Making street food sense
By promoting Bang Khunthian Chai Thalay as a new street food destination in the city, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has come to terms with the reality that street food vendors can make a significant contribution to the local economy. Deputy Bangkok governor Amnoy Nimmano announced the promotion plan after a meeting earlier this week with Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul.
Under the plan, Bang Khunthian, a district in the southwest of the city which is famous for its seafood dishes, will officially be the third street-food destination, after two hot tourist spots, namely Chinatown in Samphantawong district and Khao San road in Phra Nakhon district.
The city administration also came up with a plan to improve food safety measures and hygiene, provide proper cleaning and prohibit vendors from dumping their waste water into the gutter.
In particular, Minister Kobkarn was quoted as saying she wanted each tourist spot to have its own character, which means each spot should have different designs according to the respective area. The minister was of the view that the proposed design based on Chinese architecture for booths on Yaowarat Road should be adjusted to suit the area’s character.
The decision to keep some prominent food street areas is a major policy U-turn of the BMA which had planned to clear sidewalk food-sales from city pavements — a move that faced fierce criticism. The review of the plan came only after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha suggested some street food should be spared, without being specific regarding the area that was worth keeping.
Apparently, the prime minister made the comment in response to reports that Bangkok food street had gained an international recognition, in particular voting by CNN that put Bangkok food street as the world’s best. As a result, City Hall decided to spare Khao San and Yaowarat.
But the BMA, and the government, should look beyond Khao San, Yaowarat and also Bang Khunthian. Keeping street food in the three designated spots is not enough. They must recognise the fact that street food is part of a culinary tradition in Bangkok, like some other big cities.
To start with, it would be wrong to think of maintaining street food areas only to satisfy foreign tourists. On the contrary, street food is equally important for the people of Bangkok.
Driving away food vendors will affect not only the merchants but also city people — several hundred thousand lowto middle-income people, from blue- to white-collar types in the city centre like Pratunam or high-end areas such as Silom or Sukhumvit, who depend on sidewalk eateries. For this large group, it’s part of their way of life, not just the character of a place or something exotic.
Only when the city administration realises this fact, can it work for a more relevant policy. The intention to maintain public order is laudable, but instead of launching a blanket crackdown on street food, what the administration needs to do is to regulate so these small businesses will not be a social burden, as well as attending to hygiene and food safety.
Some particular measures that the city administration should consider include regular sanitary checkups on the vendors, in addition to education in the area of hygiene and food safety. They should avoid some substances that can be harmful to health like preservatives.
At the same time, the vendors must be made aware of the rights of pedestrians so they know their duty is to keep the pavements clean or orderly, not just concentrate on profit-making.
Relocation should be the last option when other measures are not possible, and if that is needed, they must avoid a topdown arrangement.
Those involved in relocation must apply marketing sense, and think about the viability of vendors being relocated.
While keeping public order is important, it’s even more important for city administrators to have a heart and undertake change in a realistic way.