Are Thai Street Food Stalls Really Dangerous?

This week we have the tragic news of a young New Zealand tourist, Sarah Carter, who died while on holiday in Thailand. Reports are not clear yet, but it seems that 23 year old Sarah died from food poisoning after eating at a market stall in the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai. Two of her friends, Emma Langlands and Amanda Eliason, also suffered from food poisoning though Emma seems to be recovering now. Initial headlines that went around the world stated “NZ woman dies after Thai food poisoning”. The article in the online newsite stuff.co.nz went on to say: “Sarah Katherine Carter, 23, died at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital, in northern Thailand, on Sunday morning after eating toxic seaweed she bought from a food market on Friday.”

A lot of what has been printed in the newspapers has been pure speculation and more questions are raised than answered. The truth is, doctors are not sure yet if seafood is to blame. We don’t know what they ate or even where they ate. Though the Bangkok Post this morning (“Chiang Mai fears food poisoning scare”) said officials were sent to collect food samples from “the Night Bazaar food market”. According to Chiang Mai public health chief Wattana Kanchanakamol, the preliminary report into the death of Sarah indicated a viral infection. What is strange at the moment is that Emma, who also suffered from vomiting though not as serious, ordered a different meal to her two friends. In addition, in a newspaper interview (“Doctors not sure if Thai seafood to blame”), Amanda told reporters that they didn’t start vomiting until the next morning.  Lab results are not in yet and we probably won’t know what caused the tragic death for a few days yet.

In the meantime, we don’t need scaremongering headlines like this one in The Timary Herald: “Guesthouse owner says avoid Thai food stalls”. Like many people, I have lived in Thailand for many years and I haven’t had anything worse than diarrhoea that went away by the next morning. Of course, food poisoning is a real threat but if you take basic precautions then your chances of being hit are greatly lowered. The advice in this newspaper story is given by a foreigner who suffered from “crippling food poisoning” after eating RAW oysters on TWO different occasions. According to this man, you should avoid roadside or market food stalls. Do I really need to comment any further on this?

Thai people are just as concerned about food hygiene as people like you and me. I’ve always said that if you see a food stall that is crowded with local people then the chances are much higher that the food is safe to eat. No-one is going to return to a stall if the food gives them diarrhoea. I would also suggest to only eat at stalls where you can watch them cook your food. Don’t eat ready-cooked food that has been sitting in pots all day. It should also be obvious that you shouldn’t eat any kind of raw seafood on the street. That is just crazy. As for ice, you should only eat ice cubes and not crushed ice. One final advice, don’t make the mistake of thinking a fancy restaurant is cleaner than a roadside food stall. The only time that I have had diarrhoea or anything that resembled food poisoning was after eating at a restaurant.

It is always sad to see someone die so young. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of  Sarah Carter. I also hope that both Emma Langlands and Amanda Eliason will make a full recovery and are able to fly back home to their family and friends soon.

Related blog: Thai Street Food Challenge

24 responses to “Are Thai Street Food Stalls Really Dangerous?

  1. I don’t know anyone who has NOT had food poisoning regularly from them and I stopped eating on the street many years ago as a result – I prefer my food without added “benzene” too. Thais accept it which is why they are aery often off work with a “bad stomach” but it is not healthy at all in the long run.

  2. Very good article, via @seacorro RT @RichardBarrow: [thai-blogs.com] Are Thai Street Food Stalls Really Dangerous? http://bit.ly/e33Xi5

  3. I second the statement of only ever getting sick from restaurants/cafeterias, but never from a food stand in Thailand

  4. Tap wood 15 years and not a loose 1

  5. Excellent advice toward the end fo the article, Richard. Thanks for reminding us of how to choose safely.

  6. I have eaten on Bangkok’s streets so often, I can’t even count it. I love five-star living, but the food from the stalls is so high quality, I love it just as much. I never had a problem, and in fact did have the same experience. The only food poisoning issues I had here (diarrhea) where after eating in a reastaurant on Sukhumvit Road.

  7. An awful tragedy compounded by a predictable reaction from newspapers that serves no one. Scare their readers, whip up sales. Crocodile tears for the victims. The only food poisoning I have ever had in nearly 60 years and 30 countries was f…rom a ‘reputable’ company in the UK. The report didn’t even seem to indicate ‘food poisoning’ in the accepted sense of the phrase. As far as I know Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium or any of the others, attack the heart as reported. It seems to have been a chemical poisoning of some kind.

  8. Excellent piece of writing that. Enjoyed it very much.

  9. The problem with any recommendation of eating in restaurants is how clean is the restarant kitchen, can you see? At least on the street you can see.

    The other thing I notice of late is a lot of tourist areas have these huge impressive looking laid out prepared food stalls as in your picture (I’ve eaten in many but always work canteens where they have hundreds of workers, good cold storage and throw away uneaten food at the end of the day). With the street ones, if that stall was set up 8 hours ago and that pork curry has been in the sun for that time, I’d avoid it. Also how often with the sheer variety food are selling are they turning it over and cooking fresh, how are they storing it and how old is it, I’d avoid Seafood at them.

    Most Thai street food stalls sell very few dishes, turn over fast ensuring fresh ingredients and cook fresh on the spot. I’d choose one of these over any restaurant.

  10. Silaphinemaowlaew

    The only time I ever got sick was from eating bad seafood in Pattaya. Avoid those stalls that bearly have customers sitting around and stick to those where many locals frequent and you’ll be quite all right.

