New laws in Bangkok may kill Thailand's street food culture

Picture Bangkok. What comes to mind? Tuk-tuks zipping through crazy traffic? A big reclining Buddha? Cheap beers on Khao San Road? A divey hostel with a great crew?

Chances are you're imagining all of those things. You're probably also, however, picturing street food. You're picturing pad thai slapped together by a vendor on a street corner. You're picturing the "clack clack" of wooden pestles on mortars as som tum is prepared. You're picturing clouds of smoke rising into the hot night as satays are grilled and sausages are sizzled.

That's Bangkok. It's street food. It's the sounds and smells and chaotic sights that come with this cultural staple, the crush of people, the calls of vendors, the fight for a place to sit, the sweat, the hunger, the taste of all that good food served up for next to nothing. That's what so many travellers love about this city.

And yet, it's changing. Bangkok's street food culture is disappearing. It's being legislated out of existence. It's being shifted out of its traditional home in the name of progress, in the name of safety, in the name of order.

If you caught last week's episode of the SBS show Dateline, you'll know that Thailand's military junta government is attempting to change the face of its capital city. Street food is not being banned, contrary to fears earlier this year. But new laws are making life so difficult for many vendors that this cherished culture is facing extinction.

Bangkok's "sidewalk police" are now enforcing new rules, driving some vendors away from their regular patches, and clearing entire areas of all street food outlets. It seems clear the government is intent on sanitising Bangkok, on taking the chaos and turning it into order, on clearing the well-off areas of their unsightly street stalls and morphing the Thai capital into a place that more closely resembles somewhere like Singapore.

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For tourists, this is bad news. I can't think of any other city around the world that has legislated one of its major tourist attractions out of existence in the same way the Thai government is poised to do with its street food culture.

The Catalans in Spain banned bull-fighting, but there's no way many travellers were visiting Barcelona just to see that. The Laos government cleaned up the infamous tubing site at Vang Vieng, but that was never really legal in the first place. Plenty of individual tourist attractions have banned selfie-sticks, but people were visiting those places long before selfies were even a thing.

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But Bangkok is street food. People visit this city just to sit on a plastic stool on a crowded corner and eat oyster omelettes and noodle soups, to watch as curries are cooked and meat is grilled before their eyes. That's a tourist attraction. That's a sight.

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According to the Thai government, that street food culture will remain. Vendors are still allowed to operate in touristy areas such as Khao San Road and Chinatown, albeit with stricter sanitary regulations and fewer stalls. And other vendors are being encouraged to shift their businesses into shopping malls and other heavily regulated zones.

But that, in my opinion at least, is not street food culture. That's not what people love about this city. It's the chaos that makes it great. It's the vote-with-your-fork democracy that allows a husband and wife team from rural Thailand to compete with the city's most famous vendors. It's the thrilling lack of regulation in Bangkok that we love, that's so different to the staid streets of our homes.

Maybe, of course, that's a problem in itself. Travellers want chaos, they revel in the dysfunction. But maybe cleaning up the streets is actually a good thing for Bangkok. Maybe its residents really would rather live somewhere that resembles Singapore, clean and orderly and efficient, than the street-vendor-strewn city they currently inhabit. Maybe they would prefer flowing traffic to 60-baht egg noodles.

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I'm sure for some residents in Bangkok that's true. But it's certainly not a good thing for those on low incomes who rely on eating or selling street food, or those who visit the city to soak up the anarchic flavour of a typical Bangkok sidewalk. And after all, no issues of long-term poverty are actually being addressed here, they're just being moved on.

To sanitise Bangkok's streets is to make them more comfortable for the high end of town, for the people who can afford to live in the apartments that tower above the chaos, and afford to drive on the roads. But the character and the charm of the city will be forever altered, forever lost, and that, for me at least, is going to diminish it as a destination.

There's already a Singapore. You can go there if you want to. Regardless of the arguments for or against Bangkok's sterilisation, the loss of the bulk of the city's street food culture is going to make it a far less attractive proposition for potential visitors. I know it will for me.

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What do you think of the Thai government's moves to clean up Bangkok's streets? Do you want street food culture to remain? Or are higher food safety standards and more orderly streets a good thing for the city?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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