Vanquished vendors -- What's it all about?

Vanquished vendors -- What's it all about?

Street food gets the boot in three key neighbourhoods

Vanquished vendors -- What's it all about?
Thanarak Khunton

There will be no more pushcarts with colourful umbrellas mounted on top, no more tasty meals and soothing, satisfying roadside snacks on the streets of Thong Lor, Ekamai and Phra Khanong. Instead of the clouds of smoke that formed above steaming, fragrant woks and charcoal grills, city dwellers are left with nothing but the fumes billowing from automobiles' exhaust pipes.

Today, the only remaining queues on the affected areas' pavement are those for motorbike taxis.

Judging by the look of these sidewalks alone, after City Hall's ban on street vendors was enforced on Monday, this latest act by municipal authorities is a success. Food has been taken indoors -- either purchased at convenience stores or consumed in air-conditioned buildings, fancy restaurants and cafes -- leaving pavement empty under the harsh sunlight.

At night, once-popular locations have become deserted.

The operation has faced a tremendous backlash ever since its announcement. Local and international media have decried the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's (BMA) forceful move, while foodies and big shots from the culinary industry have urged authorities to preserve Bangkok's lively street-food culture -- recently voted best in the world by CNN.

"Our street food rocks," says Gaggan Anand, an Indian chef and the owner of the progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan, in Bangkok, recently ranked the 7th among the World's 50 Best Restaurants and No.1 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.

For Gaggan, the dismantling of the Sukhumvit 38 street-food joints was a great loss, and further moves to clear vendors should stop, because few things beat a khao man gai at Pratunam or a beer in a soi. That's an experience you can't change, he adds.

For sellers, what now?

A mere few days before the Monday deadline, and only a couple of vendors were left on formerly busy Thonglor.

Many went home upcountry for Songkran -- some with no foreseeable plans of returning to Bangkok -- while others were out scouting for new locations, where they could resettle their carts and start over.

Although the street was practically empty ahead of the long holiday, Kaay (real name withheld), a som tam and grilled-chicken vendor, couldn't afford to take even one day off.

"I'll keep selling here until Sunday," she said. "Then I'll think about my next move."

With two children of school age and a disabled son, Kaay said she needs all the extra income she can get before the ban is enforced.

Moving out is a great source of worry for those vendors who do not know where to go next, said Wan, whose grilled bananas attract passers-by looking for a sweet, comforting treat.

In January, BMA officials rounded up nearly 1,000 street vendors from Thong Lor, Ekamai and Phra Khanong to announce the forthcoming ban. Wan said vendors were presented with few options to relocate, none of which proved truly satisfying.

For the past eight years, she has paid a monthly 500 baht to district officials collecting "rent". Her spot, just a dozen metres away from the main road, is prime real estate.

"But it's public domain, I understand. I'll go away but I can't afford to relocate where the officials told me to go," she argued.

Officials advised her to move her stall to the Liberty Plaza building, more than 2km away from Sukhumvit. The rent there will be more expensive -- 180 baht per day -- while the customers will be fewer and strict operating hours will prevent her from selling her snacks in the evening.

"It's not a viable solution," she said simply.

A larger purpose

This latest act is part of the BMA's larger clean-up campaign, destined to reclaim pavement space from illegal street vendors. Popular locations like the Bo Bae, Klong Thom and Saphan Lek markets were already cleared out, as were old-town areas such as the Tha Tian and Tha Phra Chan piers. Last year, another of Bangkok's cultural and touristic landmarks, the Pak Klong Talad flower market, was also wiped out.

Vendors throughout the city are now waiting for the axe to fall on their neighbourhoods, as recent media reports stated that the BMA intends to ban all street stalls by the end of this year. Victory Monument, Siam Square and what's left of Sukhumvit could be next. The BMA, however, came out recently to affirm that their measure is not meant to rid Bangkok of street food but instead to clear pavements. But apparently their pavement clear-off scheme directly affects street-food vendors. The Bangkok Post's food writer, Suthon Sukphisit, nonetheless agrees with the initiative. Safety and hygiene standards are almost non-existent among street-food vendors, while walking on the city's pavements is an impossible task as long as a colony of pushcarts, plastic stools and stainless-steel tables occupy them.

The cultural argument for preserving street food also does not make the cut, the writer argued. "How do you call something som tam that's made with carrots? And the pad Thai they sell is hardly Thai!"

However, Suthon added, good management of street food areas, rather than total eradication, is preferable. But it will be difficult to implement, with the BMA lacking proper vision and vendors reluctant to compromise. Soon after media reports that touristy hot spots Yaowarat and Khao San Road were up next on the BMA's to-clear list, there was a general outburst against it.

Vallop Suwandee, chairman of advisers to the Bangkok governor, denied the claims. These two areas are to be maintained as exceptions.

"The BMA is making plans to help preserve this Thainess for foreigners," he said on a local morning-TV show.

Consumer options

"Where am I supposed to eat if they ban all street-food vendors," a motorbike-taxi driver, who asked not to be named, argued.

Since the ban was enforced in Thong Lor this week, he has been buying food at convenience stores such as 7-11 and the like -- but it's just not as tasty.

Street food is fresh, convenient and affordable, especially for blue-collar workers in central business areas such as Sukhumvit.

"I could never walk into these restaurants or air-conditioned buildings," the driver said, pointing to the glitzy shop windows on both sides of the road. "It's like they are catering to a different class of people."

Since relocating her stall to the basement of an office building, Jaruay, a 69-year-old vendor of Chinese-style stuffed sticky rice, has had to raise her prices.

With rents getting more and more expensive each year -- having gone up from 140 baht per day to 200 baht per day -- her budget has taken quite a toll.

"The economy is bad. Everyone is suffering. But if I keep selling my food at higher prices, I will lose all my customers."

Why not, then, implement a system such as the one seen in Singapore, argues Piyalak Nakayodhin, an independent writer and editor of the book Street Food: 39 Great Places Under 100 Baht.

Food courts or hawker centres in Singapore are popular for their cheap stalls, filled with delicious goods that have proper hygiene standards. They are located in closed but convenient locations. Proper management is key, she added. "If authorities decide to ban vendors altogether, we will lose one of Bangkok's distinctive traits."

A cultural institution

Street food has not only become one of Bangkok's charms; it's become an inherent part of Thai culture, Piyalak said.

One can find stalls selling warm, freshly cooked food at any time of day and night in the city. In this sense, vendors cater to people of all walks of life and professions, including those who work at night.

If street food disappeared, what would be the alternative, the writer asked. Restaurants and shopping malls all have operating hours.

Convenience stores may be open 24 hours a day, but how can bland, frozen food compare with fresh produce and varied tastes?

According to Piyalak, our whole experience and enjoyment of food will be completely altered as well.

Well-known food stalls are places where people from all backgrounds may come together. Blue- and white-collar workers, office people, tourists and even customers who drive their Mercedes sedans to buy noodles from a particular stall, she said. "Because it's that good."

"Do we want to eat our microwaved meals, alone in our housing units? Or do we prefer to walk to the stall, chat with the vendor while watching him barbecue his moo ping and observe other clients?"

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