Food vendors have been a constant presence in Bangkok – but thousands of them are now being chased off the streets thanks to a move by Thailand’s military government to ‘clean up’ the country.
Few places in the world offer sights like this... This precision pack-up happens half a dozen times every day... We've come to Thailand for these exotic experiences - and, of course, the food... But something's happened in Bangkok that's changed the city's chaotic character forever...
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR, FPPD WRITER: My name is Chawadee Nualkhair. My friends call me Chaw. And I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the States. I'm Thai-American, and I write about food - specifically street food. I blog about it and I've written a couple of books about it. We're on Thong Lor road, which is probably one of the more high-class residential areas in the city. This sidewalk used to be bustling, full of vendors who would be selling everything from clothing to snacks to full meals.
The street vendors of Bangkok are slowly vanishing... Already, the city is no longer what it used to be.
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR: Yes, this has definitely been cleared away. This area used to be an Isan restaurant.
REPORTER: So, north-eastern Thai food?
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR: North-eastern Thai food, papaya salad, grilled chicken, especially at night - the whole air would be perfumed with the smell of smoke and sizzling meat, and this area would be full of people eating.
NEWS REPORTER: The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, or BMA, has enforced a ban on street vendors along Ratchawithi Road as part of its policy to reclaim sidewalk space for pedestrians.
Directing the evictions is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. Chief adviser to Bangkok's Governor is Vallop Suwandee.
DR VALLOP SUWANDEE, CHAIRMAN ADVISER TO BANGKOK GOVERNOR: The City of Bangkok have been receiving a lot of complaints from the residents, from the motorists - even from the traffic policemen that the vendoring on those pavements on those areas cause a lot of problems to the people. Then, upon receiving those complaints, the City of Bangkok banned all the vendoring on those areas.
In April, the media reported that a total ban on street food had been declared. The world was incredulous. It seemed like an own-goal for a country that relies on tourism. Following the media frenzy, authorities quickly clarified that it wouldn't be a total ban. Popular tourist spots - like Chinatown and the world-famous Khao San Road - would be spared. But the vendors would be regulated by Bangkok's "sidewalk police".
TESSAKIT OFFICER (Translation): Cap, gloves. You need to wear gloves too. Put them on.
VENDOR (Translation): I will.
TESSAKIT OFFICER (Translation): Hurry, put them on.
Away from the tourist hot spots, thousands of vendors have now been ordered off the main streets - and no-one is sure how many more will have to go. It's all part of a campaign by Thailand's military government to restore order. I'm keen to find out what happens after the vendors are evicted, so Chawadee starts hunting for an egg-noodle vendor who lost his spot on a sidewalk near here. Street food is meant to be convenient and local - but with so many vendors now on the run, it's not always the case anymore.
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIRI: I honestly have to tell you, I have no idea where we are. I would never be here if it wasn't for hearing about this egg-noodle guy, you know, setting up shop here. Otherwise,no way. It had better be good noodles!
MAN: There it is...!
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR: Ohhhh...! Thank you!
If you're a foodie here, you'll know that not all egg noodles are considered equal. When we finally find Chawadee's egg-noodle guy, I discovered these ones are freshly made by the vendor. An act of love, considering he doesn't charge any more for them. It's less than $2 for a bowl with broth, wantons, barbecued pork and greens.
CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR (Translation): Excuse me, can I interview you?
When Sumet Jaratwit was evicted, he'd been selling noodles for 30 years. It seemed easier to retire than start over again somewhere else - but one of his biggest fans couldn't bear to see him go.
SUMET JARATWIT, VENDOR (Translation): After I stopped, customers kept calling. They kept asking and I didn’t know what to say. So I said “My house is over there. If you find a place, I’ll sell again. If not, I won’t.”
The customer found him this space outside a supermarket. But most vendors haven't been so lucky...
SAIYON PANYA, VENDOR (Translation): Green papaya salad. Green papaya salad.
This is one of Bangkok's signature street-food dishes - green papaya salad. Saiyon Panya has been making it every day for 20 years.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): Som tam is made with green papaya…tomato…lime. For pickled crab or pickled fish, here it is.
She used to park her cart in the same spot every day. Until the city's so-called "sidewalk police" told her she was no longer allowed to trade there.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): They said there was nowhere that selling would be permitted. No selling whatsoever. If you broke the rule, you’d be arrested.
