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.
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.
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.
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.
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.