Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere for now so street food lovers around the world can breathe a deep sigh of relief, cancel those direct flights to Phuket and Chiang Mai, and start salivating once again.
UPDATE: The situation appears to be changing all the time. We’ll be posting another story on this subject very soon.
It’s not often that we cover news here but we couldn’t ignore a story that we knew you’d be relieved to hear just out of Thailand and that’s the announcement yesterday that Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere – for now, anyway.
As you know, we’re street food lovers with footpath feasting a priority wherever we go. While we’re big fans of the street food in Phuket and Chiang Mai, Bangkok is undoubtedly Thailand’s best street food destination – even if we don’t think it’s the world’s best. For us, that title goes to Vietnam‘s cities, to Hanoi, Saigon, Hoi An, Hue… we could go on, but back to Bangkok.
Bangkok Street Food Stalls Are Not Going Anywhere – For Now
In case you missed the news that has consumed (sorry) the attention of media around the world this week, the government of Bangkok – the city that CNN recently named world street food capital for the second year in a row – announced that it was evicting its cherished street food vendors from the city’s footpaths, with local favourite Chinatown and tourist hotspot Khao San Road the latest targets in a recent campaign.
Stall holders who’d been feeding locals for 17 years on some of the most beloved street food streets, Thonglor, Ekkamai and Pridi Banomyong Roads, were advised to cease operations by 17 April, according to ABC News, which reported that 15,000 food vendors had received eviction notices, pointing out that many Thais relied on their $1-2 street food dish for a nutritious meal; one study estimated that two-thirds of Bangkok locals ate at least one street food meal a day.
Thailand’s The Nation news site reported this week that the chief adviser to Bangkok’s governor declared that “the street vendors have seized the pavement space for too long and we already provide them with space to sell food and other products legally in the market… Every street vendor will have to move out.” He gave a deadline of the end of 2018.
According to the Nation, the Governor’s spokesperson said that having successfully cleared the footpaths of food vendors in Siam Square, Pratunam and the flea market beneath Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) was “working to get rid of the street vendors from all 50 districts of Bangkok and return the pavements to the pedestrians”. He cited cleanliness, hygiene and safety as the main reasons.
Incredibly, and undoubtedly a sign as to how valued street food is by their readers, the story was covered by practically every major news outlet across the planet, from Bangladesh to Budapest, from The Guardian and Time to SBS and the South China Morning Post, and food sites such as Saveur, Eater and Daily Meal. Street food devotees expressed outrage, horror and shock at what they deemed a “tragedy” across social media.
Concerned about the loss of what we believe to be an integral part of Bangkok’s culinary heritage, culture and everyday life, we consulted Bangkok-based chefs to find out how they felt about the ban on the city’s celebrated street food stalls.
Chef Ian Kittichai, owner of one of Bangkok’s best restaurants, Issaya Siamese Club, and the Issaya Cooking Studio, helped his mother sell her curries from a cart on the street as a child.
“If indeed the enforcement is strict it could further hasten the death of certain types of Thai dishes, many that are already fading away as younger generations move away from the old food traditions,” Chef Ian said. “For Thais and Bangkok residents with less purchasing power, it will definitely impact their wallets and what they can afford to eat. It will also mean that the younger generations may not ever see or eat some of the old-style street food dishes.”
“Another consequence will be for the small Thai business owners who perhaps have a street food business – it will either potentially put them out of business or force them to take on more overheads, such as rent,” the chef said, however, he had also observed that footpath vendors in his area who were meant to have moved on by April 17 were still operating as before. “Some of these vendors have been at these stalls for generations, so I don’t expect people will go away quietly. Thais are also very resourceful, so where there is a will, there is a way.”
Bangkok-born chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, owner of one of Bangkok’s best restaurants, Le Du, can often be found tucking into street food before and after restaurant service. Chef Ton lamented the potential loss of street food culture in words that can’t be repeated here.
“Food will become more expensive, we will lose some of our dishes, and tourist numbers will decrease,” Chef Ton said. “What they should do instead is better manage the street food stalls, tax everyone, and make things nice and organised.”
Australian-born chef Dylan Jones, who with his Thai chef wife Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songivsava, owns another of Bangkok’s finest restaurants Bo.lan, as well as funky street food eatery ERR, which serves up ‘Urban Rustic Thai’, admitted to having mixed feelings.
“For many years I’ve felt that the quality of street eats in Thailand, in Bangkok especially, has been on the decline, so for that reason I’m not upset,” Jones said. “But it is a very large part of the face of the city and I feel if we sanitise the streets too much it will end up feeling like Singapore.”
