The irony of the debate on banning Bangkok’s street food was that it took foreigners – mostly Western media – to point out how unique and vibrant street food here was before the military regime backpedaled a tad.
Last month’s foreign news media reports about the clean-up – read: banning – of street food in the Thai capital was met with quick reassurance to foreign tourists by the regime that street food would still be available at major tourist spots such as Yaowarat and Khaosan roads.
Very little has been said about street food and what it means to ordinary Thais living and working in Bangkok, however. It was as if the government’s concerns was just about tourists’ money.
With many streets of Bangkok now bereft of street food, hundreds of thousands of working-class people who rely on it are being driven en masse to the ubiquitous convenience stores to savor frozen television food instead. It’s clear who will benefit taste-, nutrition- and money-wise. Many people ended up like cats being repeatedly fed on pre-cooked or ready-made food.
The junta’s citing of hygiene and order as a pretext for the clean-up has turned many roads in Bangkok such as Lat Phrao to resemble deserted streets or ghost towns at night, now that many vendors have been removed. Street food sellers – the majority of whom are lower-middle class – were simply told to move on and disappear, or offered alternative sites so inaccessible to have the same effect.
Intentionally or not, the consequence to the vibrancy of Bangkok is palpable. It’s as if we’re being atomized, our human relations reduced, readied for a marathon-length military rule – longer than what the junta has repeatedly reassured us concerning its longevity.
Unlike staff at convenient stores such as 7-Eleven and FamilyMart – both owned domestically by huge Thai conglomerates – who repeatedly ask if you will buy a Chinese dumpling or whatnot as they robotically thank you at the counter, there’s a sense of unpredictability in the human contact when chatting with street food vendors.
I couldn’t help but fear that deep down, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha might want to atomize us further, break up relations so it is easier for him to rule with an iron fist and with his embarrassing weekly Friday-television-propaganda-sermon that would have impressed Fidel Castro.
And if you find such a ban illogical, even self-defeating for Bangkok, then you might want to remind yourself that dictatorship is about control. Perfect totalitarian control is one that you obey without a second thought – actually without a thought. Dictatorial control is about making people jaded and being made to obey without thought. The more banal the dictatorial edict is, the better.
No matter how ill-conceived the banning of Bangkok’s street food is, in the end the victim is the city’s way of life and vibrancy.
As a Bangkokian, the latest order imposed by the junta is beyond saddening. At night, bustling places in Bangkok have turned eerily quiet and bereft of human activity and exchange. Gone is the midnight Bangkok street food you could find anywhere.
Indigent Bangkokians and non-Bangkokians seeking work in the capital can ill afford to dine at restaurants, so they end up with convenience store food, making the chain owners – who are already filthy rich – even richer. Will that be the predicament for millions for the rest of their working lives? Is there no way to strike a compromise and ensure greater hygiene and order without having to destroy street food?
I’m sure there’s a way if there’s a will and a recognition of the immense cultural and culinary value of street food – not just from the foreign tourist perspective.
All we can hope now is to wait for a revival of street food in some distant future.
Bring street food back to Bangkok after we regain democracy, and let the junta’s soldiers fete themselves to their hearts’ content on all the frozen television food provided by convenience stores inside military camps when they’re forced back their barracks.