice off my dishes. I don't want to share my translation cards, in case they are still wrong though! Additionally, I avoided soy and oyster sauce, both which often contain wheat. Fish sauce is gluten free. (I DID run into a celiac woman who had people read her labels and said the soy didn't have wheat, so she ate it with no ill consequence - but that was literally on our last night - not sure I was that brave).
We ended up asking them to write this:
No soy sauce
No oyster sauce
No Koki Flour (I actually didn't know this one, until I was writing this blog after the fact)
Yes fish sauce
Please be careful, I get very sick if eating these foods.
Basically that worked. I didn't use the complicated translation cards, because the concept was so foreign. Mostly, people were overly concerned about making me sick, so they just gave me fried rice with rice, egg and a few veggies. I think there was typically some sort of vegetable oil and salt.
5 Blogs that I Used!
Here are a few awesome blogs that really helped me prepare ahead of time. Instead of copying their info here, I have added links with the type of basic information you will find there.
I actually didn't find this until after the fact, but it is a phenomenal resource. The writer was in Thailand for 5 months as a celiac. They offer free, simple translation cards if you sign up for them. Plus, they've pretty much been everywhere, so have some fun perusing the website.
GF Gluten Free
Downshiftology with Lisa Bryan
Downshiftology is an AMAZING celiac blog! I wrote down a lot of her stuff to carry with me in my purse. Super helpful!
"No soy sauce" and "No oyster sauce" food pronunciations
How to search for street food
Foods she suggests
Basic street food safety measures (for you and your non-celiac companions)
Gluten Free WorldWide
Thailand Gluten Free
A really wonderful guide to gluten free in Thailand by a celiac who has been living there since 2008.
In depth descriptions of foods
Gluten free restaurant card
List of Thai phrases
Even includes gluten free Thai recipes!
Street food descriptions
The list I brought with me
So I passed along blogs I enjoyed and were helpful, but this is the list I put together and carried with me in my purse with me. All of it wasn't used, but it made me feel good having it on me. These are all ideas copied from one of the blogs I listed above.
Kuay tiaw: Rice noodle dishes. Most noodles are made from 100% pure rice flour. The most popular dish with travelers is Phat Thai. Rice noodles are also used in soups with chicken or beef stock (if their stock is home made, it should be gluten free but if it is a commercial stock you need to check). Meat and vegetables are then added to the noodle dishes.
Wun-sen: There is also a clear noodle made from mung bean starch and water which is gluten free. It is used in three different dishes – they use it in a hot and tangy salad, bean thread noodles that are baked in clay pots or it is used in soups.
NO Bamii: There is a wheat flour noodle (usually yellow in color) as it is made with egg that is NOT gluten free. This WHEAT noodle must be avoided.
NO Seitan: Jodi adds seitan (faux meat) is made from gluten and often used at vegetarian places in Thailand“even with just the vegetable dishes. Khao soi noodles in the north are made with flour and should be avoided.
NO “rara” or “mama” noodles –ramen wheat noodles
AVOID all the black soup
Thom Kha soup, which is a sour soup made predominantly from coconut milk and flavored with lemongrass. Served with mushrooms and meat, some restaurants will serve it with a spot of chili oil on the top.
Som Tam: This is a young papaya salad, mixed with shrimp, tomatoes, carrots, chilies, green beans and peanuts. The sauce is made from sugar, lime, Thai garlic and fish sauce. You'll see people preparing this in wooden bowls, often mashing the sauce ingredients, then mixing in the others.
Foods that should be safe
Fruit on a stick (or in a cup)
Smoothies and juices
Egg boats/mini omelets
Mangos and sticky rice
Grilled prawns, squid and other seafood
Pork or fish meat balls (*note: a starch is sometimes used – cassava, potato, or arrowroot. If ordering, double check there’s no wheat flour, by using your dining card).
Chicken and pork skewers
BBQ meats on little skewers and sticky rice. I've not been sick from those. Although, I would stay away from Chinese type pork and chicken, you know, the red glazed meats that hang from vendors' stalls.
Curry: On the plus side, most curries are safe as their flavour is derived from a unique mix of spices blended together. Then coconut milk or cream is added to thicken it, before adding the meat and veg. I would recommend ordering plain steamed rice (khao - like cow), rather than fried rice which will inevitably have soy sauce.
Thai fortune cookies / Crispy Pancake (see images below). These are made from rice flour and sugar. The fillings are usually sweet corn, grated coconut and coconut cream. Fillings can also be savory. Street vendors also sell thicker pancakes, which is essentially the same recipe with the inclusion of eggs.
Most Thai desserts feature traditional ingredients: coconuts, bananas, sesame seeds, tapioca, rice flour, arrowroot flour, mango and beans. Mung bean particularly, is used in many desserts because it is quite gloopy and used as a thickener. A common street food dessert is sticky rice topped with coconut cream and served in little squares or banana leaf. Speaking of sticky rice, of course you're familiar with mango and sticky rice. Well guess what? It's gluten free! As are bananas boiled in coconut milk and cantaloupe sago
Stay Away From
Street food that has a higher probability of getting you sick includes stir frys (due to cross contamination), certain soups (where it’s hard to know all ingredients) and BBQ-style meat with glazes or sauces (like the red-glazed chickens you’ll see hanging).
