Bangkok – street food still on the streets?

Travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam a couple of months ago, we found plenty of Western backpackers travelling there – just as I did in Thailand a few decades ago. But it seems that now they barely linger in Thailand, above all because it’s got so expensive (likewise Malaysia). It’s in many ways a developed country now, but rather than offering more jobs to Thai people, it seems that most hotels are staffed by Burmese, who are cheaper and appear to speak reasonable English. In fact, because it’s no longer a cheap destination, there are now reports of so-called begpackers, travellers busking, selling handmade bracelets and asking for money to allow them to continue their trip – this is causing some bad feeling and is certainly pretty tasteless behaviour in what is still not a wealthy country.

This being the case, it seems amazing that the government (a military junta which came to power in a coup in 2014, let’s not forget is planning to destroy one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. Not a temple or palace, but the city’s street food culture. Even Singapore, which is far more expensive and definitely a developed country with the appropriate concern for health and hygiene, has food courts and hawker centres everywhere, immensely popular both with locals and tourists. In Bangkok, about 40% of residents eat street food daily, while foreign media such as CNN and Lonely Planet consistently name Bangkok’s street food as the world’s best. The junta seems to be driven largely by a military love of order and tidiness (and the generals presumably eat elsewhere), but it’s also being driven by developers desperate to gentrify the city’s most popular neighbourhoods. Another aspect is that the owners of convenience store franchises (such as 7-Eleven) want independent grocery stores and stalls driven out of business, while restaurants resent competition from stalls that don’t pay rent or tax.

Well, that’s what a flurry of recent articles in the travel pages have been been telling us. Then came a slight correction, as locals reported that in fact the apocalypse had not happened. Some overcrowded pavements have been cleared of stoves and stools, but vendors on private property, such as the forecourts of shops and hotels, can remain in business, as can any mobile food carts; and there are various covered markets anyway. It does seem that in 2016 the city administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 public areas, and formerly busy markets such as Saphan Lek, Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market) and the On Nut night market are greatly reduced or have even closed; in April 2017 food stalls were cleared from the busy Thong Lor and Ekkamai Roads, officially known respectively as Sol 55 and 63 off Sukhumvit Road. Supposedly Yaowarat Road (Bangkok’s famous, frenetic Chinatown) and Khao San Road (backpacker central) are next in line for tidying up. In typically Thai style, the authorities have not yet made it clear what they’re up to – there are reports, for instance, that the vendors will be allowed on the footpaths of Yaowarat after 7pm.

It seems that there was a clean-up of corruption after the military takeover, but now the usual bribe-based relationships are being reestablished, so most street stalls will survive as long as they pay off the local cops. There’s no doubt that, even though the Asian Tiger days are gone, the city is gentrifying and developers are seeking to make big profits. Huge air-conditioned malls (very popular with the new middle classes) are springing up everywhere, while the city’s few public green spaces are vanishing. Many of the new malls are in the Sukhumvit Road area, where much of the property is owned by large companies linked to the military and the royal family.

There’s a fairly minor reaction against this, so some newer ‘community malls’ are smaller and actually incorporate some green space, usually on the roof! Rather than full-blast air-con there may be light mist sprays to cool shoppers, or just old-style overhead fans. Many Bangkok residents spend much of their free time in malls, so these newer ones have bars and cafés which put on live music and other events, such as cookery workshops. They even have food courts, which offer a partial solution to the problems faced by the street food scene, but many more are needed across the city. They are unashamedly aimed at the new middle-class Thais and expatriates (in fact security guards keep out the poorer people who just want to cool off for a moment) and don’t have vegetable stalls, pharmacies and other everyday shops needed by local residents – but they do include pizza and Chinese food outlets. These people have maids who do the everyday food shopping, after all. The most striking is probably The Commons, in the expensive upmarket area of Thonglor (near the Thong Lo Skytrain station on Sukhumvit Road); others include K Village, SeenSpace and Rain Hill, all near Sukhumvit Road.

Other alternatives are appearing – when the long-established Soi Sukhumvit 38 food market, in alley (sol) 38 off Sukhumvit Road, closed, many of its traders relocated to a space underneath a nearby apartment block. Nearby, there’s a good food court on the top floor of Terminal 21, at the Asok BTS (Skytrain) station (and near the Sukhumvit MRT station), which is clean and cheap but also very busy at times. There are good reports of the vibrant new Rod Fai night market in Ratchada, which has a bit of a Thai-hipster feel to it, with food served from converted VW vans – but it’s a long way east of the centre, and the Skytrain system (at Soi Srinagarindra 51, Nong Bon, Prawet). There are also some interesting alternative food outlets appearing – for instance Holey, on Sol Sukhumvit 31, produces superb breads, pastries and sandwiches for when you can’t face any more rice.

The big picture

The big picture is that a record 33 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016, and tourism revenues were 18% higher than in 2015 – this was largely thanks to over eight million visitors from China, which is flooding all its neighbouring countries with large numbers of tourists. In 1960 Thailand saw just 81,000 tourists, very wealthy or very adventurous (and often both). Since then there’s been a huge boom in tourism, mainly to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, and a huge amount of environmental damage, including deforestation, pollution and the loss of natural ecosystems. And a huge and blatant (if illegal) sex industry has also developed.

