THOUSANDS of food vendors are fearful about their future after officials from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) declared their intention to clear them off streets for the sake of cleanliness.
For three decades everyone from police and builders, to street cleaners and partying rich kids have gorged on noodles at Uncle Pan’s street-side stall in Bangkok’s chic-est neighbourhood.
But now the 67-year-old food vendor is no longer welcome at his pavement spot, amid a purge of food stalls by the city governor, who says they clutter up the capital’s curbs. With dishes that average Bt35-55 a plate, most of the city’s kerbside cooks don’t make a fortune selling their fare, which ranges from grilled seafood skewers to somtam.
But they have won global acclaim as some of the finest fast food chefs in the world, fuelling a booming city besotted by eating.
Like his peers, Pan Chaiyasit works behind a small pushcart from where he dishes out yellow egg noodles, topped with pork and wanton dumplings, to customers who sit together on plastic chairs spread across the pavement.
The family-run stall is a fixture of a neighbourhood that has exploded with development over the past few decades. But with the deadline to clear off the street expiring this week, Pan must either uproot his restaurant to a new locale or downsize so it doesn’t spill onto the sidewalk.
“I’ve been selling here since there was nothing,” the genial, apron-wearing uncle told AFP, explaining that the Thong Lor area was a tree-studded backwater when he first set up.
Today, his customers sit ringside to a central artery of Bangkok’s ritziest neighbourhood, lined with tower blocks, upscale restaurants and nightclubs. That makes for a varied clientele that pulls from all layers of the social fabric.
“Office workers, police, soldiers... even if they drive a Mercedes-Benz, they have the same right to eat here,” Pan said, wiping away a bead of sweat as waiters buzzed around him to serve an after-work crush.
Good business, which sees Pan rake in around Bt30,000 a month, rests on these close ties to the neighbourhood.
“We all know each other in this street. Everyone, factory workers, company staff, they know me and we are friends... if we move, we won’t have these relationships.”
Yet city officials insist the footpaths must be “returned to the public” and have laid out a plan to bar tens of thousands of street stalls from main roads, instead squeezing them into side-streets or hawkers’ centres.
Wanlop Suwandee, the Bangkok governor’s chief adviser, said local residents wanted to reclaim their pavements, so the BMA had to undertake a tough task to do just that.
“After the successful mission [to reclaim] several areas such as Siam Square and Pratunam, the BMA will manage the area in Bang Lamphu, as the next target,” Wanlop said.
“For areas that have already been managed, there will be strict law enforcement to prevent illegal vendors from returning to those areas. And if anyone finds illegal vendors, they can contact BMA officers to deal with |immediately.”
He said this operation stemmed from many complaints sent to the BMA from local people, who were inconvenienced by being unable to walk on pavements occupied by street vendors. So, the city’s administrators had to take action and get street vendors to move into markets, where space was provided for them.
“City Hall used to allow these street vendors to legally sell [food] on the street in the specific areas, but since the city is growing, these areas where street vendors were allowed have to be revoked – to return the space because of the increased urban population,” he said.
However, workers such as Pan, whose lives look set to be greatly affected, are not sure what the future holds – other than more bowls of soup.
“Even though we sometimes face troubles we have to keep selling. We have to fight to survive,” he said.