Which is Better Starbucks or Independent Thai Coffee Houses in Bangkok, Thailand?

Starbucks in Bangkok, Thailand - copyright jwalsh, Creative Commons


The king of coffee in Bangkok, of course, is Starbucks. Starbucks in the last eight years has opened more than 80 cafes in Bangkok alone, with more outside the city. There are so many Starbucks cafes in Bangkok now there are five within a five minute walk of my apartment – how crazy is that? In Central Ladprao mall, there are three Starbucks cafes, in one mall and they’re busy all the time. But, if you’re in Bangkok and jonesing for a good cup of coffee, a latte or an iced coffee drink, should you go to Starbucks or try one of the independent Thai coffee houses instead?

Price of Starbucks compared to Thai coffee houses – The price of a Starbucks coffee, hot latte, or an iced drink in Bangkok is comparable to Starbucks in the US. Now, think about that. The average salary in Thailand is around 240 baht a day (or $7 a day). And a Starbucks latte is $3.40. Half a day’s salary for a cup of coffee. Needless to say, the only people who frequent Starbucks in Bangkok are the hi-so (high society types), western, Japanese, Korean tourists, or middle-class or hi-so college students, who buy one coffee and sit there all day.

The Thai coffee shops, on the other hand, unless they’re chain coffee shops like Coffee World and True Coffee are cheaper than Starbucks and the coffee tastes the same, or better. In an independent Thai coffee shop, you can get a hot latte for 50 baht (or $1.75), less than half the price of a latte at Starbucks in Bangkok. Iced coffee drinks are between 35 and 55 baht ($1.10 to $1.85) depending on the coffee shop and are just as delicious as Starbucks iced drinks. Many of the Thai coffee shops now do iced-blended type drinks too at a fraction of the price of the $3.75-$4.50 Starbucks frappuccinos.

Variety of Drinks at Starbucks compared to Thai coffee shops – Starbucks in Bangkok has the usual Starbucks drinks found anywhere else in the world. They also do a couple of drinks unique to Asia; drinks like the Coffee Jelly Frappuccino Blended Coffee, iced coffee with jelly in the bottom of it. Teas are something they seem to be expanding in Thailand, as Thais drink a lot of green tea and other tea-based drinks.

At Thai coffee shops in Bangkok, you get what you get at Starbucks and, often, more variety. They serve the usual lattes, americanos, espressos, iced-blended drinks, fruit juices and smoothies as well as tons of different tea-based drinks. And, like I mentioned, at prices much lower than Starbucks.

Baked Goods at Starbucks compared to Thai coffee shops – The baked goods at most Starbucks I’ve visited are average and, in some cases, downright poor. The selection is poor, the quality isn’t good and the price is high – at least double what most Thai coffee shops charge. If I wanted a half-stale sandwich with one slice of a ham and piece of lettuce in it for more than $2.50, I’d go through the garbage can at one of the Thai coffee shops – it would be free there.

At Thai coffee houses on the other hand, the prices are cheaper for a cake, a sandwich or a cookie, the selection is better and they often buy from famous Thai bakeries, so the quality is superb. Thais make incredible baked goods, so I’m always amazed the ones at Starbucks are so bad.

Atmosphere at Starbucks compared to Thai coffee shops – Starbucks in Bangkok has more than 80 coffee houses at the moment, all with much the same atmosphere – typical Starbucks. A lot of wood (including the chairs which are not usually comfortable), clean, but all much-of-the-samey.

The only two Starbucks in Bangkok I’ve visited and think are lovely are the one on Soi Langsuan, because it’s built in an old traditional Thai house, and the one in Kao San Road, also built in an old Thai house. These two are both unusual, with lovely decor and a comfortable, cosy atmosphere.

The atmosphere in Thai coffee shops is as varied as the shops. From Agalico, which is all white wrought iron and birdcages and a lovely garden, to Cafe du Lac a two-storey building with comfy chairs, typical Thai decor and situated on a pretty manmade lake. There’s also Coffee Alley, a tiny little coffee shop with a gorgeous garden where you can sit outside and enjoy the awesome Thai weather, or inside with free wi-fi and friendly staff.

I love the Thai coffee shops because they’re a great mix of western and Thai style with all the mod-cons but the Thai flair for style.

Wi-Fi at Starbucks compared to Thai coffee shops – The one thing that’s outrageous at Starbucks is the price of wi-fi (wireless internet). For 100 baht an hour in some Starbucks shops (around $3.35) it’s incredibly expensive, especially for Thailand. I’ve never paid for internet at Starbucks and never would.

In many Thai coffee shops the wireless internet is either entirely free, an hour free with the purchase of a drink, or a reasonable 30 baht ($1) an hour charge. Even at True Coffee, one of the top Thai coffee shops in Bangkok, the price of internet is only 50 baht per hour, half the price of Starbucks, and because True is the internet company, the speed is super fast.

Overall, I visit Starbucks in Bangkok maybe three or four times a year and that’s usually when I’m with a Thai friend who wants to go there. Thai coffee shops are better value, have more selection of drinks, their baked goods are delicious and their atmospheres are all different. Plus, with free or cheap wi-fi, you really can’t beat them – not compared to what Starbucks in Bangkok has to offer.

If you are a die-hard Starbucks fan and really have to have your daily cuppa, even when you’re away from home, then, sure, try a Bangkok Starbucks. Otherwise, I would say save Starbucks for when you’re back in America, and try a Thai coffee shop instead.