Like most people, my reaction to Street Food Ban in Bangkok was one of disbelief, anger and swearing, but I also find that many of the arguments against the ban are misrepresented. And because of this I’ve become a bit mixed on this issue, or at least I’ve looked for a more balanced argument. Because much of what I have read comes from the popular argument citing Khao San Road, which is more or less a pedestrianized zone these days, and Yaowarat which is much to do with tables and chairs spilling out of local shop house restaurants at night. They seem almost to be pandering to the backpacker crowds, in a hope that they will dictate their wisdom to the millions of residents of Bangkok who support it. “Stop ruining Bangkok”. But Thailand has very little interest in these demographic these days, as they have Chinese money now, and the vowing of penny pinchers to “never return” is no great set back to the city. But, anyway, the ban is more to do with problematic main roads, and the CBD, and more to do with daily life in general. Because people do actually live and work in Bangkok, and it’s not just some massive theme park for tourists to come and eat street food. And the ban is not only on street food, as it goes for all makeshift stalls, like dodgy clothes, and porn and dildo stands. As always they then go on to blame the Junta, and put it alongside the Phuket Beach Clean-Up in Phuket, when they took down the beach scammers and local taxi mafias, and cite it as a bad thing.
The Singapore Hawker Scene
I should probably point out that none of the above images will be affected by the ban, given they are set up in shop houses, open air food courts, and at designated market areas. Because it is quite hard to accurately define street food. But the above are not so different to Singapore’s hawkers which have been pretty much blanketed as being boring and bland, using the overused and inaccurate clichés of a sterile Singapore, which does not cross over to many of the better food areas in the city, such as the streets of Geylang and Little India. They also fail to highlight the positives of Singapore, a city where street food was banned decades ago, and relocated to hawker centres nearby. Since then the street food culture has thrived to the point where they now have Michelin Starred hawker stands selling Michelin Starred Street Food at S$2 a pop. So I don’t see why street food enthusiasts are so much against the idea of replicating Singapore, as this is an almost unimaginable precedent for street food in Asia. And, as with many obsessive food focused travellers, Singapore is, without a doubt, one my favorite street food cities in the world, despite the obvious irony.
The Wider Issue
For those who have not noticed, Bangkok’s streets and pavements are notoriously shit, and I remember the last time my mom visited, she couldn’t even walk on the footpaths of Sukhumvit, one of the busiest CBD and tourist areas of the city, just because they were so crap and cluttered and falling apart. The city is hardly wheelchair friendly and at this rate never will be. But go to explore Bangkok on a Monday, which is street cleaning day, and a day when street food stalls are already banned from the kerbstones, and it’s like a whole different city. It’s somewhat refreshing in parts, because Bangkok’s disorder is not convenient to everyone, or even many, when living in the city. And the clean up really needs to start somewhere. So, putting the sentiment of backpackers and tourists aside, the addition of more organised and orderly designated food areas will be a godsend to many locals, where they can eat beneath shelters, revolving fans, and away from the fumes of the city’s never-ending traffic. Because traditional street food otherwise offers little more benefit than locale and convenience of eating. It is not this holy grail of unique cuisine which many pretend it to be. It can be replicated anywhere.
The main concerns seem to be with the loss of business, although, handled properly (which is wishful thinking in Bangkok) no-one should lose out. As it will likely just mean moving street food, off of the pavements and streets, and to designated eating areas, sheltered food courts and just away from traffic. People also argue that prices will inevitably rise, yet when comparing existing markets, and even air-conditioned supermarket mall food courts, there is very little difference in price. But my own worry would be more with the charcoal barbecues and Isaan style grills, where, due to ventilation and whatnot, they’re a lot harder to relocate. I know Bangkok will lose a lot of character, culture, and charm, and it will be a slow goodbye to the good ‘ol ramshackle days, but this clean-up has been going on for years now and the closure of Sukhumvit Soi 38 was a complete disaster to any food enthusiast in the city. So I have been against it from outset, but if it’s going to happen, it should be handled properly, and while progress is inevitable, it is not guaranteed to be easy.
Implementation and Enforcement
The introduction of legislation, and the implementation and enforcement of it, are very different things in Thailand. Past scenarios tend to start with a show of strength, going out in force to slap some fines on people, before disappearing again, until the next crackdown. And there will aways be ways around these regulations and I remember in Taipei and parts of China, where similar street food vendors were banned, where the vendors would now just walk extremely slowly in circles, with their food carts, because they can’t legally sell from “parked” vehicles and stalls. Or they would just do a runner when the authorities show up. In short, the crackdown on street vendors will not be high priority, it is blown out of proportion by media and whingeing backpackers, and the implementation and enforcement will likely be a disaster. Long live street food.