Strangling the life out of Bangkok streets
Great cities have a way of defining themselves in often quirky ways. Beijing, for example, has rows of tiny shops selling identical items right next to each other, if you can spot them through the smog. The Left Bank in Paris is home to cultural, art and fashion street riches. Hong Kong has its roadside fishball sellers. London has its pub closing-time street fights, Brussels has its open-air chocolate markets and Zurich, well Zurich has its ultra-cleanliness.
Here, in Bangkok, we have our street food stalls.
Now, however, in its wisdom to deprive the city of one of its big and hunger-satisfying attractions, the government has directed all street food vendors to halt sales in Ekamai, Thong Lor and Phra Khanong areas by April 17.
This, as the website Coconuts noted, is coming about despite the fact that Bangkok was recently named, for the second year in a row, as the city with the greatest street food in the world by cable TV network CNN, once known, paradoxically, as the Chicken Noodle Network.
One vendor in Thong Lor told BK Magazine that a City Hall police officer handed him an announcement advising him about the forced closure and made him pose for a photo with the paper.
The order, which apparently comes straight from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), will affect Soi Thong Lor, Soi Ekamai and Sukhumvit Soi 71, the main street in Phra Khanong.
My good wife, for example, loves these places for their cheap, spicy food after a hectic 12-hour, inadequately paid job at a famous hospital. As indeed many others, locals, expats and tourists alike, enjoy them.
What's the thinking here? OK, they can make navigating the pavement a little more tricky, especially the sit-down establishments.
But is it because they are in prime real estate areas that authorities incorrectly want to develop as more attractive residential and fine-eating areas? Thong Lor, for example, where we live, has more, and pricey, regular bars and restaurants than I could indulge in over the course of several years.
Yes, high-society guys and gals frequent the posh establishments, but office uniform-clad workers also sit alongside manual labourers at the street stalls because once one establishes itself as a purveyor of well-cooked and healthy food it becomes a magnet for those who watch their baht as they pay off their huge mortgages and car loans.
This crazy situation will not only hit them. It'll hit the vendors. What are the hundreds of chefs going to do to make a living? On a good day, a family run street vendor can clear about 4,000 baht, according to The Economist magazine, often bringing culinary skills from the home of great Thai cuisine, Isan. They bank on city people with little time, small apartments and consequently tiny kitchens to find a gap in the market.
I checked with The Economist's assertion that according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2.5 billion people eat street food daily and verified the figure.
The most recent study available, from 2007, found that Bangkok's 20,000 vendors provided residents with 40% of their food; two-thirds of households ate at least one meal a day on the street. My wife often eats seven days a week at these over-worked establishments. And yes, they are establishments, even for the occasional rat or cockroach seen lurking nearby, plus the inevitable doe-eyed soi dog.
Garbage can be a problem, but where isn't it in Bangkok? Nonetheless, Bangkok's municipal government has evicted almost 15,000 vendors from the city's pavements. Enterprising souls have increasingly moved into my dead-end sub-soi, but that will soon fill up.
A very successful seller of fresh fruit drinks, who had regular queues metres long all day, made enough cash to rent the shop behind her stall, but entering a premise lacks the spontaneity of buying on the street and destroys the vibrancy, colour and excitement of a walk. They are also expensive not just in terms of deposit and rent but also in maintenance.
When this edict comes into force, I fear many will just bite the bullet rather than the kebab and walk on by. There will be fewer belly laughs on the street.
Mark Hughes is a foreign news editor, Bangkok Post.
Foreign news editor
Mark Hughes is a foreign news editor, Bangkok Post. The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bangkok Post.