Photo: Seated Buddhas at a Wat in Ayutthaya.

Eat and meet

Ayutthaya is one of the better eating towns in Thailand. It all goes back to the history — this was the place where pre-existing Thai culinary traditions absorbed rice noodles and flame-heated woks from China, unleavened breads from the Muslim world, dry spices from India, sticky rice noodles from the Mon, baked goods from Europe and rice-flour sweets from Japan. Food enthusiasts could easily spend a few days devoted exclusively to Ayutthaya’s food scene.

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The first of Ayutthaya’s signature specialties is kuay tiao ruea, or boat noodles. Back in the city’s heyday, Chinese vendors plied the many canals selling bowls of rice noodles in pork broth tempered with roasted pig’s blood from the comfort of their wooden sampans. Today these long and narrow rowboats remain, but they’re propped up and used as counter space at the boat noodle shops found all over town. One of the best is Jay Muey, located just off Uthong Road on the southeast side of the island. Medium-size bowls go for 20 baht (order two to fill up) and are filled with your choice of rice noodles along with pork liver, crackling deep-fried pork skin, pork balls, roasted pork and greens bobbing in a dark-brown broth that will leave you feeling warm and cosy.

Nom nomming at Ban Khao Nom.

Nom nomming at Ban Khao Nom.

Another fine option for kuay tiao ruea is Pa Lek, conveniently located within sight of the historical park off Chikun Road — look for an open-sided dining area marked by a Thai script sign in red, white and green. The large and extremely popular place serves small 15-baht bowls of pork or beef noodles that virtually every Thai visitor to Ayutthaya seems to want to try. You’ll also find several boat noodle joints out on Uthong Road, just north of the hospital in the island’s far southwestern corner. A favourite here is Kuay Tiao Ruea Khlong Sraban (yellow and red sign in Thai only), which does a mean pad Thai in addition to their 15-baht bowls of boat noodles. These are just a few of the boat noodle options in Ayutthaya; simply look for those wooden rowboats wherever you go.

A reflection of Ayutthaya’s very old Muslim community, the second notable local specialty is roti sai mai, threads of twirled palm sugar wrapped in round unleavened bread and served at room temperature. Not the dentist’s best friend, the threads taste something like cotton candy, with a consistency strangely similar to human hair. Rolled up in the thin slices of roti, the threads melt in the mouth and come in a host of flavours, from banana to strawberry to coconut and pandan. To try it, head for “Roti Road” — the stretch of Uthong Road that runs along the southern belly of the island around Ayutthaya Hospital. Dozens of vendors sell puffy bags of the colourful sweet by day and night.

Slow down for some snacking.

Slow down for some snacking.

Since we’re already on a sweet kick, let’s head a little further east up Uthong Road to Baan Kao Nhom, an air-con cafe that makes for a wonderful pit stop when bicycling around the island. Here a family specialises in traditional Thai sweets, which were influenced by the Japanese and Portuguese. Options include colourful luk chup, created out of mung bean dough and designed to look like mini fruits; slices of bananas rendered dark-brown by a sugary syrup; khao tom mat, or coconut-flavoured sticky rice steamed in banana husks; sweet coconut-and-egg custards; and chaw muang, a more savoury rice-flour dumpling stuffed with peanut-y filling and rendered purple by butterfly pea. You’ll also find excellent fresh coffee, milky Thai iced tea and a whole wall of crispy snacks.

A third well-known Ayutthaya food is giant freshwater prawn, which is farmed in the area and prized for a melt-in-the-mouth texture and flavour that’s supposedly superior to other prawns. You’ll find them at several large seafood restaurants with riverside dining terraces located, once again, on the south side of the island off Uthong Road. One popular spot is Ban Mai Lim Nam, serving a full range of Thai seafood dishes in a fairly easy to find riverside location south of the Historical Park. While whole steamed fishes, plates of grilled squid and other options will run you 200 to 300 baht, prepare to pay over 1,000 baht for just three or four of the giant prawns — one of them should be about the size of your forearm. If you’re up for a trip outside of town, you might follow food writer Mark Wiens’ footsteps to the prawn farm/restaurant, Ruay Goong Pao.

Did someone say boat noodles?

Did someone say boat noodles?

Sticking with local food, don’t miss the night market that comes to life every evening around 17:00 at the western end of Bang Lan Road. Here you’ll find a colourful mix of stalls, some with streetside tables for enjoying a meal on site. We sampled some great khao mok gai (Muslim-Thai biryani rice with chicken) and chicken massaman curry to go with munch-and-walkables like muu ping (grilled pork skewers), corn on the cob, fried chicken, fresh fruit and chocolate cake. Head to the far western end of the market, beyond the clothing stalls, to enjoy pad Thai and seafood in a slightly quieter setting — here we recommend kung awp wun sen, glass noodles steamed with prawns and herbs. There’s also a second, smaller night market that sets up nightly near the Prasak River at the northeast corner of the island. If you take a sunset boat tour, there’s a good chance that you’ll be dropped off here for dinner.

Right across from the Soi Farang backpacker strip, a smaller collection of street food stalls set up every night along Naresuan Road. They’re accustomed to foreign travellers and many offer English menus, making this an easy place to sample classic Thai street dishes like khao ka muu (roasted pork shoulder with rice) and krapao gai (wok-fried minced chicken with chillies, garlic and Thai basil) for around 30 baht a plate. In the same vicinity, Chao Phrom Market sets up daily from early morning until early afternoon and is a good place to score Thai sweets made from sticky rice and coconut, khanom krok (a sweet fried corn and coconut dumpling), fried bananas and fresh fruit.