“Because of the decline in quality, I don’t think it will affect Thai cuisine that much, and actually it might have the reverse effect and force people back into their kitchens,” Jones said. “I think it will have an initial effect on the culture, but not a long lasting one. The Thais are a resilient group and they tend not to dwell on things for very long. They will move on and embrace whatever is next.”
While the move was criticised far and wide – Thai food writer Korakot Punlopruksa told the ABC that “the street food of Bangkok is the blood of Bangkok… this is the charm, it is the fame, it is the identity of Bangkok” – chef David Thompson of Bangkok’s Nahm, considered one of the world’s best Thai restaurants, who has written a book called Thai Street Food, told Good Food that he didn’t believe the operation would be successful, saying “There’s one thing you don’t do with the Thais, and that’s get between them and their food.”
Thompson and Kittichai were right. Thailand’s Tourism Minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, stepped in yesterday to announce that Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere and in an official statement published on the Tourism Authority Thailand news site assured “international tourists and travellers that Bangkok remains (a) top destinations (sic) for street food.”
The army has also come to the rescue it seems. Yesterday morning, The Nation reported that Defence Ministry spokeswoman, Second Lieutenant Pornchanok Amphan announced that street food stalls would be allowed as long as they conducted their businesses appropriately and complied with zoning regulations, hygiene standards, green packaging, and stall design. She explained that “stalls in the China Town or Yaowarat area should be in the style of Chinese pavilions, while stalls on Khao San Road should be designed as Thai pavilions.”
If you’re not familiar with Thai politics and are wondering why the Defence Ministry got involved, Thailand has been governed by a military junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) since a May 2014 coup d’état led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, former Commander of the Royal Thai Army, now Prime Minister of Thailand.
The Nation also reported that the BMA did not intend to get rid of all street food, that “there had been a misunderstanding” and that they just intended to regulate the footpaths and introduce zones. At a press conference later that day, he acknowledged that street food was integral to the soul of the city.
Not only will street food vendors still be allowed in small alleys and designated areas, including special zones on Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road and Khao San Road, the BMA spokesperson said they also plan to promote Yaowarat and Khao San Road as major tourist attractions in Bangkok.
It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time that authorities moved to shut down stall holders. Street food vendors, some of whom had been operating for several generations, on Thonglor’s legendary street food spot of Sukhumvit Soi 38, were evicted last year to make way for a swanky new development. While some were offered space by a mall at nearby Ekkamai, their trade suffered greatly and they lost significant income.
Chef Dylan Jones, who agreed with the need for zoning, had a few more suggestions as to what should be done to improve the situation, including street food vendor’s income.
“I’d start by forcibly educating street food vendors about food safety, enforce licenses and conduct inspections, shutting down the dodgy ones,” Jones said. “I’d also raise the prices by at least 100%, meaning the vendors have a better quality of life and can also afford to use better quality produce. Right now food vendors are buying the cheapest quality produce and doing some pretty abstract things to it in order to turn a profit.”
Chef Kittichai said he also agreed with some of the measures.
“I understand the need for hygiene, easing congestion, and more organisation – these are beneficial for all Thais and tourists,” chef Kittichai said. “I am not sure of the best way to go about it, but there must be a way to gradually implement these principals and the majority affected to come out for the better.”
“Not all street food will go away,” Kittichai said. “There will always be street food in Bangkok – in the markets, in shophouses, in other less congested areas of the city. It may spark tourists to have to go to other parts of the city – but that is not necessarily a bad thing as there are many hidden gems in this huge city that do not get the media exposure that the obvious areas have been getting.”
For now it looks like Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere and our favourite Bangkok street food dishes aren’t either. Everything is right in the world once again. For today, anyway. Just to be safe, better book that flight to Thailand now.
Tips for Eating Street Food When You Travel to Bangkok
Now that we know that Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere, if you’re heading to Thailand and you’re not a regular street food diner, these are our tips:
- learn about Asian eating etiquette before you travel, so, for instance, in Thailand you know when to use a fork and spoon and when to reach for the chopsticks
- know the basics of how to to eat street food safely and how to identify the most hygienic street food vendors and stay clear of the dodgy stalls
- appreciate the importance of the condiment tray and DIY seasoning when eating street food in Southeast Asia, where cooks expect that you’ll customise your own meal
- book a food tour for the first day you arrive so you can hit the ground running, such as this food walk through historic Bangrak in Bangkok
- read our further advice as to how to eat like locals when you travel, and
- check into one of our recommended hotels near foodie neighbourhoods so you get to spend more time eating and less time in traffic gridlock hell.
Were you one of the street food lovers in despair at the news this week? Now you know that Bangkok street food stalls are not going anywhere, what are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you.