Street food patrons dine on the road at Bangkok's well-known Sukhumvit Soi 38

Street food patrons dine on the road at Bangkok’s well-known Sukhumvit Soi 38

Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital city, teams with spicy food steaming on street carts throughout its densely packed neighborhoods. Bangkok features continuously warm weather, and hosts an overwhelmingly friendly populous that earned the country the moniker “Land of Smiles” and made Bangkok the world’s most visited city in 2013. For the city planners among us, Bangkok offers an added charm – the opportunity to live and work in streets that bustle with the movements of a changing cast of characters throughout the day and night. While certainly imperfect, these streets evoke images of New York City’s historic Greenwich Village idealized by Jane Jacobs in her acclaimed book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Many American planners now look back on such neighborhoods with nostalgia, but their counterparts in Bangkok are a bit more skeptical of the virtue of such lively street life.

At first the city’s dynamism can disorient. The constantly changing streetscape means vendors or storefronts you come to count on as landmarks on your way to work may disappear entirely by the evening. Navigating sidewalks crowded with merchants hawking unfamiliar foods or clothing can also present challenges, especially in the summer’s oppressive heat. However, in many ways this headache-inducing cacophony constitutes organic city planning at its finest. Jane Jacobs would likely lavish praise on the mix of land-uses found in every neighborhood, the safety inherent in having so many “eyes on the street,” and the economic opportunity these small-scale entrepreneurs represent.

Bangkok’s neighborhood streets, or sois as they are referred to in Thai, double as marketplaces for a myriad of goods. Clothing and jewelry sellers set up shop next to people cooking up tasty treats and snacks and others managing full-size restaurants on the sidewalk. Almost anything can be bought on the street including electronics, paintings and books – even unsavory products unheard of elsewhere are sold openly on the sidewalks of the red-light districts. The city has 283 official street-vending areas with many vendors operating more informally to meet the needs of consumers in additional neighborhoods. The ubiquitous 7/11s serve as places to pay monthly bills and purchase quotidian conveniences in air-conditioned comfort. Throughout most of the city there is very little – if any – separation between commercial and residential uses. Storefront shops with apartments above are the norm, and places where residences dominate the formal built environment street-vendors line the curbs. Thanks to this motley mixed-land-use pattern, Bangkok residents have nearly everything they need within walking distance.

Walking down my street in Bangkok’s Ari neighborhood before and after work and on weekends, Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” phenomenon is constantly present. Weekday mornings the hum of frenzied commuters walking to the Skytrain commuter rail feeds vendors selling morning snacks, packaged lunches, coffee, and tea. Weeknights I come home to an entirely different set of food hawkers offering full-fledged sit down sidewalk meals and dinners to-go to returning office workers. An army of motorcycle taxi drivers awaits the opportunity to take residents back to their homes, and apartment building security guards chat with one another and their residents in front of their sidewalk outposts late into the night. Such constant flux of people is rare in all but the densest neighborhoods in the US, but in Bangkok no one from the earliest-rising worker to the latest late-night reveler feels the insecurity of traveling alone.

Of course, serious safety, health, and labor issues accompany such chaotic lively streets. Vendors often take up entire sidewalks, encumbering travelers, especially elderly people or the disabled. Food safety is policed not by law but by customers keen to which stalls are unsafe, which leaves many less savvy travelers and residents at risk. The final “eyes on the street” on garbage collection nights come mostly from Bangkok’s roving rats. From a labor perspective, it is not uncommon to see vendor stands employing children and young teenagers in the family business. Despite these issues, Jacobs would likely contend that such vibrant street life is worth protecting, nurturing, and managing rather than eradicating outright.

Street food vendors in Bangkok's Ari neighborhood prepare to close up as the last customers of the night head home.

Street food vendors in Bangkok’s Ari neighborhood prepare to close up as the last customers of the night head home.

As Bangkok has grown economically, its leaders have taken varied approaches to street merchants, and specifically food vendors. As of 2005, the city’s municipal government was staunchly set on elimination of vendors en masse. In an article for The Asian Eye in 2005, the then Deputy Governor of Bangkok, Dr. Vallop Suwandee, stated his goal that “In 10 years time, there will be no more vendors left.” However, even he acknowledged that the city’s government did not truly have the means to meet such a goal and 9 years later, in 2014, Bangkok’s streets are far from empty. He opposed the street vendors because he believed they were largely undocumented migrants who dirtied the city’s streets and hindered the city’s progress. “They get no support from my part. I have never bought and will never buy from them.” He resents the city’s approximately 380,000 street food vendors because they do not pay for their use of public land and sully Bangkok’s reputation among foreigners. “We can’t promote tourism with them around.”

Luckily for street merchants, official opinion on street vendors seems to have changed. The current Governor, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, while a member of the same party as Dr. Vallop Suwandee, seems to have taken a more moderate stance. His administration has sought to balance the needs of the many users of the city’s streets and sidewalks, including those of vendors. In November 2013, his administration set additional rules for vendors in two areas of the city to ensure the busy streets did not become impassable during rush hour. Vendors on Ratchadamri Road and in the Tha Phrachan area were asked to vacate their respective sidewalks from 5 pm to 7 pm each day. Ratchadamri Road is in the central business district and Tha Prachan is a district popular with tourists and university students. The new regulations allow only one row of vendors during the day and two parallel rows in the evenings. Organizing street carts in this way will keep clear a section of the sidewalk for pedestrians. To bring a sense of order to the street market, the new rule also requires that all vendors in those districts use the same color canvas on their carts and umbrellas. While such rules inconvenience vendors and uniform colors could detract from the street’s endearingly hectic ambiance, such moves suggest the government now appreciates the value the street vendors bring to the city.

Viewing street entrepreneurs as assets rather than blights on the city means the city can work to enhance the experience of buyers and sellers rather than try to dismantle these special environments in the name of modernity. Improving sidewalk infrastructure overall and painting lines designating where carts can and cannot be placed would be a good start. Creating a mobile app or a hotline for alerting public health inspectors to substandard vendors could help inspectors focus on trouble spots without requiring a costly expansion of the inspection program as a whole. Unionization of the street vendors could yield benefits for the merchants themselves and requiring a small city-wide street vendor fee to subsidize the cost of cleaning streets and monitoring food safety standards would also assuage the frustrations of formal businesses that resent the vendors’ free use of public space.

Instituting such changes would still pose numerous challenges. Many vendors operating in areas where vending is not authorized already pay a monthly fee to local policemen who simply keep the money for themselves. Such sellers make up the more than fifty percent of street sellers who, according to a 2003 Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN study, operate outside the city’s designated vending areas. Adding a selling fee on top of this bribe of sorts could prove costly for vendors and redirecting existing payments to the city government would entail tackling the larger issues of corruption and organized crime in Bangkok.

All these changes could make Bangkok’s streets safer and cleaner without losing the Jane Jacobs-esque charm that comes with their multiplicity of uses. If well-managed, Bangkok’s streets could become a model for two types of cities – those seeking to bring more order to their informal economies and those hoping to rebuild a sense of place lost in their drive towards stability and auto-centrism. Current Bangkok leaders seem to view moderation favorably. As the city continues to develop and modernize, Jacobs’ fans worldwide hope the city continues protecting its unique street life rather than sweeping it away.

  • Lydia

    Hi Will, im a fellow american in bangkok trying to study vendors’. Where did you get the 480K figure for food vendors’ counts? NSO?