What’s Going to Happen to Bangkok’s Street Food Vendors?
Facing a mounting crackdown, conflicting reports, and flip-flopping authorities, the city’s hawkers find themselves confronting an uncertain future.
A khao kha moo vendor in Bangkok. All photos by the author.
It's 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but the sidewalks along Soi Convent, an offshoot of Silom Road in one of Bangkok's primary financial and commercial districts, are crowded with office workers grabbing a bite at several dozen carts serving everything from khao mok gai (a close cousin to chicken biryani) to khanom jeen (noodles served with curry and an assortment of toppings). Most of the vendors on this particular street have been here for more than two decades, in some cases predating the skyscrapers that surround them. Virtually all have a strong local following; one khao mun gai (chicken rice) stand is so well-known that they now offer delivery via UberEATS.
"My father sold street food. I've been making khao kha moo [stewed pork with rice] for more than 30 years, since I was a student, about this high," says one vendor, gesturing with her hand. Before her sits an immense slab of fatty, slow-braised pork fragrant with cinnamon and soy. Though she's still doing a brisk business with the lunch crowd, she doesn't know for how long. Roughly a year ago, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) ordered hawkers selling their wares after dark on this road to clear off with little warning. For the moment, the lunchtime set has survived the purge, but there's no way to know if that will last. "People are really in trouble. We have to take care of our families and we don't know what's going on. They can just tell you, 'Hey, you, the next day you have to be gone!'"
The trouble is, no one in Bangkok quite knows what's going on or what will happen next.
Bangkok's street food sellers have been under attack by both developmental and administrative forces for some time now. When authorities shut down On Nut's thriving night market to make way for a luxury condominium in October 2015, vendors were given two weeks to vacate the premises. Last year saw the removal of dozens of street carts from Silom, Siam, and Nana, not to mention an order for vendors in Sukhumvit Soi 38, a popular enclave in Thonglor, to clear out. Things escalated in March 2017, when the BMA announced that vendors in the upscale neighborhoods of Thonglor, Ekkamai, and Phra Khanong had until April 17 to pack up their things, while those in residential Ari were on notice. The crushing blow came when the BMA recently declared that street food would be eradicated from all 50 districts by the end of the year.
To absolutely no one's surprise, the backlash was immediate and widespread, with international media outlets (including this one) decrying the loss of a primary piece of cultural heritage in a city that only the week before CNN had proclaimed the world's best for food. And that's where things started to get strange, with BMA Advisor Wanlop Suwandee backpedaling and issuing a hasty statement to CNN that he had been misquoted by The Nation and that food vendors would, of course, be allowed to remain in Khao San Road and Yaowarat Road, both of which are popular draws for tourists. Meanwhile, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sent out a press release stating that "Bangkok remains a top destination for street food" and "the BMA appreciates that food vendors are a vital part of the city's identity." However, the BMA will "introduce universal hygienic standard practices for food preparation and service" for vendors operating in the permitted zones, while "in Bangkok's busiest areas, vendors have been required to move to designated zones and nearby markets to operate."
Where these areas are or how such a mass migration might occur remains to be seen. Despite talk of implementing training, uniforms, and regulations, and relocating thousands of hawkers, so far no clear plan has been released as to how any of that might be accomplished. What is clear is that any change is going to alter the lives of virtually all of Bangkok's inhabitants. Although most local residents can easily afford a Bt35 (US$1) bowl of noodles on Sukhumvit Soi 38, few could or would cough up Bt390 (US$11) for a slice of avocado toast and a flat white at the chi-chi brunch spot now on the same street.
"Street food has become enormously important to Thai culture, something that everyone, no matter how wealthy, partakes in. In Bangkok, it's the one thing everyone has in common," says Chawadee Nualkhair, the food blogger behind Bangkok Glutton and the author of Thailand's Best Street Food. "I feel that if most of Bangkok's street food is cleared away, and the rest heavily regulated, a lot of the innovation that came from street food, the strange fusion experiments like tom yum ramen and chocolate roti, will slow to a trickle, and the food scene could become stagnant. And, of course, a lot of history could be lost."
For the time being, most vendors live in uncertainty. A baan mee moo (egg noodles with roast pork) seller who has been working in Silom for more than 20 years shows me an official text message she received from the BMA assuring that there would be no removal, but that they may need to move to another location in order to keep the street clean. For all the talk of how the ban will impact Bangkok's 30 million annual tourists, those most seriously affected are the estimated 30,000 street food sellers, many of whom have already been relocated, who depend on this for their livelihood. Though some of the more famous stands have loyal customers who may follow them to a new location, smaller operations are more likely to vanish.
On Silom, I meet a woman who has been selling babin (sweet coconut pancakes) with her husband for nearly 20 years. They have three days left before the hospital behind them evicts them permanently. "The government only gave us three days' notice when they told us we had to move from Chong Nonsi. We've been in this location for the past two months and now we're being asked to leave again," she says. When asked where they will go, she laughs sadly. "I have no idea! We have to survive, but if we move to another spot, we're likely to get a bad location. If they won't let us sell in the good areas, what are we supposed to do?"
Overhearing the conversation, their neighbor, who sells khanom krok (custardy coconut sweets), stamps angrily on the ground and bursts out, "I have nowhere to go. I'm trying to move to Korea, but I need to find the money first. I don't want to live in this fucking country after this."
Given the contradictory statements from the BMA and the sheer scale of the operation in question, it seems unlikely that this is last word in the matter. Enforcement so far has been mixed. The majority of the hawkers on Sukhumvit Soi 38 are still there, albeit mostly wedged into a fluorescent-lit indoor area off to the side of the street. Many hawkers in Phra Khanong are carrying on with business as usual, while the sidewalks of Thonglor, now an endless sea of glitzy Japanese restaurants, cocktail bars, and community malls, are essentially vacant.
"The BMA has periodically said they wanted to clear the sidewalks, but lacked the political mandate to do so. They have the will and ability to enforce it now," says Chawadee. "I'm not sure of its sustainability. It will be interesting to see if they follow through on it, and if vendors will be willing to put themselves through it."
Right now, most of the vendors seem to feel that they've been put through enough.
"I don't know what to do. We're fine for now, but the trend is going against us," the baan mee seller says, shaking her head. With a pointed look at me, she adds, "We feel pity for ourselves that our government doesn't listen to our voices, but instead listens to foreigners. When the foreign media says something, then suddenly they care."