Opinion: Do Not Make Bangkok Boring by Eliminating Street Food Stalls

Yaowarat Road at night

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration recently announced it will ‘improve’ the quality and safety of street food in the capital. While this is definitely a good sign, there is little concrete details. I hoped this will not kill the charm of not just Bangkok, but street food itself and more.

Any tinkering with street food in Bangkok should be done very carefully and start with a recognition of its charm, strength, and necessity. There is little doubt that the street food scenes in Bangkok is a charming aspect of the Thai capital, making it exotic, as well as chaotic to the eyes and taste buds of adventurous foreign tourists visiting the capital.

Yes, it comes with its inconveniences as well as it takes away part of the much-needed pedestrian space, add more challenges to Bangkok sewage system, and at times playing part in clogging it. There is also the potential food poisoning that comes with preparing and consuming food on footpaths next to many traffic-choked streets and sois.

Some Bangkokians may wish to see all street food stalls relocated inside boring food centers, air-conditioned or not, so Bangkok footpaths could be cleared for pedestrians like in some foreign cities. This will definitely kill the charm and do more harm to what Bangkok is, however.

Imagine Paris without the pet dogs and the smell of its piss, and that of human piss, on the streets of its numerous arrondissements. Paris without pet dogs on streets, just perfumes and no (stench of) piss would be boring and not Paris as we know. The same could be said about the ubiquitous street food stalls in Bangkok and it olfactory signature.

What is more, the necessity to maintain or at least condone the existence of street food stalls all over the capital is also a matter of necessity for the working-class in Bangkok who depends on it for sustenance. Working-class people, most have no private cars, could just walk for a few minutes or less from their workplace or home to eat at one of the many street food stalls.

Thus, the call to continue to allow street food stalls to spread around the capital is not just a matter for maintaining Bangkok’s unique charms in the eyes, and taste buds, of foreign tourists but part of the necessity in allowing lower-income Bangkokians, such as taxi drivers, security guards, factory workers, to have an easy access to affordable meals. Relocating them to a food court would make hot meal less accessible in terms of price and distance.

Many street food vendors, themselves members of the working class, may also not be able to afford the relocation costs and rent at a food court. And we are not even talking about how utterly boring Bangkok would become without its ubiquitous street food stalls everywhere.

The newly elected Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt appeared to be a sensible man, he should learn from the success of Bangkok’s China Town, which is a mecca of street food lovers, locals, and foreigners.

There is no reason why each Bangkok district cannot have something similar for local people. Bangkok City Hall should indeed find ways to improve the sanitary level of street food and there are definitely many things that can and should be done. The last thing Chadchart and his officials should do is to kill the charm of Bangkok’s street food, however.

It would be a good thing if the governor starts the process by inviting all street food vendors in the capital and concerned citizens, pro and against street food stalls, to come for a big town hall meeting to deliberate, so we can find the best way forward to balance the needs of various stakeholders.

The meeting should be on Facebook Live, the modus operandi of Chadchart, as well.