Thailand’s street food scene in danger of being swept off the sidewalk

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on April 23, 2018

As part of a series this month looking at the street food culture that characterizes so much of ASEAN's diversity, this week we go Thailand’s capital Bangkok, where street food there is popular with locals as well as with tourists from around the world. But is there a threat of street food being wiped off the sidewalks, as announced by authorities last year? And what could this mean for the vendors and their patrons?

TRANSCRIPT

It’s evening in Bangkok and people are leaving work.

That’s when many streets of the Thai capital come alive, with vendors pulling out tables and chairs, and hungry folks waiting for a meal.

Street food in ubiquitous in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand, and it's hard to imagine the country without it.

"TUK"; Street Food Vendor:
"We Thais eat all the time around the clock, especially little snacks here and there. Personally, when I see a market or somewhere with a lot of shops, I literally run to there because of its diversity [of food] and our way of life that we grew up with."

Over 8 million stalls, carts, stands and hole-in-the-walls serve meals for relatively cheap almost anywhere, at almost any time of the day and night, to everybody -- whether it's an office worker on a lunch break, or a construction worker after a long night shift.

But not everybody likes the sidewalk eateries taking up the pavement day in, day out.

SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; Bangkok, Thailand:
"Last year, Bangkok city officials have shocked foodies here in the city and from abroad alike by announcing a ban on all street food vendors. After some considerable public backlash, the officials have backpedalled - OF COURSE it has all been a misunderstanding. They say they wanted to rein in on all this chaos that makes this city so charming in the first place. But what has happened ever since then?"

While the city wants to preserve some spots popular with tourists like in Chinatown and the backpacker district of Khao San Road, vendors in other parts of Bangkok will have to move somewhere else eventually.

And that could have a severe impact on their businesses - and their very livelihoods.

NARUMOL NIRATHORN; Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Administration, Thammasat University:
"And then [the authorities] tell [the vendors] to sell at a new place for them, and the are concerned whether or not they can sell anything there. And we have found such cases during our research last year, where they say that the costs have risen at the new place and thus reduces their earnings."

According to studies, women and older people are especially at risk from forced relocations from the busy main roads to quieter places, as in most cases they would lose their only source of income.

Critics say that the blanket ban by the city officials, fails to take the specific conditions and needs on the ground into account.

NARUMOL NIRATHORN; Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Administration, Thammasat University:
"In order to effectively manage this, you need to do field research, you really need to know who’s selling there, what the community thinks of them - thus each area needs to be handled differently."

Authorities have not set a definite timeline for these relocations.

For now, the street food vendors will continue to sell on the sidewalks as they have done for decades - but it is uncertain whether city planners still have an appetite to include them in Bangkok's future.