Night market curry fiesta.

Night market curry fiesta.

Dedicated food lovers should also make a trip to Talad Hua Ro, a roofed fresh and prepared foods market that sprawls towards the Prasak River from a cluster of shophouses at the northeast corner of the island. Here you’ll find locally produced dried fish, abundant fruits and vegetables, mounds of curry paste, fresh meats, Thai sweets and curries for takeaway. Walk a short distance down the footpath to the left immediately after exiting the market to enjoy homemade sala bao (steamed buns with fillings like pork, egg and taro) and homemade pork dumplings at Pen Bakery.

Vegetarians who don’t want to miss out on the local food experience should head west up Naresuan Road from Soi Farang to Ayutthaya’s dedicated ahaan jay (vegan) food shop, marked by the usual yellow flags that are a signal to herbivores throughout the country. The smiley owner dishes out a small selection of curries, stir-fries and meat substitutes without so much as a dash of fish sauce. The options are displayed up front and served with rice for just 20 baht per selection.

Hua Ro market - where to start?

Hua Ro market – where to start?

If you’re in the mood for fiery Isaan (Northeast Thai) food, Ban Somtum is adored by locals at its always-bustling dining area on the far eastern side of the island. Go for the namesake papaya salad with peanuts and dried shrimp — the classic Central Thai adaptation — or get adventurous with the pungent fermented fish sauce and handful of fresh chillies that come in Lao/Isaan-style som tam. You’ll find a range of other Isaan “salads” like laap (minced meat salad) and tam taeng (cucumber salad) alongside a good selection of soups, fried or grilled chicken and pork, whole grilled salted fish (pla plao) and the essential cushion to the heavy spice of Lao/Isaan food: sticky rice.

A five-minute walk east of Wat Mahathat on Naresuan Road, Earl Restaurant is a convenient option for a quick, filling and cheap Thai meal. The two separated dining spaces, one with air-con and one open to the street, are outfitted with big wooden booths and vintage Coca-Cola signs for an old-school diner ambiance. The food is good, with generously sized noodle and rice dishes going for just 35 baht. We can recommend the pork krapao and fresh coffee, while the green curry, pad Thai and gaeng jud (mild tofu soup) also looked promising. The friendly owners speak a little English, drawing a mix of locals and travellers.

Back on Soi Farang, you’ll find that Tony’s Place, Chiang Restaurant, Jazz Bar and Street Lamp will all provide watered-down Thai food along with half-decent burgers and other standard Western fare. Tony’s is probably the most consistent, staying open from early morning to late night and offering an extensive menu, fresh coffee and bar. While also serving food, Chiang, Jazz Bar and Street Lamp are all pubs, first and foremost, that often host live music in the evenings. These are the places where most backpackers end up at night, sharing travel stories over bottles of Chang beer. If you want to hang at a Thai-style pub, a few places with wide front terraces can be found near Soi Farang on Maprao Road, and closer to the Historical Park on Naresuan Road.

Ahaan jay shop: Naresuan Rd (on the north side of the street, just east of Khlong Makharm Riang Rd; open daily 08:00-17:00.
Baan Kao Nhom Thai Dessert Cafe: Uthong Rd, a bit west of the southern end of Khong Makharm Riang Rd; T: (097) 921 9465; open daily 08:00-19:00.
Ban Mai Lim Nam: Uthong Rd (on the Chao Phraya River; entrance adjacent to the southern end of Chikun Road); T: (035) 211 516; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Ban Somtum: Corner of Uthong Rd and Rochana Rd; T: (094) 174 6711; open daily lunch and dinner.
Chao Phrom Market: Covers a large area between Naresuan Rd, Horattanachai Rd and Uthong Rd; open daily early morning to late afternoon.
Earl Restaurant: Naresuan Rd (just east of Horattanachai Soi 10, across from Phrakhun House); T: (035) 243 051; open daily 08:30-22:00.
Hua Ro Market: Uthong Rd (adjacent to Chan Kasem National Museum); open daily early morning to late afternoon.
Night Market: Runs down Bang Lan Rd from the corner of Chikun Rd; open daily.
Kuay Tiao Ruea Jay Muey: Southern end of Uthong Soi 12 (sign in Thai; look for the green, blue and teal tarp roof over the small dining and cooking area); T: (086) 662 8665; open daily 08:00-21:00.
Kuay Tiao Ruea Khlong Sraban: Uthong Rd (a bit west of Sala Ayutthaya; look for the yellow-and-red sign in Thai); T: (081) 565 0089; open daily 08:00-17:00.
Kuay Tiao Ruea Pa Lek: Corner of Bang Lan Rd and Chikun Rd (sign only in Thai but you can’t miss the huge dining area); open daily morning to afternoon.
Roti sai mai vendors: Near Ayutthaya Hospital on Uthong Rd.

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Founded in 1350 by King Uthong, the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya was one of Asia’s grandest cities until Burmese forces overran it in 1767. What remains of the ancient temples and palaces is now essential viewing for history-inclined travellers -- or anyone who might enjoy a stroll through impressive ruins.

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