Bangkok’s Government Is Cleansing The City of Street Food

Two and a half years ago Thailand’s military junta came out wanting to ban Bangkok street food. The worldwide response was swift and firm. This idea is insane.

  • This is some of the best food in the world
  • It’s a huge tourism draw and source of fuel for the economy
  • It’s sold by Thais who are in general not well off. Per capital income in Thailand is already only 20% that of South Korea and even one-third less than in Malaysia.

bangkok street food on Yoawarat Road
Yoawarat Road Street Food

Bangkok Street Food Has a Home in Restaurants, Too

There are amazing restaurants in Bangkok both at the high end and real cheap eats. And the cheap eats aren’t all street food. Try crossing the Chao Phraya river from the boat dock next to the Mandarin Oriental (a ride across on a public boat is 20 baht). Then walk straight about 100 yards and the first restaurant on the right has very spicy Northeastern Thai food. Their papaya salad pushes my limits.

chao praya river

amazing papaya salad

And there’s still plenty of street food-like places inside of restaurants. It’s not that you won’t get good food. But the vibrancy of the city would be somewhat lost. The barriers to entry serving food will rise, and that will mean less competition and less creativity.

kalpapruek restaurant serves bangkok street food
Kalpapruek Restaurant

Bangkok Has Tried To Cleanse The City of Street Food

The junta claimed to back off, it was all some sort of misunderstanding, they just wanted to regulate street food and keep it clean and healthy. (They wanted to sanitize it for farang, keep it appealing to tourists.)

Here’s what’s actually happened. Bangkok’s central planners believe “this metropolis of 10 million residents suffers from an excess of crowds, clutter and health hazards.” Instead,

They prefer an air-conditioned Bangkok, with malls, ice-skating rinks and Instagrammable dessert cafes. They want the street food vendors gone.

And so – although the government claimed they weren’t really getting rid of street food vendors, it was all some sort of misunderstanding, “the number of areas designated for street food has decreased from 683 three years ago to 175.” Not the government only promises “we’re not going to ban to zero.”

Banning Street Food Is Bad For Quality And Hurts Bangkok’s Poor

A point I made two years ago is that Thais frequent street food – it isn’t just for tourists. And while some people will see limiting street food to certain places as being something like the Singapore model, Bangkok isn’t Singapore and Singapore doesn’t gear most of its hawker centers towards tourists (other than perhaps the Newton center).

Even less well off Thais, today, have access to incredible quality and variety of food. And the vendors themselves, if forced to switch to higher rent establishments like food courts, would have to work harder and longer just to afford rent and stay even. 80% of street food vendors are women.

bangkok street food

The Singapore model actually subsidizes the land use, while Bangkok’s plan was about placing limits and higher costs on vendors. The goal was to limit the number of places where street food is available in Bangkok, versus scores of places in Singapore. That’s bad for competition, for experimentation, and for the Thais who make their living with the craft.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Gary,

    This article is tone deaf. A lot of street food venders feel entitled to public side walk spaces, and are such a nuisance to general day to day transportation. If you have any disability, don’t plan on using the sidewalk in Bangkok. Also, Where do you think trash and cooking liquids from these venders go to? Singapore style model won’t work, but I’m all down for more regulation and hygiene.

  2. I agree one sided. I can see the governments lobby of view but they should find a middle ground and make sure no one is out of work. It should be more regulated and cleaner.

  3. Just got back from BKK. Really welcome government’s decision! Bkk natives want to move away from stigmatic view of “3-dollar-dinner-capital-of-the world”… Street food can be sold in organized markets, not on congested, narrow, overcrowded, dirty, unsanitary sidewalks…Agree: this is one sided article….

  4. Bangkok street food is mostly disgusting, unhygienic and just not that good. it’s cheap and you get the crap you pay for. I much rather like small mom and pop sit down restaurants.

  5. Wow, surprised on all the negative views on BKK street food. I for one, love the street food scene, and think you find amazing dishes. In a city that you’re consistently on the go, these food stands are perfect.

    The ones I frequent are extremely clean, you actually see the cook prepare the food and the food area.

    The key is to try to visit the stands where the locals line up.

    Hate to see them get pushed out, as it’s an opportunity for lower income thais in bkk to produce income.

  6. I think Bangkok street food is primarily for Thais – sellers and consumers. It is the street vendors selling things other than food and night markets I object to.

  7. Street food is great,but only eat what is cooked in front of you.10 years in Bangkok and never had upset stomache

  8. Feels like this article is one sided and is more written from the point of view of a tourist with limited experience with bangkok. The population in bangkok continues to grow and so do the crowding issues. This is hardly an unreasonable position the government has taken. People can whine about how bangkok is changing but bangkok is not staying in the past just because some tourists want to go to some sort of living museum. Hate to break it to people but the military coup changed everything and bangkok is nothing like what it was 20 years ago. The authoritarian feel is quite noticeable there now.

  9. Attention readers: This is a blog. It is by nature one-sided. Gary does not claim to be an impartial journalist. He writes his opinion on things that interest him. By all means feel disagree with him and use the comments to make your case, but to criticize him for being one-sided is silly.

