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Get Slurping: Boat Noodles Never Let You Down

My fondest travel memories of Bangkok are of the majestic cultural landmarks, the awe-inspiring Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho, the clichéd bar-crawl scene on Khaosan Road, and sweaty weekends spent combing through JJ Market (Chatuchak Weekend Market). On top of all these explorations though, the most rewarding Bangkok experience is discovering all the intriguing street food the country’s abundant larder has to offer.

The most notable speciality is the tiny bowls of noodles in a thick dark broth. The small portion packs a punch of intense flavours and is recognized as every Thai’s go-to comfort food: boat noodles.

Called Guay Tiao Ruea (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ) in Thai and originated from China, boat noodles go way back in 1942 when it was first served during the period of Plaek Phibunsongkhram in Bangkok. Single merchants used to cook and sell noodles directly off the small boats they were paddling in along Bangkok’s canals, which were first dug as protective moats, and expanded into system of trade and transport hubs in the 1700s. The system expanded as the capital moved south along the Chao Praya river to Bangkok in 1782. The small servings are convenient for the vendors to avoid spillage while serving the noodles to customers, who would eat on the banks of the canal. The most famous boat noodle vendor was Ko Hub, who worked from 1932 to 1951 and was even featured in movies. To this day his reputation still prompted some boat noodle vendors to claim they were his children or grandchildren.

Over time these canals shrank as the metropolis grew, and most boat noodle vendors had to permanently migrate to land by the 1970s. Nowadays boat noodle restaurants line the banks of Klong Samsen, the canal just north of Victory Monument. It should be on the to-do list of all first-timers in Bangkok to visit the famed Boat Noodle Alley near Ratchawithi Road. The atmospheric noodle shops along the water are impossible to miss. Locals and visitors will be found slurping their way through bowl after bowl of noodles.

The concept of boat noodles is simple – the restaurants serve tiny bowls of bite-sized portions of your choice of noodles with beef, pork or fish balls. A condiment caddy is available on the table for additional fresh chilli, chilli vinegar, sugar and fish sauce for extra flavour.

The tart-sweet broth is enriched with spices like cinnamon, star anise, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, pepper, dark soy sauce, pickled bean curd and most importantly, a splash of nam tok (น้ำตก), which is the blood of a cow or pig. The blood is added as a natural thickener and flavour enhancer to enrich the soup, and boiled to coagulate, resulting in the strong flavour and the distinct rich maroon colour. It is usually served with toppings of pork, or stewed beef chunks, or tom yum (fish balls), alongside pork crackling, fried garlic, bean sprouts, parsley, cilantro, morning glory and coriander. Pork are usually pieces of moo daeng (roasted red pork), minced pork in the form of luk moo (meat balls), and slices of pig’s liver. The standard variation of noodles are thin rice noodles, ba mee (egg noodles), sen yai (big flat rice noodles) and sen lek (rice vermicelli).

The bite-sized potion is the unique selling point at Boat Noodle Alley. It is common to order dozens of bowls at a time and to stack each finished bowl at the end of the table. Foodies who manage to finish more than 10 bowls of noodles usually are rewarded with a free soda drink. A typical shallow bowl of boat noodles costs about 12 to 20 baht, depending on the choice of the restaurant and noodle toppings.

Boat noodles are Thai fast food at its best. It can be polished off as a snack, while not meant to be a full meal, it is also belly-warming with repeated orders. Have the pile of empty bowls tallied at the end of the meal while savouring the complex and robust tangle of flavours and aromatics. Next to the condiment caddy is a stack of shallow dishes filled with khanom thuai (coconut custard pudding), a tasty Thai dessert combining sweet pandan custard with salty coconut cream that is a perfect end to the boat noodles experience.

The closest BTS station to Boat Noodle Alley is the Victory Monument (Anusawari) Station. Walk north from the station along the overhead walkway in the direction of the night market. Keep to the right around the big roundabout, and walk down a flight of steps overlooking the canal. Boat Noodle Alley is north of Ratchawithi Road along Khlong Samsen. The row of boat noodle restaurants on the right-hand side are easy to spot.

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