Steer clear of the red glazed meats you see hanging and stay away from anything pre-prepared (like a stir fry) in a vat. That's usually where people get sick due to bacteria from the food sitting too long.”
Restaurants I wrote down, but didn't end up visiting
What I ate
I was typically able to eat something from the breakfast buffet at each hotel. There was typically fruit and yogurt, often scrambled eggs or eggs to order. I tried to just do a fried egg in case anything was mixed in the scrambled, although I have no reason to think otherwise. There was also often fried rice - however, whenever I showed them my card, they didn't want me to eat it and made me a special plate. It was just rice, egg, and veggies, a little vegetable oil and salt. I carried little packets of Tamari sauce with me and added some for flavor (not letting them see - I thought that would REALLY confuse them!)
Lunch and Dinner
You can see below, but mostly some version of plain rice, noodles and veggies.
Don't drink it. I mean, drink it, but don't drink it from the tap. This goes for most places while traveling, but especially Asia. It's not that it's bad, it's that bacteria exists in all water, and we are used to water from other places. So if you want to experience what it feels like to have your gut adjust, go for it. If you'd prefer to spend your time sightseeing and not on the toilet, I'd recommend bottled water. We are also outdoor enthusiasts and backpack. We have a UV light that kills bacteria both when backpacking outdoors, and for international - but not all are created equal. This was overkill, but we had it, so we brought it, just in case we were stuck in a situation where we didn't have access to bottled water. But everyone drinks bottled water, so that never happened.
Bangkok Centre Hotel (4 nights)
We booked our trip through G Adventures check out my blog post on them to find out how much WE LOVED THIS TOUR! They set up the accommodation, and in booking the trip we just added a few days here so we could explore. At least one or two people in the restaurant always knew English. One of the managers sat down with me for 15 minutes looking at my translation card and asking lots of questions, and then re-wrote it for me to clarify. Then he explained to the kitchen, and I never had a problem.
As a non-celiac side note, this was a decent hotel, not a 5-star, but certainly good enough for us based on my travels. It's in a great location for easy access to the water taxi (about a half-mile walk), the Hua Lamphong train station (blocks away) and the Sky Train (just around the corner). Also, the Siam Cafe (see below) was just around the block and delicious!
Dinner: I ordered rice noodles with chicken (for Christmas!). It was a little bland because they left something out, but decent and filling.
Au Bon Pain:
Yes, Au Bon Pain. Our first day we visited Wat Pho and this was right across the street. It was super hot out and they had air conditioning. There was a little laughing at my card, but we decided I could get a smoothie and the veggie soup. The smoothie was good. The soup just felt wrong in 90-something degree weather and 100% humidity, but hey, I was playing it safe.
Fried Rice with Egg and veggies:
I know I mentioned it under breakfast, but this is what I ate the most of. Did I mention that I ate it a lot? It was safe, not very confusing, and easy for everyone to make for me.
Siam Paragon Mall / aka Gluten Free section in the Gourmet Market Grocery Store!:
This is a stunning, wonderful high end mall to walk through or shop for some luxury goods. But the best part for me...because I truly love grocery shopping...the Gourmet Market. Because...wait for it...they had a gluten free section! You can google this and find pictures of some of the products. I was on day 3 of my trip and had stocked food, so I really didn't need anything, but I was beyond shocked!
Crispy Pancake: A friend of mine in Milwaukee is from Bangkok, and her dear cousin gave us a tour of the city for the day, and helped me translate. So he said I had to try the crispy pancake called khanom bueang. We stopped at this little kiosk in the mall called Dao Crispy Pancake and he assured me it was gluten free. They are made from rice flour and have different fillings that can be sweet or savory. And it was delicious!
Chatuchak Market in Bangkok:
Guess what I found here to eat? Fried Rice ;) But also, there were little smoothie shops everywhere. I ate a few smoothies in Bangkok, because they were filling and safe. Plus it was really, really hot out.
Left: That's my husband's dish up on the left - and below are all spices to add. I didn't try any, I wasn't sure if they were safe.
Middle: Mine is the bland looking one. But I secretly added some of my packaged soy sauce. We had a friend as a guide that day, and he did translate my request for me.
I mentioned smoothies right? This is the one I ate at, but there were many others! Read more about the weekend market in my blog post What We Did in...Bangkok.
Siam Cafe is located in the Hua Lamphong area, but doesn't have a website. Our last night we ate at a cute outdoor restaurant with our tour group, the owner is friends with our guide. You could say the owner was a tad eccentric, but he spoke English very well, and was so very helpful! The owner said this dish, tom kha kai (chicken In coconut soup) was safe with no changes. It was an amazingly good dish.