Will Bangkok’s street food ban hold?

The Thai capital is famous for its street food – but now the authorities are seeking to strictly curtail it. Nic Dunlop wonders why

Firepower: a street restaurant in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Firepower: a street restaurant in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Photograph: Nic Dunlop

Bangkok, one of the world’s foodie capitals, caters to almost every taste, whether fine French cuisine or fresh sushi. But for tourists and locals alike, it is Thai street food that really makes the city such a culinary delight.

Dishes from all over the country are available at every hour of the day. They include som tam, a spicy green papaya salad from the northeast, and muu bing, strips of grilled pork on sticks. There are also the popular lad kao (on rice) varieties, which are stir-fried dishes like krapao moo saap – minced pork fried in garlic, fish sauce, chilli and Thai basil. The food originates from different parts of the country, making the capital’s streets reflect the kingdom as a whole.

Super spicy: som tam papaya salad.
Super spicy: som tam papaya salad. Photograph: Nic Dunlop

In April this year, the authorities announced they would purge the city of street food, in the interests of “cleanliness, safety and order”. The next area to be cleared would be Bangkok’s Chinatown and the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road. There would be no exceptions said Wanlop Suwandee, chief adviser to the governor. “Every street vendor will have to move out.”

The announcement was met with incredulity. The authorities were quick to back-pedal, claiming they were not banning street food entirely, but regulating it. Special areas would be set up for vendors, they announced, but far from the centre. The tourist areas of Chinatown and Khao San would be spared.

However, the vast majority of street food is consumed not by tourists, but locals. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people rely on street food daily – which means that huge numbers also depend on it for their income. “Street food makes all of the inner workings of Bangkok possible,” says Chawadee Nualkhair, author of Thailand’s Best Street Food. Many office workers eat all their meals on the street because it’s cheap and convenient. It also acts as a social glue. People talk about their favourite vendors like others talk about their favourite sports teams, she says. “If the vendor is good enough, it brings all the classes together, sharing the same foods.”

‘It brings all the classes together’: office workers buy khanom chin, spicy curry and fresh noodles.
‘It brings all the classes together’: office workers buy khanom chin, spicy curry and fresh noodles. Photograph: Nic Dunlop

According to Nualkhair, the idea behind this ban is to create a place where tourists feel comfortable about spending money, perhaps in covered malls. But if street food is replaced by a more ordered zoning it will become “an edible museum”, she warns. “All the innovation and creativity will be sapped out of it.”

Many vendors see this as an effort to monopolise Bangkok’s food culture for large food companies and landlords, driving up prices. “They just want to empty it,” says Yui, a 50-year-old who has been selling snacks at her stall for more than 30 years in one of Bangkok’s busiest business districts. For many vendors, the cost of renting a place in a private building is prohibitive. “How are we going to earn a living?” she asks.

Favourite dish: deep-fried spicy sweet and sour fish.
Favourite dish: deep-fried spicy sweet and sour fish. Photograph: Nic Dunlop

When the military took power in the 2014 coup, they declared they would “clean up society” and “return happiness to the people”. This is not the first time the authorities have cracked down. In the past they have relaxed the rules over time, but Thailand has entered a new era; a military government is entrenched and there is a new king on the throne. The areas that have already been cleared remain so. And more clean-ups are planned.

Lek, who sells northeastern food, describes how some vendors use up more space than allocated, making roads all but unnavigable. “If the vendors followed the rules and regulations that were already in place, then there wouldn’t be this ban,” he says. “It affects the people who follow the regulations, too. Now everyone has to stop.” For some people in Thai society, street vendors are seen as a blight on the capital. They share the military’s vision of an ordered city.

Others worry that this clean-up will consign the city to a poor imitation of Singapore; ordered and sterile. It is a model the military government appears keen to emulate, destroying much of what is uniquely Thai about Bangkok.

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