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Bangkok's Iconic Street Food Stalls Are at Risk of Vanishing

New campaigns from local government and real estate developers are threatening the Southeast Asian nation's world-famous street food scene.

by Micaela Marini Higgs
Apr 12 2017, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user J Aaron Farr

Thanks to developers replacing food enclaves with new condos and government initiatives to clean up sidewalks, Bangkok's iconic food stalls— loved by tourists and locals alike, and a favorite feature in travel guides—are being displaced and disappearing.

The most recent blow came last month, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced that stalls in Thonglor, Ekkamai, and Phrakanong would have to shut down by April 17.

Since the 2014 military coup, street food and the campaign to clear sidewalks have become part of the junta platform, aiming to give pedestrians and cars more space and to cut down on public waste. The effects of these initiatives are visible in various parts of the city, like the now-spacious sidewalks across from the mall Siam Center, where a packed night market used to sell clothing, and the noticeably emptier areas along Silom Road near infamous Pat Pong. In many places, sidewalks now host tents holding tessakij—city inspectors who enforce cleanliness and keep street vendors away.

Gentrification has also played a hand in destroying street food and drinking spots. Beloved food haven Soi 38 stood on land sold to a property development firm in 2015, closing along with On Nut's popular night market, with both lots slated to become new condos. Most recently, Cheap Charlies, a 35-year-old street bar and fixture of Soi 11, closed on March 31 to make way for real estate development. Though some vendors from Soi 38 and On Nut managed to keep their stalls close to their original locations, many others, like those displaced by the recent BMA campaign, had to move farther away, losing regular customers who had supported them for years.

Photo via Flickr user drburtoni

"I'd like to find a shopfront to rent around here, but it'll be too expensive," a noodle vendor on Sukhumvit Soi 71 (Phrakanong) told me when discussing her upcoming April 17 eviction. "I'll have to go somewhere else." Finding a new location, and new customers, isn't always easy, and Mr. Kriang, a nearby fruit vendor, wondered, "This is our livelihood, what do they expect us to do?"

Besides providing delicious local food that makes the city popular with visitors and travel writers, these stalls serve an important function for locals. In a country where minimum wage is between 300 and 310 baht per day (USD$8.71–$9.01), food stalls serve the masses for cheap. Just last month, CNN ranked Bangkok's street food as the best in the world for the second year in a row.

In Bangkok, a meal on the street will typically cost between 40 and 60 baht (USD$1.16– $1.74), with small snacks starting at 10 baht (USD$0.29), and it's typically cheaper to eat outside rather than cook. As one somtam vendor on Soi 71 explained to me, food stalls are "very important—we provide food at reasonable prices for people [who live] in this area, motorbike taxis, and office workers. They all eat at my stalls."

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Though some customers remained optimistic about stalls being allowed to stay on smaller streets, or said that they lived near cheap restaurants, others pointed out that accessing alternative sources of affordable food can be difficult, especially in expensive areas along Sukhumvit Road. "With these stalls gone, there [will be] nowhere close by my office to get a cheap meal," one office worker observed to me, with another local, when asked about the changes in street food in the past year, exclaiming, "A lot of my favorite food stalls on my street are now gone!"

Over the last few years, many neighborhoods have been threatened with the eviction of street vendors, but these decisions are not always communicated clearly or consistently. In December, officials told vendors in Ari that they would need to clear the street by early March. Just six days before they were supposed to leave, the government reversed the decision, allowing street stalls to remain in the neighborhood, though that could change again at any time.

"I didn't even know we won't be allowed to occupy the pavement after the 17th," said Mr. Kriang, who wasn't sure where he could move. The somtam vendor heard the news from a prad krapow stall further down the road; the woman running the noodle stall said that a municipal officer notified her of the move just two weeks ago. Most of the city discovered the news after it was reported by local publication BK Magazine, sparking online debates about the benefits and drawbacks of street food, as the article was shared widely across Facebook.

Though some people are happy that the government is paying attention to legitimate concerns regarding street sanitation and making space for foot traffic, many other Thais and expats worry about what will happen to the people who make their livelihoods from these stalls, the people who count on them to eat, and the role that food stalls play in the city's culture and appeal to tourists.

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Online, people speculate whether Bangkok is trying to turn into Singapore, which cleared vendors from the streets and consolidated street food inside hawker centers. How this would work in the much larger city of Bangkok is unclear, and besides, as one Facebook commenter declared, "to shut down street business is to rip out the heart of the city."