Sweeping dust under the carpet
There's been a lot of effort on the part of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to "regulate" streetside vendors. Silom Road was a prime target area, followed by Saphan Lek and various other locations in the city. In some areas, not only were vendors using up pavement space to sell their wares, they had also erected semi-permanent structures with steel reinforcements.
I've witnessed some of these efforts when I drove my daughter to university in the Tha Phrachan area. The pavement along Phra Chan Road, next to Wat Mahathat, has all been cleared, and now looks quite peaceful and respectable. The tables laden with Buddha amulets and sundry items to do with religious belief, as well as umbrellas and tarpaulin or plastic sheets to keep off the sun and rain, have all but gone. People can actually walk under the shady trees. It was almost unheard of, that you could actually walk on the pavement.
But hold your applause.
Those tables and umbrellas haven't gone very far at all. In fact, just around the corner.
If you turn from Phra Chan Road on to Maharaj Road, just further past the entrance to the Wat Mahathat car park, you will see a tiny strip of pavement that stretches to the end of the temple compound. It's about the width of a slim body, and two people can't pass without someone having to give way onto the road surface.
Previously, this bit of pavement had been deemed useless by vendors, and had therefore been left to a couple of vagabonds who make their living in the vicinity. They eat and sleep on this pavement, walking around in their shirtless, grungy glory, hair in natural dreadlocks. I assume they get their lunch from the monks, and as far as I know, they keep themselves to themselves.
But now their habitat has been invaded by the influx of vendors who are in exile from around the corner. The pavement, being the narrow width it is, is even too narrow for the vendors' tables, so they resort to stacking bricks on top of one another to reach pavement level to carry the table legs. And since there is no space for the vendors themselves, they have put up little chairs on the road surface next to their tables where they sit, waiting for the day's commercial activities to begin.
Pedestrians are now at a loss. The opposite pavement has always been packed with vendors, but at least they used to be able to walk on this side. Now, they have to walk on the road, where they have to watch out for a constant stream of buses, taxis, cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, tricycles and bicycles.
Traffic and pedestrians alike also have to weave their way around the shoppers perusing the Buddha amulets, all of whom are also standing in the road.
So I'm not sure applause for the BMA's pavement regulation effort is due yet.
It's like sweeping dust under the carpet, which is an easy way to do your housework, but it doesn't solve any problems. And the dust, together with all the dust mites, are all still there.
The problem of street vendors is a tricky one. It seems mean to deprive someone of their income, and these street vendors are poor people who live day-to-day by peddling their wares on the streets. Call me a cynic, but I'm not entirely sure that's always the case. Vendors on Silom Road earn good money. In fact, I'm sure many of them make a lot more than I do on a monthly basis. They have to, or they wouldn't be able to pay the exorbitant rental fees on their tiny pavement allotments, as well as "protection" fees to some vague "protector". I'm not making this up; I got this from daily newspapers.
Thais are the biggest shoppers on the planet. Every tour package for Thais has to include a minimum of museum visits and a maximum of shopping opportunities. We shop whenever and wherever there is something to buy. But that is not to say that you have to bring the vendors to us. You can be assured that no matter where you hide the vendors, we'll find them.
So I do applaud the policy of returning the pavements back to pedestrians. But please use a vacuum cleaner, so it's not just dust under the carpet.
Usnisa Sukhsvasti is the features editor of the Bangkok Post.
M.R. Usnisa Sukhsvasti is Bangkok Post’s features editor, a teacher at Chulalongkorn University and a social worker.