Some friends and I bought Royal Enfield choppers and rode around the Himalayas many moons ago. India was, as sloganed, incredible. Our journey was constantly interrupted however, as we would have to spend days holed up in guest houses while one friend or another recovered from bouts of Delhi belly, shedding weight as we gained miles. Three months later, as we hugged one another goodbye, each of us heading home to our respective countries, I realised my arms were wrapped around skin and bones. I remember being startled to notice that my friends had wasted away while I’d managed to pile on a few kilos.
‘Stomach of a buffalo’, I crowed about my constitution, attributing my glowing digestive health to years of eating street food.
Like most Thais, I’ve had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten off the streets. Admittedly, while standards of hygiene have greatly improved in recent years, they aren’t always where they should be. However, the occasional upset is hardly a deterrent to any self-respecting Thai.
We all have our favourite hole-in-the-wall pad thai shop, roadside somtam lady, back-of-a-pickup grilled chicken guy or hot steamed sweetcorn cart. We pick up a plastic bag — I know, I know, I do try to remember to bring a bag as often as I can — of fried meatballs or sliced mango when we head over to visit friends and then often end up in energetic debates about whose vendor is best. We post pictures of ourselves slurping a bowl of noodles on Instagram, we know that we can pop out to grab a yummy bite night or day and most of all we take great joy from talking incessantly about our beloved vendors, swapping our discoveries with our friends and anyone who will listen.
Street food is such a daily part of life here I’d never even imagined it not always being there…until now. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has just announced that in spite of the fact that CNN had a few weeks earlier declared Bangkok to be the world’s best destination for street food for the second year running, by the end of this year the City of Angel’s pavements will forever be stripped of vendors. All in the name of cleanliness and safety.
As someone who has been bleating in these pages for years about our cluttered pavements and how authorities need to clear them for pedestrians, I’m kind of rattled. Of course pavements need to be navigable, but to ban every single vendor is just unimaginable.
As yet there are no plans to ban street food from Chiang Mai, but with Bangkok in the lead, we may very well head that way eventually. And that would be an absolute tragedy.
Part of what has propelled Thai food to become one of the world’s best and most beloved cuisines is the creativity and skills of these often one-dish vendors who have perfected their recipes and craft so that we can enjoy a bewildering variety of food at affordable prices and at great convenience.
I am all for clean and safe pavements, but there has to be a middle road. Banning street vendors would not only do damage to Thai cuisine as a whole, but significantly affect and impact our ways of life, our very cultural fabric. For convenience, are we supposed to look towards the McDonald’s of the worlds?
I shudder at the thought.
P.S. Hoorah! As we go to press in the next few hours, the Minister of Tourism has just reversed the ban…with caveats. But reversed, nonetheless. And there will apparently be a street food fair in Bangkok this June.