To make a living, Saiyon takes risks - and ventures into the tourist area, where she's not allowed... I ask her what would happen if she was spotted by the sidewalk police.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): Run, run, run and hide!
She's befriended the owners of this store, and they've told her she can always hide her cart here.
STORE OWNER (Translation): When she is scared, she runs like this. No… joking. Just pretending.
REPORTER: Why are you so concerned with untidiness? A lot of people say that one of the charms of Bangkok is that it's a messy, chaotic city.
DR VALLOP SUWANDEE: Are you sure that the charm and the messy can go together? The city of Bangkok could not equate, could not equate the charm of Bangkok with untidiness. Actually, just imagine, just one tourist, enjoy themselves on the food street in Bangkok and the night after have the acute case of diarrhoea, or even lost their life due to the…
REPORTER: How often does that happen? I mean, generally the street food in Bangkok is pretty safe, isn't it?
DR VALLOP SUWANDEE: No, I don't think so. I don't think so.
In fact, Bangkok has an enviable reputation when it comes to the quality of its street food. CNN recently named it the world's best street food destination for the second year running. It's hard to think of another Westerner who knows as much about Thai street food as Australian David Thompson.
DAVID THOMPSON, CHEF: Three pieces of oyster omelette, please.
This farang, or foreigner, runs what many think is the best Thai restaurant in Bangkok - but he's addicted to this humble street food classic. Over three generations, the family who owns this Chinatown restaurant has prospered thanks to the only item on its menu.
DAVID THOMPSON: The thing is, she's making it crispier and crispier and crispier. It really is the best version in Bangkok that I know of.
He tells me the impact of this crackdown is far more serious for locals than for tourists. For example, street food has always been a path to upward mobility for migrants from the countryside or other parts of Asia.
DAVID THOMPSON: The first place you land is on the streets, because you can actually set yourself up and give yourself a job that will give you a lift into a more stable job such as this family has done, such as so many other families have done. Very often, within four generations, some Chinese families have gone from the streets to owning banks.
Yes, it's chaotic and yes it’s disorderly and yes it’s not quite the way it might happen in the wesy or the military, as the army might like, but it is the natural way that it has happened here. Whether you're rich or poor, everybody's got a favourite street-food place. Perhaps it's the only institution that's still currently remaining that is still democratic, because simply everybody eats on the streets.
Even the Royal Palace is known to place large orders from some vendors - but many people eat on the streets because they have no other choice.
DAVID THOMPSON: It's not just about feeding people, nor - as the government suggests - about entertaining tourists. It performs a much greater social function. That social function is it provides food for the poor who work in the city who are on minimum wage, and they need to eat somewhere. They can't eat in flash restaurants or they can't summon, as we charmingly do, as we come to a place like this. They needed this type of institution.
Saiyon charges just over $1 for a bowl of freshly pounded papaya salad. As a stream of hospitality workers, tuktuk drivers and labourers turn up for their cheap lunch, I realise the vital role people like her play in feeding the city.
WORKER (Translation): For this, it’s 20-30 baht, I can afford it. For people who have to make ends meet we have to eat like this. We have to buy from street food sellers.
But, as Bangkok becomes more prosperous, there are people who prefer to eat their street food with a side order of air-conditioning. The hard realities of life for the poor seem pretty remote in places like this.
LADY (Translation): This is street food but they’ve organised it into zones. So the zones are in shopping centres where everyone can come and have their favourite food. It’s convenient and people can eat in air-conditioning. Anybody can come to a shopping centre. It isn’t limited to rich people because middle and lower income people can also come.
But what happens if cleanliness comes at the expense of character? One of Thailand's leading architects says the people who run Bangkok don't appreciate the city they have.
DUANGRIT BUNNAG, ARCHITECT: But don't you think Bangkok is already beautiful - as it is? It's already one of the most liveable city in the world for me. The problem is that if you don't see that, then we have a problem.
Architect Duangrit Bunnag doesn't want Bangkok to repeat mistakes made by other Asian cities.
DUANGRIT BUNNAG: Singapore is a good example, they are a people with discipline, a city with rules and regulation and at some point, their birth rate dropped down. You think they don't have sex anymore, ok? And why is that? Because rules work to a certain extent, but not every time.
Right now, Duangrit's worried about plans for Bangkok's busy riverfront, inspired by developments in India and South Korea.
