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The Death of Street Food in Thailand

Following a military coup in 2014, the new Thai government implemented the Maintenance of Public Cleanliness and Social Order Act, which would see street vendors in all 50 districts of Bangkok dislodged to restructure the metropolis, a matter of hygiene and space. However, without careful urban planning, all residents suffer the consequences. According to the 2019 Global Destination Cities Index, Bangkok is the most visited city on the planet, for its fourth consecutive year (Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index, 2019).

Tourism is extremely important to Thailand, so naturally, the government is promoting modernization by cleaning up Bangkok’s streets to continue to attract travelers and their money. However, lawmakers have forgotten their own people in this equation. By banning Bangkok street food, they are directly affecting the lives of Thai vendors and consumers, who depend on these cheap, accessible meals.

The street economy

An economic boom in the 1980s led to a migration of labor from rural areas to Bangkok. Especially married women with little education and no career prospects had to resort to informal work on the streets to support their families (Walsh, 2012). Due to its informal nature, there are no tax payments, no rent, and requires little capital investment.

Street vending is therefore the only viable option for the urban poor. It should be noted that despite its popularity, street vending generates extremely low profits (Walsh, 2012).

With the eviction of food stalls, these long-time vendors have nowhere to go. They have no savings to rent a formal location for their business and no means to retire. These workers, most of them elderly, have not received any assistance or alternatives from the government. It proves difficult to calculate the exact number of vendors who will be affected, as only a portion of them are legally registered, but it is estimated to be over 20,000 workers in 665 locations (Boonjubun, 2017). Also Read – A Guide to Setting Up a Restaurant Business

A shared problem

The ban on street food also disrupts the wallets of Thai citizens. Everyone from office workers to university schoolchildren depends on street food on a daily basis. Regardless of income level, a 2015 study shows that, on average, households in Bangkok were spending more than half of their edible expenses on food prepared by small-scale vendors (Carrillo-Rodriguez, 2018).

By removing inexpensive street food, residents will have to increase their financial outlay to purchase their food from mall food courts or supermarkets, an option that is not feasible for low-income families.

Cooking at home is not a choice for some, as many housing blocks do not have kitchens (Carrillo-Rodriguez, 2018). But you can rent a full kitchen apartment at anytime. Even those who can afford to pay higher prices for their meals will have to compromise with the convenience and variety of dishes available.

Kuai Tiao Ruea, a Thai noodle soup dish, has much history in the informal food sector. It was originally offered on boats and vendors rowed along the canal to serve it to customers.

The Bangkok of today

BMA’s ambitious revitalization policy has resulted in the eviction of poor citizens and migrants in an effort to conserve national heritage sites and make way for the construction of parks and bike paths (Boonjubun, 2017). In 2019, the government has not yet completely eradicated street kiosks. The busiest streets in the city center are now clear for pedestrians and motorcyclists, but a few food stalls can be found discreetly hidden on side streets (Expique, 2019). Other stalls have been replaced by large chain malls, stripping away the local authenticity that street vendors used to bring to tourists.

As of now, 508 areas in Bangkok have been emptied of street vendors and BAM predicts the same fate for the remaining 175 locations in 2020 (News Channel Asia, 2019). While not entirely gone, street food in Thailand’s once iconic capital will never be the same. The modernization of the state will come at the expense of the livelihoods of the urban poor. It’s a safe bet that with the government ban, they won’t be winning awards for the best street food city in the future.

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