In 1997, when the Thai economy was near collapse, with mass unemployment and food shortages, the king called for a more balanced and sustainable approach to economic development, which led to moves towards a sustainable tourism policy. More recently, the government has urged the tourism industry (which accounts for nearly 10% of GDP) to focus on attracting ‘quality’ visitors, ie lower numbers of higher-spending visitors who would in theory value Thailand’s natural and cultural treasures more than the mass beach tourists. Maybe something will come of this, but at the moment there are few signs of real change. Over the last twenty years about 60 environmental activists have been murdered while campaigning against industrial pollution, over-development and deforestation, and the police and the junta have not been in any hurry to find those to blame.

I was not particularly surprised to read that the same story is playing itself out in Beijing too. The city’s historic alleyways, the hutongs, are being taken over by modern shops and cafés, most notoriously in the boho-arty area of Nan Luo Gu Xiang which was transformed in the space of a couple of years into a venue for groups of tourists gulping down soft drinks and ice cream, while being told it was a delightfully arty area. But this is happening because the city’s bureaucrats neither know nor care about pleasantly untidy arty quarters but just want the place tidied up and ‘modernised’. What is most striking in Beijing is the speed with which demolitions occur, with no notice apparently being given other than a pile of bricks appearing on the street overnight. Cheap bars, shops and noodle bars are then cleared away and soon there’s another shopping mall, just like the ones in Bangkok and indeed anywhere in the world.

 Getting about

I walked a lot in Bangkok – I was very aware that the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin or Rattanaksosin Island) is actually rather isolated, to the west of the areas served by the Skytrain (BTS) and metro (MRT)  – see Transitbangkok. These serve the slightly newer areas where most of the hotels, restaurants and shops can be found, but the only true tourist sight there is Jim

Thompson’s House (see photo), near the National Stadium station. The Silom Line is shorter but more useful for tourists – running from the southwestern suburbs to Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge, by the river between the Oriental and Shangri-La hotels; the place to catch river boats), Sala Daeng/Silom (near Patpong, with its bars and night market, and Lumphini Park) and Siam (another massive mall), terminating at the National Stadium – while the Sukhumvit Line links the shopping opportunities: from the southeastern suburbs it runs to Asok and Nana (both on Sukhumvit Rd), Chitlom (at the Erawan shrine), Siam (for another mall) and then turns north past the so-called Victory Monument (it wasn’t much of a victory) to end up at Mo Chit, near the weekend market in Chatuchak Park. The Erawan shrine, interestingly, is not Buddhist but Hindu, dedicated to Brahma (Phra Phrom) but with minor shrines to Lakshmi, Trimurti, Ganesh, Indra and Narayana within a stone’s throw, and it’s hugely popular and important to the Thais – a throwback to Southeast Asia’s ancient Hindu history, touched on in my posts on Malaysia and Cambodia.

The MRT metro is a single underground line from the Hua Lamphong railway station, near Chinatown (to the east of the historic centre), to Silom and Lumphini then north via Asok/ Sukhumvit to Phetchaburi (near the Airport Express Link’s Makkasan terminal) to Chatuchak Park and Bang Sue. There are oh so predictable plans (see my post on Tangier for what happens when public transport is run by people who don’t use public transport) to close the central railway station (to allow re-development, of course) and build a new one out at Bang Sue, so that everyone will have to change to the metro or (if with baggage) taxis. Speaking of taxis – they have meters, make sure the driver uses it. And motorcycle taxis can be fun, as long as you’re given a helmet – they certainly beat the jams.

There are buses into the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin), which are cheap and welcoming in their way, but few drivers (or passengers) speak English and all signs, on the buses and the stops, are in Thai only. The best way to get to at least the edge of the historic centre (to visit the Royal Palace and so on) is by boat – there are fast, frequent, cheap and dramatic boats (see above) along the Saen Saeb canal (khlong), parallel to Sukhumvit Road, picking up for instance by Jim Thompson’s House and terminating at the Pha Fah Lilat bridge (‘Pan Farrrr’), near the Golden Mount and Mahakan Fort in the attractive Bang Lamphu district – from here it’s not too much of a hike to the royal palace area. There’s talk of introducing a similar service on the river that surrounds Rattanaksosin Island, from Hua Lamphong (the railway station) to Pha Fah and round to the Phra Sumen fort, but who knows if it’ll ever happen?

There’s a good range of reasonably well-known and tourist-friendly boats along the Chao Phraya river, on the west side of the centre. There are no fewer than 32 ferries across the river (just glorified rafts, really, charging 3 Baht), of which the most useful links Wat Pho with Tha Tien Pier (for the Wat Arun temple); there are river taxis, and there are the frequent river boats. The fastest lines (Green and Yellow) operate Monday to Friday peaks only (every 15 to 30 minutes; 13-30 Baht), so you’ll probably have to take the Orange line (every 5-20min, 0600-1900 daily) which charges a flat 15 Baht, or the local line (Mon-Fri 0600-1830, every 20min; 10-20 Baht), which has no colour coding – they both call at every pier. The Green line heads north as far as Pak Kret pier on Koh Kret island, where you can rent clapped-out bikes and follow the marked cycle loop through banana plantations and sleepy little villages; at the end, have a beer by the river at the excellent Chit Beer microbrewery. The Blue line are tourist boats, which have a guide and stop wherever you want, but don’t offer benefit much otherwise.

In 1983 I used Don Muang airport, by the main rail line north of the city; nowadays there’s the modern Suvanarbhumi (‘soo one a poom’) airport, served by a purpose-built express rail link[link] that almost reaches the Ratchaprarop shopping district but doesn’t actually connect with the Skytrain or metro – but to my surprise I actually found myself catching the A1 bus from Mo Chit BTS station (across the road from the Chatuchak Park MRT station) to Don Muang for my flight out.