When municipal officials in Bangkok, Thailand, announce plans to close down the city's street food vendors, an international outcry is followed by a quick about face. What does the Tourism Authority of Thailand have to say?
They're smelly, they block the sidewalks, and they're probably not very hygienic. But they also offer employment, cheap eats, and lots of colour to an otherwise drab city.
Simply put, street food vendors are much of what makes Bangkok Bangkok.
So it's not surprising that when The Nation, a respected English language daily in Bangkok, Thailand, reported that the government was planning to rid the Thai capital of its much-loved street food vendors, the reaction was fast and furious.
Local foodies were up in arms, and journalists from the international media were quick to pick up the story.
How could this be possible in a city that just one month earlier had been named by CNN as the world’s “finest street food destination”?
According to the article, which The Nation published on 18 April 2017, street food vendors would be all but a memory in the Thai capital by the end of 2017.
The move, the article stated, was part of a plan by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to clean up the city, make it safer, and make it more orderly.
A bid to make Bangkok more like Singapore, by any chance?
New York City had similar plans to clean up city streets in the 1980s, and the outcry was also fast and furious - even if it did take longer for the city to back down.
City officials also said that street vendors were unhygienic (although there was no evidence that anyone had ever gotten sick as a result of eating at them).
They said said they were also unfair competition for businesses that had to pay rent (although many of such businesses - Macy's, for example - also started out as street vendors).
What municipal officials didn’t seem to understand was that food vending offered an important safety net for people unable to find other ways of making a living.
And it also provided cheap eats for people that couldn’t afford to eat at more conventional eateries.
Not only that, food vendors were colourful. They added an important buzz that helped distinguish New York City from other American cities and from other cities around the world.
New York simply would not have been New York without them.
There was, of course, one major difference between the street food vendors in New York and many - though not all - of the street food vendors in Bangkok.
They were usually selling food that was already cooked and only needed to be kept warm or heated up. It didn't need to be cooked.
With Bangkok the problem is certainly more complicated because many of the vendors actually DO cook the food on the streets at impromptu kitchens.
So there are issues in terms of refrigeration and waste disposal that didn't apply in New York.
World’s Finest Street Food Destination
By the time the article had appeared in The Nation, BMA had already cleared food vendors from the sidewalks of Siam Square Pratunam and the flea market under the Phr Phuttayotfa Bridge.
Could Yaowarat, Khao San Road, and Chinatown be far behind?
“The BMA is now working to get rid of the street vendors from all 50 districts of Bangkok and return the pavements to the pedestrians,” said Wanlop Suwandee, chief adviser to Bangkok’s governor.
“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, so there will be no let-up in this operation. Every street vendor will have to move out.”
Tourism is one of Thailand's most important industries, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) was quick to react.
Just two days after The Nation article was published, TAT was reassuring foodies that the street food ban as reported in the media had been a great big misunderstanding.
Street food wasn't going to be banned. BMA simply wanted to clean things up and beautify the nation's capital.
“The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) would like to assure all international tourists and travelers that Bangkok remains a top destination for street food,” the authority said in a press release published on 21 April 2017.
“TAT has contacted the BMA and found that while there are measures in place to control food vendors and enforce current regulations, there is no outright ban on the sale of street food.
“In fact, the BMA appreciates that food vendors are a vital part of the city’s identity and helped Bangkok be listed by CNN as one of the 23 best cities in the world for street food.”
Cleaning Up Bangkok's Streets
As long as street vendors follow regulations to clean up the streets, street food will continue to be promoted.
To this end, the BMA will offer “support and advice to the city’s street food vendors to help them raise hygienic standards, improve food safety, and adhere to proper waste management procedures”.
What's interesting is that even before this press release was issued, the National News Bureau of Thailand had already reported that BMA and TAT were planning to hold a Bangkok Street Food Festival in June.
It would be held along such tourism hot spots as Yaowarat, Khao Sarn, and Pratunam. Whether it would be held along the street or in designated off-street sites was not revealed.
How to Beautify Bangkok
I've visited Bangkok on many occasions, but it was only on my last trip that I visited the downtown district in which the above photos were taken.
I found the lively scene of office workers stopping for a bite to eat on their ways to work rather endearing.
What amazed me was that when I returned a few hours later, almost all of the vendors had packed up shop, leaving behind no trace of their earlier presence.
So I was surprised - as were many others - that the city thought they presented a problem. And I couldn’t help but think that there were lots of things that could be done to beautify the city - and eliminating its food street vendors was not at the top of the list.
The Big Mango has far worse eyes soars such as ...
Open Air Sewers
Directly across the street from all of the street food vendors that I took pictures of above, I ran across this open air sewer running beneath Skytrain tracks.
The brackish water smelled to high heaven, and I'm sure it presented some kind of a health hazard.
Planting trees and shrubs and hanging flower boxes along the railing might have provided some visual relief, but it didn't do much about the smell. And I doubt if would it have any effect on hygiene.
And then there are all of those ...
Unsightly Power Lines
If you ask me, the tangle of power lines that dangle precariously overhead along the sidewalks of Bangkok are far more unsightly than the food vendors could ever hope to be.
Do they present a safety hazard? Are they the cause of power outages? That I do not know.
But putting power lines underground would do far more to beautify the city than the banning of its street food vendors.
Thailand has one of the world's great cuisines, and with or without street food vendors, Bangkok would be one of the world's most popular travel destinations for foodies.
It's interesting to note that the Michelin Group and the Tourism Authority of Thailand have recently announced plans to launch a Bangkok Michelin Guide. The first edition will be released in December.
Is it just a coincidence or does the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration think it's time for the City of Angeles to move upmarket?
More on this in a future post.