Exploring the flavours of Bangkok’s Royal Island

Rattanakosin is one of Bangkok’s most historic precincts and offers some of the city’s best street food. Travel writer Julie Miller takes us on a culinary tour.

Bordering Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River to the west, several canals to the east and Chinatown in the south is Rattanakosin, one of Bangkok’s most historic precincts. Established in 1782 when King Rama I transferred the capital from Thonburi to the eastern bank of the river, this district is most notable for the imposing Grand Palace and Wat Pho, as well as several grand museums, parks and monuments.

While overseas visitors flock to the glittering palace, however, very few linger to explore the other delights of the Royal Island, including some of the best street food on offer in the City of Angels.

Bangkok Old Town Rattanakosin Wat Pho

And what better way to discover hidden treasures, culture and pulse of a city than with a local? Native New Yorker Jason Friedman has lived in Bangkok for over a decade, working as a hotel manager for Four Seasons, Raffles and Amanresorts as well as independent properties including the flagship property of Rattanakosin, The Siam. In 2016, he formed the consulting firm J.M Friedman and Co, specialising in the conceptualisation and development of experience-driven luxury properties; and while he now spends much of his time travelling, his connection and passion for Bangkok’s Royal Island is palpable.

“Very few foreigners live here so I feel honoured to be able to call this culturally intact portion of Bangkok home,” he tells me. “It’s vibrant, alive and still carries the energy of a trading community.”

This is an area that comes alive at night, with hundreds of locals out in force riding bicycles, eating, drinking and enjoying the festive atmosphere. One of Jason’s favourite places to mingle is Phra Athit Road, a few blocks from the popular backpacker haunt, Khao San Road. On this iconic street, many cute cafes, cool bars and interesting restaurants occupy a collection of quaint shophouses from the turn of last century, serving an eclectic mix of arty students, ex-pats, hush society Thais and tourists. It’s also a hub of live music, with some of the friendliest crowds in Bangkok.

On neighbouring Soi Rambuttri – a busy walking street festooned with colourful paper lanterns – we kick off the night with a cheeky beverage at Madame Musur’s, a thatched restaurant with wicker lounges surrounded by greenery that serves some of the most potent, delicious cocktails in Bangkok.

Jay Fai by Krista – Wikimedia Commons

But it’s the food in these secret alleys that’s really worth travelling for. Some of Bangkok’s most lauded restaurants can be found in the Rattanakosin neighbourhood, including Jay Fai – a simple shophouse restaurant that was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Curious onlookers and fawning fans now queue for hours to taste the famed drunken noodles and crab omelette cooked by eponymous chef – but sadly, the 70-odd year-old Jay Fai now considers the award a curse due to the increased pressure and unrelenting crowds.

Jay Fai by Krista – Wikimedia Commons

Another restaurant that’s come under international notice is Thipsamai on Maha Chai Road near Golden Mount, whose egg-wrapped, charcoal-flamed phad thai is widely considered Thailand’s most irresistible noodle dish. Then there’s Krua Apsorn in Dinso Road, beloved by Australian superchef David Thompson who first introduced to me to the legendary stir-fried crab curry and other delectable Thai specialties.

But Jason has other plans for tonight – he’s taking me to his all-time favourite restaurant, booked months in advance. Hidden down a dark alley in the middle of a fish market in Chinatown is Jok Kitchen, an assuming one-table restaurant that serves the freshest and best seafood in Bangkok, straight from market to table.

“Jok is a crab-monger who cooks crabs and seafood at night,” Jason tells me. “There’s no menu, you just eat what he cooks. It’s an epic dining experience – I’ve brought Michelin-starred chefs here and they love it.” These simple restaurants – really just one step above street food – represent the best of Thai cuisine – fresh, authentic and exploding with flavour – Thailand on a plate.

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