Street food is, to me, like a relationship. It’s my faithful family and some of my best friends. When I travel away from the city, it doesn’t take too long before I start thinking about Bangkok street food. I miss the life on the street, the aroma of the chicken broth from the noodle pot, and the pok pok sounds of the mortar and pestle rubbing against each other as the vendors make somtam (papaya salad). I miss the fire underneath the wok when the Chinese uncle makes pakboong (fried morning glory), and the smell of grilled beef over the charcoal prepared for spicy nam tok beef salad.
This is the soul of the local food scene in Bangkok, and it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. When I am away, the very thought of it makes me want to get on the plane and jump right back into the middle of it. This is the city that leaves no one hungry.
But this lifeblood of Bangkok is now under threat. The government has reportedly vowed to clear the sidewalks and streets of vendors, and I fear for what will become of the city and its soul—not to mention the lives of those striving independent vendors who have fed me, and the rest of the city’s population, so well for so long. This is indeed a sad time for our city, and already the streets of Thong Lor, Ekkamai, and Phra Khanong seem desolate after the “street food ban” went into effect on April 17th.
I normally use this this column space to highlight special places to get great local food, and Bangkok’s street vendors have mostly populated these pages. But I am suspending my review this month to reflect on what we have had and what we are losing—on what street food means to me.
Street food is the bridge that connects strangers, usually while sitting on plastic chairs with the asphalt at their feet. It connects lives from all socio-economic groups—from labourers to 9-to-5 office workers, families, lonely souls, night-shift workers, immigrants, the native-born, criminals, and priests. It even attracts the wealthiest of the wealthy, who pull up in the latest sports car and happily take a seat alongside everyone else. The street food stall is the one place where all classes and types of people can be in one spot. And they’re there for one reason: to share desirable and delicious food.
The street food of Bangkok provides me with great pleasure. My desire to discover and experience street food has taken me to all corners of the city, to places I’d never been, and introduced me to so many different vendors who have served me food cooked with their hands and their hearts.
To think that this may in any way disappear fills me with shock and sadness. Critics of the vendors say they are obstructing the sidewalks and streets and need to be removed to establish order. I wonder… do these people only want to eat in soulless, air-conditioned cubicles, or order home delivery? Have they allowed themselves to really feel a part of the organism that is Bangkok? And what of the vendors, who have struggled honestly to support their families? Where are they going to go? How will the city eat?
It seems all we can do in the meantime is support the remaining vendors we’ve come to know and love.
NOTE: Legislation was originally scheduled to remove all street food vendors from two of the city’s prime tourist attractions—Yaowarat Rd in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and Khao San Rd, the city’s main backpacker area.However, according to official sources, starting in June one lane of Yaowarat Rd and all of Khao San Rd will be transformed into ‘Walking Street’ areas, with plenty of street food, from 6pm till late each evening. Hopefully similar compromise solutions can be proposed for other districts, and plans are already underway for limited street food to return along Thong Lor.