  10. Street food is a particular favourite of several groups of visitors to Bangkok, including:
    *ordinary tourists , believing it to be an essential part of a brief ‘walk on the wild side’
    * the loony fringe Khao San Rd brigade ( they ‘reach out’ to share their ‘amazing’ , ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ street food experiences via twitter and instagram…complementing the pics of the drugged tigers they pat and the tortured elephants they ride)
    * booze addled expats staggering through the sois
    The food itself: unclean, prepared and served in unhygienic conditions, uses oil that has been recycled dozens if not hundreds of times, contaminated with dust, grit, asbestos from brake linings/ construction waste, animal waste like dog urine/ rat droppings, the poorest quality rice.
    Some of it may be ok but the majority is not.
    I don’t like the idea of the government pushing out small vendors ( and particularly not when the aim of it is to free up space for their hiso mates/cronies to build yet another condo/mall/7-11), but there does need to be some plan to deal with the fact that the vendors who have been forced off main roads ( under pressure from the ‘big end of town’ ) have taken over many residential lanes.

  11. One of the things that my wife and I adored from the start in Bangkok was the street food. Cheap, varied, ubiquitous, and very tasty. What’s not to like. When the government shut down the street vendors in the Grand Hyatt area, we chose to start staying at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, which still has street food in the area. That worked out well for us.

  12. It’s such a shame to see so many commenters are all about control. The reason it’s great, the reason anything is great, is because of competition. Limit that competition and quality always diminishes while prices increase. Build wider sidewalks if that’s your concern. Make parks for the food stalls. Don’t kick them out and stop restricting them. This farang picks street food over 5 star restaurants every time. I’ve never gotten sick from street food, but I’ve been super sick from 5 star hotel food. Antony Bourdain wouldn’t allow his staff to eat at the hotel before filming days for the same reasons.

  13. While the junta makes various claims about sidewalk crowding and hygiene being the motivations for their actions, the underlying issue was the local mafia that controlled the space through threats and extortion. This also applied to the street vendors who were removed from the touristic Silom Road, among other areas, a few years ago. Unfortunately, what results is government affiliated control which simply replicates the tactics of the thugs they were meant to replace.

  14. I live for decades in Asia and I support the urgency to remove uncontrolled and self made street food sellers from the city. Street food as currently and offered in the past is non attractive and a hyginic Hazzard and not a tourist attraction at all. Thais may believe it but it is disgusting. The general order and cleanness is suffering from street food sales. Take an example from Hong Kong! After it was banned there the city became much cleaner and attractive. No Hongkee has ever since complained of staying hungry for not having street food! Thomas S.

  15. Bkk Street food is the very essence of the place its a charming place, all the negative comments are unbelievable, been coming 20 years and never been unwell a single time from eating, the government are single handedly driving people away with the gentrification nonsense…

  16. As a Thai person, I love street food to death, but I prefer a more organised setting like Talad Torung (Evening to Early Morning food venue) where many food stalls open together. They are more organised in waste management and don’t get in the way of day-to-day commute/pedestrian.

  17. @Thomas Schaarschmidt,

    How’s that working for everyday Hong Kongers? Their cost of living is sky-high, and they’re literally rioting there because of it. Are there benefits to cleaning up street food? Absolutely. But, as Gary noted, Thailand should work with the existing vendors to transition them into regulated storefronts or food courts. Simply setting up the regulations only serves to benefit the already-established food vendors, while pushing the street food vendors into becoming unemployed entirely. Those street-food vendors who can’t afford to just buy some storefront space at increased market rates (y’know, increased demand from other street food vendors) will go from being a net benefit to being a net negative very quickly.

  18. Currently in Bangkok and the sky is not falling – plenty of street food to partake, I dare say more than ever! Just had my Issan sausage skewers at Klong San for dinner last night. Bangkok street food is delicious, affordable, and has been part of city since inception. Bangkok would never be the same without the allure of its street food chaos.

  19. Im a aussie chef who has lived & worked in Thailand. For anyone thinking being in a “real” restaurant is going to stop unhygienic practices compared to street food your dreaming. In 2 decades of eating in Thailand ive never been sick from street food … Now compare that to eating in “real” restaurants where food poisoning still occurs despite supposedly better food practices. Keep the street food is part if the culture & a way for the poor locals to earn & eat beside farrang.

  20. I have been to Bangkok many times and I keep coming back. I enjoy the street foods and if you’re on a budget for vacation it’s not bad to eat street foods they have a lot of choices that you can select for a good meal. Unlike going to a restaurant which sometimes they are very pricey.

  21. Bravo well said, been coming since 2000 and the only occasion I was ill and very ill 10 days in total was from a “proper and decent restaurant” the people spouting the drivvle are either trolls or rare cases

  22. I am due to fly to BKK tomorrow, currently in Cambodia, previously in Vietnam both have a great street food cultures and I did street food tours on HCMC and Hanoi, visited “Pub Street” in Siem Reap and having lunch now in Penohm Penh Central District where food vendors are plenty. My opinion is that there needs to be room for both street vendors and the indoor cafes/restaurants, with maybe some additional limited regulatory controls/education to remove poor practices. I agree to eat where the locals eat and enjoy the difference – it would be a shame to only find repeated franchises selling the usual crap or trendy over priced cafes which is what is forced down many modern suburban throats across the world. Long live the local vendor. I have owned a well patronised cheap and cheerful cafe selling crepes and wonderful local quisine to satisfied locals and tourists a very pleasing episode in my life

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