William Putnam

Coffee in the kingdom

So who comes out better than Starbucks?


I have never understood the appeal of Starbucks. Granted, I am from Seattle, and it is difficult to be a saint in one's own country, but the idea of spending five dollars on a cup of coffee every day seems ridiculous to me.

The coffee is decent, but I do not think it is worth four times the value of Dunkin Donut's coffee. I think it was Anthony Bourdain who said that most people go to Starbucks not for the coffee but for the ability to show off that they spend five dollars a day on coffee. I must say I agree, especially in Thailand, where they do not even offer free wifi.

Nonetheless, I received a Starbucks gift card from a friend a few weeks ago, and have patronized the location in Ekamai several times over the last week or so. It got me thinking about the options for coffee in Bangkok as well as this part of the world in general.

Most Thai people drink instant coffee, which any real coffee drinker will want to avoid. It can be sort of be fun for a while to drink your morning coffee out of a bag, and it will usually only set you back 12 baht, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly; I think it's best to look at other options.

In most of Southeast Asia, this is not much of an issue as there are plenty of cheap and delicious coffee options. In Trat, where I used to work, there were several family-run coffee shops that would make real and delicious espresso drinks for 25-50 baht. Chiang Mai abounds with coffee options. And Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have some of the best coffee I have ever had.

However, the options are not as great in most of Bangkok. There are definitely some high-quality coffee shops, but you will often have to pay a premium. I have listed a range of options, as well as my thoughts on each, below.

M Coffee: This place comes highly recommended on several travel websites, and is conveniently located next to the BTS Phra Khanong station. The coffee's okay, but it did not live up to the online hype. On the other hand, the Thai food, especially the chicken with cashew nuts, is amazing (3.5/5).

Beans and Booze: This is a small coffee shop located on Sukhumvit 50. The coffee's pretty good, and the atmosphere is great, albeit cozy. There are several trashy John Burdett novels to read, along with Lonely Planet travel guides. And, more importantly, the shop serves Beer Lao (4/5).

Coffee World/ True Coffee: I am not a fan of these chains. The desserts are good, but the coffee is as expensive as Starbucks and not very strong. The milk-based drinks are far too sugary as well, even by Thai standards. True coffee does make a pretty good hot cocoa. (1.5/5).

Au Bon Pan: This chain has good bagels, but the coffee is mediocre, and it's as expensive as Starbucks and Coffee World (2.5/5).

Counting Sheep Corner: This is a great little restaurant located on Sukhumvit 61. The coffee is strong and tastes great. It even has a selection of novelty coffee options such as a nutella latte. The baked goods and smoothies are freshly made and wonderful. This place has delicious food too, including burgers, smoked salmon, and squid ink pasta.

The coffee is as expensive, if not more so, than Starbucks, but, at a nice restaurant like this, the price is more than worth it (4.5/5).

Fill in the Blank: This is another quiet café near Counting Sheep on Sukhumvit 61. The coffee is good, and it has an abundance of tasty dessert selections including a chocolate lava soufflé. This café is quite cheap for the area. My Americano only cost 70 baht (4.5/5).

Roast: This is a very popular breakfast place located in Thong Lor. If you go for brunch on a weekend, it is best to make reservations before arriving. I made the mistake of not doing so and had to wait for 30 minutes.

The building has an industrial feel and the menu is printed on a newspaper. It bears some resemblance to the hipster brunch cafes for trustafarians in the US, and I assume it mostly caters to the same demographic in Bangkok. Though I would normally feel judgmental and cynical in an establishment like this, I loved this place when I had brunch. The food was great, and the coffee selections went way beyond what is normally seen in Bangkok.

They offered the usual assortment of espresso-based selections along with several "coffees of the month" from varied countries around the world. I chose French press coffee from Honduras, and I was not disappointed, though it did set me back 150 baht for black coffee. I will certainly be visiting this place again, hopefully on a weekday when the line is not as long (4.7/5).

Café Amazon: This chain has pretty decent coffee all things considered. They exist at gas stations all over the country. I used to go to the one in Trat quite a bit since it was located near my school. I have not seen many on the BTS route, excluding the one way in back of Paragon, but I think I would frequent this place more if I had a car. There's nothing to complain about. The coffee's good and cheap, but there's nothing special about it either (3.5/5).

The above was my first attempt at coffee reviews, so forgive me for the lack of specialized vernacular and detailed descriptions. In regards to the rating system, I would say Starbucks is about a 3.5/5 in terms of taste, but a 3/5 overall due to the price.

But the fact is that going to Starbucks is a matter of convenience. The coffee's decent, and, despite the fact that it's expensive for coffee, it's not going to break the bank for most people. Still, I think most of us came to this part of the world for the sake of adventure.

Going to Starbucks hardly fits that bill. Drinking Starbucks is too similar to going to the Khao San McDonalds right after arriving in Thailand.

