Remapping eats on the streets

Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang leads officials in checking food hygiene levels and the cleanliness of street food vendors near Pathumwan Institute of Technology in Pathumwan district. BMA is now creating a zone for food safety to help vendors and the public.‚ÄČ(Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

If you are a working-class employee in Thong Lor — a street filled with chic bars, expensive restaurants and high-society teenagers speeding by in foreign luxury cars — then available street food is one of few options that aligns with your daily dining budget.

But a recent crackdown on street vendors by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has had locals and workers here fretting as the government targeted this trendy street on Sukhumvit Road first and cleared most of the cheap, unregulated vendors out.

It also launched measures to better regulate vendors in Bangkok’s best-known street food zones including Yaowarat (better known as Chinatown) and the nearby backpacker’s haven of Khao San Road.

While this is good news for tourists — as well as for food hygiene in general — it does little to address the financial needs of the capital’s working class: both vendors and consumers.

“It would be a blessing for those who are struggling to cope with high living costs if state authorities could find a space where street food vendors can come and sell their goods at cheap prices,” said 23-year-old office worker Kanyarat Haemman, who works in Thong Lor.

People may pat the authorities on the back for cleaning up the sidewalks but they would rather have easy access to an affordable meal and, for vendors, a livelihood, critics say.

In response to a backlash from the public, the BMA is now telling vendors they can reopen for business as long as they operate in certain rent-controlled spaces under strict regulation.

As the first phase of the project, dubbed “Bangkok Community Food Source”, four areas in the city have been green-lit for these vendors so locals can access clean, cheap and delicious meals. That number will grow to 10 by the end of this month, the government said.

The four areas opened to the public on Sept 14.

They include one adjacent to a Tesco Lotus near Pathumwan Institute of Technology (PIT); a car park near Lumpini Park; a space in front of Kung Luang restaurant on the west side of the Chao Phraya River; and an area near the front of Soi Chao Phraya Hospital in Bangkok Noi district.

The project reflects the BMA’s concerns over the high cost of living that city residents face amid a sluggish economy and its sympathy for street food vendors in light of the ban, said Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang.

He said 8,007 vendors who were illegally occupying Bangkok’s pavements have been ordered to remove their stalls from public pavements, including 6,334 food vendors.

The BMA said it hopes to extend the project to more areas by negotiating with landlords for cheaper rent.

Critics suggest the authority should benchmark other countries that have successfully dealt with this problem and follow their example.

One example would be to lump vendors together in common areas near where they formerly plied their trade and allow them to keep operating as long as they agree to cooperate with the government, said Wichai Charoentra, who owns a small business in the Sukhumvit area.

Those who violate hygiene regulations or other rules would be banned from that area, he added.

However the government should also bear in mind how many vendors in Bangkok are subsisting just above the breadline and effect special measures to help them cope, suggested Athiwat Sachadamrongrit, a 54-year-old businessman in the Silom area.

“My hotel, for instance, is located in the heart of Silom, where restaurants offer food at rather high prices for hotel guests and those who can afford to pay,” he said.

“But what about the security guards, drivers and cleaners? They can’t afford that,” he said.

Sanan Boonthip, who sells rice porridge at one of the BMA’s four newly designated sites, welcomes the new measures but said more areas are needed so the vendors can rotate and find customers all day.

His current working area only sees customers from early morning until 11am, he said, adding the afternoon heat sends most people scurrying to buy food from the nearby Tesco Lotus.

Vanchai Thanomsak, a deputy city clerk, admitted space is limited under the project.

Using the PIT area as an example, he said it could only accommodate 70 of the 200 food vendors who formerly operated in the vicinity.

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