A recipe for harmony on the streets of Bangkok

cheap eats: Street food attracts customers from all walks of life. The BMA’s decision to clamp down on vendors has received heavy criticism. photos: Patipat Janthong

When the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced its decision to clear vendors from the city’s streets, they didn’t present a clear-cut plan for the procedure. Many wondered where the vendors would be moved to. Others asked if sellers would quit their livelihoods altogether and find a different job once and for all.

When the BMA explained their reasoning for the decision — that vendors violated the pedestrians’ right of way and that their food can be risky to people’s health — the public objected. Street food is a part of Bangkok’s culture. The stalls also serve as huge tourist attractions. Banning street food — what for? Where will people with smaller incomes go to eat? And where else in Bangkok will you find the true taste of Thai cuisine? In a five-star hotel? Very unlikely.

Cornucopia believes that no matter how hard the authorities try, they will never get vendors off the streets. It’s simply because they belong there.

Bangkok, including its inner city and the outskirts, has a population of nearly 10 million people, 90% of whom are said to dine out for at least two meals a day. That would easily land Bangkok a number one ranking among the world’s “eating out” capitals.

For breakfast, for example, parents must drop their children off at school as early as they can to avoid traffic jams at rush hours. These students might have to eat their first meal of the day at school, while their parents must eat at their office. This could be a sandwich, coffee, fried chicken with sticky rice or fruit smoothies. Both must have lunch at school and the office, or somewhere nearby. Some could be too busy and eat at their desk. As for dinner, it’s very likely that they would rely on takeaways instead of cooking at home.

But eating out is no big fuss in Bangkok — there’s plenty to choose from between the sidewalk stalls, the food courts and the proper, sit-down restaurants.

Street food caters to both blue and white collar workers — even migrant workers. There is everything to offer from spicy Isan food, kao mun gai hai lum (Hainanese boiled chicken and rice), all kinds of noodles and, last but not least, fried insects.

You can find street food everywhere, from inside small sois to the sidewalks of main streets. It can be served at a stall with tables and chairs, trolleys or even food trucks.

Why are there so many of them? It comes down to the basics of supply and demand. There are always hungry customers to serve. Besides, starting a street food business is a small investment. Some food stalls cost less than a second-hand motorcycle.

The prime time for selling food is brief, taking no more than three to four hours a day (depending on whether your food is for breakfast, lunch or dinner). You don’t have to pay rent. It’s quite profitable, giving you freedom and not requiring much expertise at all.

If your food is exceptionally good, you’ll become very popular and get rich from it. Take these following vendors, for example — the Chinese curry place in Soi Mungkorn off Charoen Krung Road, kua jab (roll flat noodle soup) near Wat Chakkrawat, kew tew kua kai (fried chicken noodle) on Sua Pa Road and kow kaeng (rice and curries) near Wat Trai Mit. These wealthy street vendors never want to move from their prime location, even if they had enough money to buy a proper restaurant on an expensive road like Sukhumvit.

As great as street food is, residents’ demands for freer sidewalk space should be heard out as well. For the two to coexist, the BMA must be able to control the vendors’ cleanliness, orderliness and their garbage collection system. There should always be room enough for both pedestrians and vendors to share the sidewalks.

The BMA is now experiencing a whiplash of sorts as they fine-tune their proposals. This applies especially to the Municipality Department, whose main duties are enforcing order on the road and pedestrian safety.

The municipal office is like the Hercules of Bangkok, overseeing 50 districts, for each of which there are about 30-40 municipal officials, amounting to nearly two thousand in total.

The office has been operating for more than 20 years and their work has received a steady stream of criticism, especially regarding their inefficiency, area control tactics, red tape measures and corrupt practices. In light of such issues, their power has become much less credible, rendering them a “blindfolded Hercules”. How can we trust them when they continue to take bribes from vendors, for example?

Here’s an example of said inefficiency — around Sala Daeng in front of Silom Road, the sidewalk used to be packed with stalls. Pedestrians campaigned for the right to road safety and the authorities cleared the vendors out of the area, moving them a little further into Soi Convent or behind the buildings instead. That seemed to solve the issue for a short while. Today, they’ve moved back to claim the corner again.

Both sides of Sathon Road are under strict control by the Ministry of Interior’s Bureau of Town and Country Planning, and the BMA. The buildings must be constructed with enough empty frontal space — at least several dozen metres — to plant trees and to create orderly green landscapes just like the main streets in the US and Europe. They want to make Sathon the Wall Street of Thailand.

Despite such initiatives, every morning you’ll see stalls prepare food just outside several offices on Sathon. A few stalls increase to 100 eventually, especially on the corner of Narathiwat Ratchanakharin Road. What do the authorities do? What’s likely is they turn away and collect their tea money.

When trolleys take over the sidewalks of Sathon, vendors can always negotiate with authorities to keep operating.

Street food is essential to people in Bangkok. We could even call the relationship coexistent. The BMA might have to reconsider the matter more carefully to find some middle ground. If they really don’t want food on the street at all, it’s probably a bit too late now.