I understand the desire for convenience and familiarity in a coffee shop, but I think life should be more spontaneous and involve as many new experiences as possible. Without risk there is no adventure. So go ahead, explore, experiment, and find a local coffee shop that you love.

Bangkok is an urban metropolis, and no matter how hard it tries to be polluted, congested, expensive (by Thai standards), and unpalatable, there are always surprises around the corner. New tastes, sights, smells, experiences, hobbies, and passions are there to be found.




Comments

Roselee Coffee (I'm part owner) offers vegan coffees, teas, smoothies etc. along with Thai and vegetarian food inexpensively. I tired of seeing those expensive places. We're located near Rama 9 MRT (subway station). Facebook page is Roselee Coffee Love

By Roselee Coffee, Bangkok (17th February 2015)

Hi Will! I'm a fellow Seattlelite, and when I was living at home I used to avoid Starbucks like the plague. I lived near the Market, and used to mock the tourists who made the pilgrimage to the first Starbucks. These days, I spend at least three mornings a week at my local Starbucks. Why? I don't really know, but the music and the overall "feel" of Starbucks feels like a nice break from my new life in Thailand. As much as I love the adventure of travel, it can be a little overwhelming. I now allow myself the luxury of stepping into a coffee shop that sounds, feels, and smells like home. If only for a few hours before heading back "out there." I haven't been to a McDonald's since high school back home, but I recently found myself tempted to walk into one. I suspect for the same reason I now frequent Starbucks.

By Lidiya, Pattaya (21st December 2014)

A couple of years ago while traveling through Bkk as a tourist, I kept walking by a little coffee shop near the Victory Monument BTS station called Espresso Factory. After about the third pass, I went inside to order Thai Iced Coffee, only to find they didn't have it on the menu. The owner, however, asked me what it was, and quickly made one for me. Customer service at this place was A++. 6 months later when I was in Bkk again, I made a point to stopping by again and found that Thai Iced Coffee was now listed on the menu.

It's a great little local business--a two man shop with good coffee and great service. Highly recommended.

By Tim, Bkk (15th December 2014)

The best coffee i've had in bangkok was at black canyon, hua lamphong railway station, upstairs. The skinny milk double shot flat white at 70 baht is better than average, but not brilliant. I agree, bangkok is a hard ask for good coffee. As for starbucks, crap blend way overpriced.

Better quality and cheaper coffee abounds in chiang mai though.

By noel, Australia (4th December 2014)

Great read. I'm a sucker for anything coffee, and am ashamed to say I have both an espresso machine (a cheap Thai brand, Zebra, but it works better than my DeLonghi in the States!) and a Senseo machine (uses those soft coffee pods that are popular in parts of Europe)... literally right next to each other at home. Oh, and a French press at school. I know, I need a life.

BUT, like you, I always find I need a "fix" when I'm not near said options. I tend not to frequent the local Thai shops primarily due to the usual inclusion of sugar in ALL drinks (to this day, I still forget to ask for no sugar), and the tendency for the coffee to be a bit bitter/burnt to my taste (explaining the sugar rationale).

In the States, I'm not ashamed to say that I regularly went to McCafe in lieu of Starbucks just because, to me, it tastes exactly the same for far less. But in Thailand, McCafe costs almost the same as Starbucks... so I may as well go feel "hiso" at Starbucks if I'm going to spend an arm and a leg on a coffee.

Up here north of Mo Chit, I must agree that the overall selection of good coffee shops isn't too great. IMHO, for price versus quality in a coffee chain, Black Canyon is pretty decent. While I still think it's overpriced for a relatively bitter coffee, it's far less than Starbucks and tastes better.

If I'm going to pay for a "real" coffee from a chain, though, it's Segafredo for me. Provided you can get a decent barista (such as those at Tops Market, Central Ladprao), you can get a real Italian espresso for less than a fake Starbucks.

Just my two cents. Great write-up though; I haven't heard of several of those you mentioned, and I'll have to check them out next time I'm "in town."

By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (3rd December 2014)

A few years ago, I was teaching at a Rajabaht outside of the city. I had a 3 hour class that started at 8:30 a,m. On campus there was a coffee shop that made fresh, real coffee for a fair price. So, one morning, about 30 mins. before the start of class, I ordered a cup. Tasted good. Rich and creamy. I told the girl "not too sweet, please", Oh man, by the time the student's arrived, I was charged and ready. The students filtered in (no pun intended) at their own pace. By the time I finished roll call I was doing a little jig and the sweat was rolling down the small of my back, After checking off the students names I announced "Okay! Let's take a break!" Since that event, I only drink coffee on Saturday mornings,

By Arthur, BKK (2nd December 2014)

Great blog Will.
When it comes to coffee, I'm a bit of a Philistine I'm afraid. Although I appreciate and enjoy a cup of the real stuff. I'm just as happy with one of those three-in-one sachets from Nescafe.
I tell you who doesn't make the best coffee in Bangkok - Au Bon Pain. I'm constantly amazed at just how bad their fresh coffee tastes.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (2nd December 2014)

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