RIVER PR VIDEO (Translation): Chao Phraya River promenade development project... it will beautify Chao Phraya’s landscape
This mega-development - the first stage alone will run for 7km along both banks of the river - is the brainchild of the general who led the coup and is now Prime Minister.
DUANGRIT BUNNAG: One day they came up with the idea, out of the blue, saying, ok we are gonna build a promenade into the river, not on the river, but into the river without any study, without any assessment, they said "ok we are gonna do that".
REPORTER: If the Prime Minister wants a promenade along the river, then he's gonna get the promenade along a river, isn't he? Bangkok's not democracy at the moment.
DUANGRIT BUNNAG: Yeah. That is something very unfortunate.
Authorities aren't letting environmental concerns stand in their way - or historic riverside communities. They're set to receive the same treatment as many of the city's street vendors.
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): I think that if they build the project here, and they evict us so we don’t get to live here, we won’t get to walk or cycle around here because they’ll move us far away. We won’t enjoy the benefit of what they’re building here.
SOMPAT SAENGTHONG (Translation): So it’s built for the rich.
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): It’s built mostly for the rich.
These stilthouses were built by and for the poor. Pumin Samang is very happy here. When the families here are evicted, the government will give them loans for new apartments - but they'll lose access to the river and their unique livelihood. For over 30 years, Pumin's made his living by diving for antiquities on the riverbed.
TAN (Translation): Uncle Pumin, who went down just then, will be looking around for things. He’ll grope around for coins or valuables to bring up and sell.
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): This is what I brought up. I felt around and brought this stuff up. There’s some lead sinkers...and some coins. And some buttons.
On a really good day, they might find a gold ring. On a bad day, it could be a corpse. But on the worst day, one they know is coming, they'll be forced to leave.
TAN (Translation): This area is just like our home, how it developed. They’ll all be evicted, all the way to our house, to the bridge.
DR VALLOP SUWANDEE: Those encroaching on the river, they have to move out of the way. I don't think the people of the city of New York or the city of London wouldn't allow anyone to build their home on the bank of the Hudson, or the bank of Thames river, just the same thing.
I wonder what Pumin and his family think about the crackdown on street-food vendors. Do they see any link to their own plight?
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): This project... It’s connected.
SOMPAT SAENGTHONG (Translation): It mostly affects the poor...
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): It falls directly on the poor.
SOMPAT SAENGTHONG (Translation): Even people who sell food on the footpath are relocated. They‘re put in shops, but some can’t afford to pay rent. Either way, they are affected. It’s like they want to wipe out the poor.
PUMIN SAMANG (Translation): It’s government policy to “return happiness to the people”. Lately, from what I can see, it’s more like “return happiness to the rich”. Then put all the misery on to the poor instead.
REPORTER: Some people have said that they're afraid that Bangkok might be becoming too much like Singapore.
DR VALLOP SUWANDEE: VALLOP: Do we need to equate ourselves with Singapore? Do we need to be on par with New York city, with London? I think on certain aspects that is our, our objective, our prime target but anyway we need to take into consideration, we need to seek a balance between modernized city of Bangkok and also to retain our charm, our culture. We need to strike a balance.
We may not notice one less cart selling papaya salad, but for som tam vendor Saiyon Panya, it's her life. Nudging right up to the railway tracks, this tiny room is where she lives with her husband. Unlike the city's sidewalks, this community of street vendors isn't slated for modernisation. Most here come from the countryside hoping to make a go of it in the capital. And the scrutiny of the sidewalk police is making it even harder for them.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): I’m married. Now he’s disabled so he can’t work. I have to support him.
Saiyon's earnings have taken a real hit since she was evicted. Many of her fellow vendors have already been forced to leave Bangkok.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): These days, we’re all affected. Some people are barred from selling in an area so they go back home to farm. For people who still keep trying to resist, like me, if they evict you, you go elsewhere and still sell food.
In the good old days, when she had a secure place to work, Saiyon made about $40 a day after expenses. Now, it's more like $12.
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): Two, three, four...No profit at all today.
REPORTER: Do you think it could reach a point where you couldn't keep doing what you're doing, because it just becomes too difficult, life on the streets?
SAIYON PANYA (Translation): If I give up, I’d have nothing at all. I’d have nothing to eat. Before, I had my husband’s support, now I don’t. So I have to keep going.
Street vendors are, by nature, tough and resilient. But how many will be cleared away by the time the government finishes restoring order? And how much of Bangkok's character will vanish with them?
4th July 2017