Weaving through traffic in Southeast Asian cities, app-based food delivery riders braved unsafe roads, rainy weather and the deadly coronavirus to deliver countless meals this year, easing lockdowns with comfort food.
At the height of the pandemic, they were regarded as frontliners dispatching not only meals but a sense of normalcy to millions of people forced to stay at home.
Working for Grab Food, Foodpanda, Line and Gojek among others, an army of motorbikes (and in one city, bicycles) hits the streets each day across the region, fueling a lucrative market that continues to diversify.
VICE World News asked drivers in key Southeast Asian cities this month to show us the food that got them through the day, and to reflect on a year in the pandemic trenches of the food delivery world.
Willy Dumapig, 31, is finally eating his lunch after clocking six meal deliveries since he left his home in Manila at 8:00 a.m. He parks his motorcycle near a stall that sells lunch and cigarettes to riders like him.
What’s available for lunch that day are a pieces of fried bangus or milk fish and two cups of rice. He bought it for 50 pesos, or $1.05, which includes a soda.
“I’m not a picky eater,” he told VICE World News. “I eat whatever they sell here. Sometimes if I want to reward myself, I eat chicken joy (fried chicken) from Jollibee [a massive chain in the Philippines], sometimes McDonald’s.”
“We are not rich so we can’t be choosy.”
During the lockdown in Metro Manila, which was one of the world’s longest, Willy said his earnings increased because demand from customers surged and there was a limited number of riders. He’s happy if he can take home $32 a day, which can add up to a little under one thousand dollars a month, though it fluctuates.
Francis Bayani, 28, worked in the kitchen crew at McDonald’s before he started delivering food for Grab two years ago. He said the salary at the fast food chain was just enough for college students, but not a family man.
His favorite lunch is usually tocino (honey-cured meat) sold at a hangout spot where they eat and recharge their phones or rest during downtime. But what was available the day he was inteviewed was beef mami pares (hot beef noodles) that cost about 50 cents.
His lunch and what he delivers are miles apart in price.
“Sometimes I wonder how the food I deliver tastes,” he said.
“We go to all of these expensive restaurants to pick up food, but I haven’t eaten them myself.”
But one day, a delivery was cancelled when he was already on the way to bring the food. He suspected it was a scam or what they call “fake booking.” With permission from the Grab Philippines office, “I ate it and I actually enjoyed it. It was delicious.”
Francis dreams of taking his family to eat out at a buffet Korean BBQ restaurant, which has become a trend in the Philippines.
Jomar Crame, 28, parks his motorcycle at 4:00 p.m to grab his third snack. It’s not a busy day, but he is already recharging for an expected delivery surge toward the evening when people working from home or their offices will eat their dinner.
He snacks on kwek-kwek (orange colored deep-fried eggs) and fish balls on skewers. His orders cost a little under a dollar. He says delivering food via Grab is an easy job even it lacks fuller benefits.
“There are good customers, most of them are nice,” he said. “I wish they would prepare the exact amount and meet us right away. If they are in the building, I hope they come down before we arrive.”
Aui, 36, has been working as delivery motorbike driver 13 hours a day for more than five years. He doesn’t take a day off. His daily lunches are something quick and easy to eat, basically whatever he finds on the streets in between deliveries.
“I eat between orders, when I have time while waiting for the next order. So I only grab something quick and easy, like this, or grilled chicken with sticky rice,” he said.
Sitting on a sidewalk, he opened a plastic box with eight pieces of shumai (Chinese dumplings) he bought for 50 baht or $1.66.
“Every day I have to make sure to bring home at least 1,000 baht ($33),” the father of three said.
Riders like Aui, who preferred to be identified by one name, need to clock in an average of 20 to 30 deliveries a day. At the height of pandemic, these delivery drivers were regarded as essential workers.
“But now that people are allowed to dine-in, the delivery people get discriminated against and look at as if we carry the virus around with us. They would tell us to wait outside, or if we have to deliver at a building, some of them would even have a separate elevator for us. Some shopping malls won’t let us in unless we take off our work jacket.”
One 34-year-old driver who identified by his nickname Bird said most food delivery people don’t really take proper lunch breaks. They grab quick snacks in between orders and when their phones buzz with a new order, they hit the road again.
On a recent day he bought grilled pork and sticky rice from a street vendor for 40 baht ($1.33).
The father of a four-year-old used to work as a supervisor in a hotel until COVID-19 hit and he started driving for Grab ever since.
“I actually enjoy being a delivery guy way more than working in a hotel. At the hotel, I was working crazy hours, compared to right now, I have so much more freedom to spend with my kid,” he said as he munched on his quick meal on a sidewalk.
Khine Zin Thant, 30, was a human resources professional who was laid off when the pandemic hit Myanmar, a country with one of the poorest healthcare systems in the world. She joined Foodpanda delivery as it was the easiest job she could find.
Yangon is an anomaly in motorbike-heavy Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s biggest city banned motorbikes years ago, so delivery apps adapted and deployed bicycles. But that means longer waits for consumers and more strenuous days for riders.
She shares lunch with other riders at a street restaurant under a flyover in Yangon. They eat fish curry, fried vegetable and sour soup, then they split the bill.
She says the work can be tiring and she can only make around $7.5 on a typical shift.
“The HR job was much easier than this job and I had days off. Now, I have to bike every day.”
Khine Zin Thant, who has a degree in Botany, cooks her own breakfast before hitting the road at 8:00 a.m. She prefers eating at home so she cooks her own dinner, too. But she said that she’s dead tired after biking more than nine miles a day, which makes her hungrier.
Pyae Sone Kyaw, 18, brings his own packed lunch cooked by his loving grandmother. She cooks an omelette and chili fish sauce with rice, packing it neatly in a plastic container. It takes about an hour to bike from his home to his delivery area in Yangon.
“If I eat at home before I leave, I will be hungry again when I arrive downtown. That’s why I pack my lunch,” he said.
Myo Zaw, 22, eats whenever he’s hungry and bicycling for work means he’s hungry a lot. He joined a company called Yangon Door2Door, a local start-up that delivers food, at the height of the pandemic. He has since noticed a big difference in his eating habits and physique.
“I feel like I got thinner,” he told VICE World News, eating a lunch of squid, fried cauliflower and rice. “We bike a lot, maybe around 60 kilometers (36 miles) per day.”
Choulay, 28, is a newbie food delivery rider in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. He started delivering food via motorbike just four months ago with a start up called Nham 24, an app that delivers groceries, produce, flowers and food. He takes home between $250 to $500 a month, a decent salary compared to the garment industry, the country’s largest formal employer.
His lunch is fried rice with pork topped with an egg that costs $1. But here’s the catch: he usually buys his lunch from a local delivery service called E-Gets where cheap street food is also available.
“It’s fast and very convenient as I can stay with my friends waiting for new orders,” he said.
Additional reporting contributed by Alecs Ongcal in Manila, Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj in Bangkok, Aung Naing Soe in Yangon, and Greg Mo in Phnom Penh.