As with many Thai cities, the culinary highlight of Surat Thani is the night market that sets up daily along Soi Tonpo and surrounding lanes. It overflows with stalls slinging khao mok gai (Thai-Muslim biryani rice with chicken), grilled meats on sticks, som tam (papaya salad), Thai tea custards with patongo (deep-fried dough) and even homemade cakes and fresh Northern Thai strawberries when in season. You’ll also find several hole-in-the-wall eateries here, including a few places displaying at least two-dozen Southern Thai curries; and another few that specialise in seafood like grilled prawns and tom yum with fish.
You’ll also find a second, smaller night market set up next to Bandon Pier along the riverfront, a short walk east of the downtown bridge. It features fresh fruit stands stuffed with locally grown rambutan, durian and mangosteen, as well as longan, clementines and grapes from Northern Thailand and China. Keep walking east and you’ll reach a cluster of street carts dishing out Thai staples like pad Thai, pad krapao and kuay tiao (noodle soup) to a bunch of tables set up near the river. Prices are a bit higher than at the Soi Tonpo night market, but cold beer is more readily available and you can’t beat the riverside atmosphere. More travellers tend to congregate here and some “traveller street fare” like kebabs is available, but the market also draws locals who are particularly fond of the Chinese-Thai syrupy desserts sold by a busy stall towards the east end.
During the morning and daytime, do give the municipal fresh market a walk through. Located in the heart of town, it has a handful of shops selling Southern Thai curries, noodle dishes and rice plates along with Thai-style sweets; look for an old lady out front selling her homemade sakuu sai muu, a mix of pork, peanut and seasonings encased in transparent sago dumplings and served with veggies and sweet and spicy sauce. Here you’ll also get a chance to see locals selling fresh-caught seafood, dried squid and shrimp, Southern Thai curry and shrimp pastes, and freshly butchered meat hung from hooks.
Surat Thani province is famous for its oyster farms and the large riverside restaurants located just west of the downtown bridge on the northern bank of the Tapi are good places to try them. A mainstay here is Crossroads Riverside, where raw or grilled oysters are served alongside crab, prawns, squid and whole fish steamed with lime, garlic and chillies. The sizeable but often distracted staff also offers some Western options while featuring live acoustic music on the open-air deck on many nights. Though we didn’t make it out there, we reckon that you’ll find cheaper seafood at the pak nam, where the Tapi River empties into the Gulf, some 15 kilometres northeast of downtown at the end of Route 4079.
If you’re after a more modest but still tasty meal, walk south on Bandon Road from the night market and grab one of the few tables at Tip Pa Rod, an old-style wok-fried noodle joint where some of the best pad sii-ew we’ve tried is whipped up over old-school charcoal stoves. The smoky notes seep into the wide rice noodles along with egg, pork, morning glory and just enough seasoning to make the dish ever so satisfying, especially for lunch. There’s no English sign, so look for an open shopfront with mint-green wooden doors and a man expertly working a wok over a stumpy round grill as the scent of charcoal wafts over the footpath.
On the north side of Talad Mai Road and bordering the western entranceway to Talad Kaset 1 (the local bus station), Raan Leang Faa Mai will do the trick for a cheap, local-style meal. They serve tasty khao ka muu (roasted pork shanks with rice), khao na ped (roasted duck with rice), khao man gai (Thai-style Hainanese chicken rice) and yen ta-fo (noodles in a purple broth seasoned with fermented bean curd) along with a more straightforward rice-noodle soup. They have an English menu and charge only 30 to 40 baht per dish.
Take a short walk further east up Talad Mai Road and you’ll see the regional minibus station (Talad Kaset 2); walk a little further and you’ll come to a sleek glass-fronted cafe, called August, on the north side of the street. We’ve come across countless cafes all over Thailand with similarly trendy air-con setups, and while these are usually good for a cup of fresh coffee, they rarely deliver memorable meals. So we were taken aback when August’s cheerful staff served us an absolutely delicious burger made with real cheddar cheese, bacon and grilled pineapple. Along with cakes, brownies, quality espresso, tasty Thai dishes and even some Japanese-inspired fare, they serve other Western comfort foods like fish and chips, pasta and garlic-cheese bread.
Continuing with the Western food, Milano Restaurant serves decent brick-oven pizza and large salads along with forgettable burgers and sandwiches in an easy-to-find spot across from Bandon Pier and the riverside night market. The fruit shakes are also good, and it’s the closest thing that Surat has to a traveller-oriented cafe.
Towards the more youthful south side of town, Sofa Pub is a good place to unwind with a beer, whiskey and spicy Thai salad or sausage plate. The large and funky venue has a spacious streetside deck where live bands often play -- the one jamming out during our visit was darn talented. From here you could keep it going by continuing west to a number of other clubs found on Pakdeeanusorn Road, including the flashy Pool Bar with its billiards table and DJs. Closer to the hotels in the old part of town, Circa 2510 is a smaller and lower-key outdoor pub found on the lane that runs behind the Tapee Hotel.
August Cafe: Corner of Talad Mai Rd and Rungruang Rd (across from Talad Kaset 2 bus station); 0pen daily 10:00-20:00.
Crossroads Riverside: North bank of Tapi River (first left after crossing the downtown bridge); open daily 11:00-23:00.
GM Pub: Corner of Karunrach and Chonkasem Rds.
Main night market: Soi Tonpo (between Namuang and Bandon roads and just east of the My Place Hotel); open daily 17:00-21:00.
Milano Restaurant: Bandon Rd (across from Bandon Pier); open daily 11:00-22:00.
Municipal fresh market: Namuang Rd, just west of Soi Premchitpracha; open daily 07:00-16:00.
Raan Leang Faa Mai (no English sign): Corner of Talad Mai Rd and Talad Mai Soi 8 (southwestern entrance to Talad Kaset 1 bus station); open early morning to late afternoon.
Riverside night market: Southwest end of Bandon Rd; open daily 17:00-21:00.
Tip Pa Rod (no English sign): Bandon Rd, just south of Soi Tonpo; open 11:00-20:00.