Street Food Ban in Bangkok – An Expert Interview with Chawadee Nualkhair of Bangkok Glutton
With very little western news coverage or media attention given to a potential street food ban in Bangkok, I couldn’t find much information on the matter stateside. With the help of writer and food blogger Chawadee Nualkhair, I’m digging to find out more about the vague plans for street food reform in Bangkok.
What’s going on here?
Back in April of 2017, a friend shared some very upsetting news with me. I was told that there was going to be some sort of doomsday all encompassing street food ban in Bangkok. We immediately started talking about all of the jobs that would be lost.
In planning my most recent trip to Bangkok, I had to start expecting that I wouldn’t be able to return to some of my favorite places in the world to eat. This meant not seeing some wonderful familiar faces as well. I could only imagine what I felt had to be a devastating blow to both culture and tradition for local Thais.
Let’s back up a bit.
Three years ago, I reached out to writer and food blogger Chawadee Nualkhair of Bangkokglutton.com, who has written multiple books on the subject of street food in Thailand. I was very new to traveling, and sought advise for my first trip to Southeast Asia. To my surprise she returned my email with tons of helpful information for my trip. To my continued surprise, she still returns my emails with tons of helpful information, and thus seemed an invaluable resource on these new developments in the Bangkok food community.
Chawadee was kind enough to oblige an interview, to shed some light on how this bizarre and mysterious reform is affecting daily life in Thailand.
I was just eating in Bangkok October of 2017, using my dog-eared copy of “Thailand’s Best Street Food” by Chawadee Nualkhair of course, and most of your listed restaurants were still alive and well. Are there areas that have shut down due to the bans?
Yes, but a combination of factors are to blame. For example, Sukhumvit 38 and the Sam Yarn area [closing] are the result of normal gentrification and would happen regardless of government’s drive to “clean up” Bangkok. But Rajprasong (where the flower garland vendors in front of Erawan shrine have been reduced to one, and must take turns — there are 13 of them — to sell the wares), Thonglor/Ekamai, and Asoke have seen big changes, with more expected for the Suan Phlu area. It appears they are focusing on high-end areas frequently, mostly by Thais and wealthy tourists.
It seems like Thailand is beginning to adopt a new food service model. What does that mean for locals?
It means locals have less choices. That is always a sad development, because unlike Singapore and Hong Kong, Bangkok is not yet rich enough for the locals to afford the alternative options.
I guess I’ve always thought the intrinsic reason of Bangkok street food in the first place is from a lack of store frontage in a city that built up, not out. Is there even room in Bangkok for hawker style food centers?
There is room, but property developers are reluctant to let hawkers take up what they see as space that would make more money as a condo or a shopping mall. Until that model dies out (which it will, because there will be oversupply), hawkers are screwed or left to move to areas that see less foot traffic, therefore glean less money. I have been trying to talk to developers about giving space in their upcoming projects to good hawkers in order to win some goodwill with the public, but that has made little traction.
Right! Coming from the states, a big draw to going to Thailand for a cook like myself, is the street food! Don’t these developers see that?
No. Thais have always had a complicated relationship with street food. To them, it is something that the lower classes depend on, hence its image is low-rent and not really worthy of promoting. When I came out with my first book, Thais were always asking me why foreigners would even want to eat street food when there are nice restaurants with air conditioning and music all over the city. This is purely my own opinion, but Thailand seems to be obsessed with making themselves in the image of a “high-class” Asian city like Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Singapore. So their model for street food will ultimately try to ape that of Singapore or Hong Kong (where it is almost extinct). Unfortunately, the infrastructure and development are not really there for Bangkok to make this change really stick.
I’d like to touch briefly on the notorious reputation of quality street food in Bangkok, Jay Fai has recently been awarded a Michelin star for her Bangkok stall. This is an amazing step in the right direction for the well deserving female chefs of so many Bangkok street stalls. Although well deserved by all accounts, do you think this decision could have been seen as a political stance on behalf of the folks at the Michelin Guide?
Maybe. I think it just inadvertently ended up that way –Jay Fai was already well-known among Thais for her food, and her prices reflected that. Meanwhile, Paste’s Chef Bee and Bo. Lan’s Chef Bo (both Michelin restaurants in Bangkok) just happen to cook great food at very nice restaurants.
From what I can tell, the government plans have just been put out there as a broad statement off reform. If they accomplish their goal of reorganizing and regulating vendors, what does that really mean in a practical sense?
Most people think this is, as you say, a statement, and that law enforcement of this “clean-up” in the targeted areas will die down. There have been other cycles like this (although typically when the economy is doing well) when the government thought they had outgrown their street food. This one is especially prolonged though.
Who wins if these changes occur? Who loses?
Winners will include convenience stores, where workers will be forced to find their meals, and locals who are cushioned enough from the day-to-day grind to see street food vendors as dirty and a nuisance. I have talked to people like that. They are the Susan Sarandons of Thai street food.
The losers are everybody else.
Chawadee Nualkhair is an accomplished food journalist, providing her readers with amazing culinary guides. Nualkhair was also featured in the Girl Eats World television series, showcasing her work in food blogging, as well as her superhuman ability to find delicious meals. Follow along at Bangkokglutton.com.