    Busy food stalls usually serve fresh food, for the ingredients don’t have time to go bad
    Thais don’t wanna get sick any more than you do.

    Of course there are a few things one should keep in mind when eating out in the marketplace or at a roadside stall, but in my many years of having lived in Thailand I have been more than all right.

  11. We always eat from those food stalls and never got sick of it, yeah sometimes when going to the toilet it was a bit thinner then usual :0 but well, stomach have to get used to this food as well. Frequently I hear people talking about some governemnt sticker/etiquette on the food stalls, but I never ever saw such sticker. Only with seafood you should probably be a bit more carefull but for the rest it’s all okay.

  12. J David Garnett

    I’ve eaten more street food than I can recall over the years and to date not suffered any problems. Just go eat the busy places.

  13. It is very sad that this tragic event happened. I used to eat Thai street food all the time when I grew up in Thailand. It did not bother me whatsoever – maybe because I have a Thai cast-iron stomach. Thai street food sellers usually make sure that their food is fresh. The warm humid weather in Thailand causes food to go bad pretty quickly. Because of this, people tend to sell only a limited amount of food per day. The leftovers will not be kept for selling the next day.

  14. While traveling in the Navy one of my favorite things to do was try the authentic local cuisine. You can’t more authentic than the street stalls! I’ve never gotten sick from any of them. Now the alcohol on the other hand…

  15. Good writing ! I got sick only one time in Thailand and after puking everything was fine :) Also, a good sign of quality is when stalls put newspaper cuts with article about their shop or when they put logo of local tv stations (usually it’s a number with red green blue colors) which means that a tv show visited the restaurant.

  16. No news yet about cause of death. However, we are now getting reports of another mysterious death at the same hotel last weekend. This time a British couple died. Coincidence?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-12548717

  17. Just returned from Thailand and been eating out alot.

    There where holidays in the years past that i got really sick from foodstalls. One time from “fried morningglory” that came from dirty water and didn’t fry long enough i guess. Vomit and Shit al night long…

    Well this year no problems at all. While eating satay, porkballs, papaya salad etc. from foodstalls.
    I love it when food is made fresh right in front of your eyes.

  18. I wait until I see a new stall come and many Thai crowd it. Go there. You know the Thai price also if you watch. I really never got sick but different foods will act differently on my system. The same think happens when I cook my own extra Thai spicy food at home and I am a sanitary freak.

  19. When I was stationed in Thailand we were told not to eat off the street vendors. My grandson 5 yrs old went with my Thai wife to Thailand and ate everything and never got sick. My wife and I returned in 2004, I ate from street vendors and local restaurants and was constantly sick the whole time we were there. When I ate at a tourist restaurant I was ok. A friend of mine said he had the same problem and went to a Thai doctor and was given a massive dose of penicillin and after that he never had a problem. My wife and I are planning another trip, is there any other precautions I can take other than “don’t drink the water”?

  20. I think like I always say, if you see a lot of Thai people eating at a shop then it should be alright. Just make sure that you choose freshly cooked food and not curries that have been sitting in pots all day.

  21. I recently moved to Thailand, and I have to say that I’m really glad to have found this discussion in the midst of all the hysteria about the supposed “dangers” of Thai street food. I love eating from street food stalls, and like you Richard, the only time I’ve been REALLY sick (thus far) was from a touristy restaurant. Thanks for pointing out that Thai people also have vested interest in promoting street food safety – there are some very informational videos on the ‘net explaining the measures that the Thai government has taken to keep people safe in Thai food restaurants and stalls. And if you don’t see evidence of the Thai government’s food saftey seal, and this matters to you or your companions, you can always ask!

  22. FYI – Subsequent investigations have shown that Sarah did not die of food poisoning, but it likely due to exposure to pesticides used in her room to eradicate bedbugs.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10745480

    The whole situation was very sad for Sarah and her friends and family.

    I travelled for 5 months through SE Asia, and only got sick once – and this was after eating Pad Thai from a street seller. My husband also ate there and was fine. The only difference – I had prawns; he didn’t. I should have known better!

    However, when travelling through Vietnam (and Fiji), he got quite sick several times whereas I was always fine. I put it down to eating the riverfish. I didn’t eat it because I just don’t enjoy the bones, etc – but also because I’m not keen on what goes into the rivers! But he ate it regularly, and paid the price. It was the only main difference in our diets.

  23. Informative blog! I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 5 years and fell in love with the street food culture. I want to bring the best of Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese and Indonesian street food flavours to my home in Chennai, India. I wonder if you can guide me on how to connect with street food companies in Thailand, to invite them for a food festival in Chennai, India! Hope to hear back from you!

  24. Its not just food that irritates the tummy or kills, but kills or maims over years thats the problem. Not that high sugar and fat foods found in the West are the solution. I have spoken with Thais, and some of them grow their own fresh food because they do not trust the fresh food in the market/supermarket due to pesticides/tampering/processing. The food stalls are no better as they just buy from the markets, though u can pick and choose. Food contamination and adulteration (food is very commonly tampered with to make an extra baht or baht/buck and its very hard to tell unless ur an expert) and is a very serious and common issue in every nation on the planet, from popular to obscure brands, and much more complex than “my tummy hurts” or “i didnt keel over so its clean”. There are some very high tech ways of tampering too, and its a huge underdiagnosed underreported problem. I normally eat hot meals on the roadside in Thailand without qualms, but I *do* wonder what I can do to minimize risks, truth is i simply do not know.