Dateline this week looks at the contentious moves by Thailand’s military government to clean up the streets, removing food stalls which are regarded as part of the country’s tourist character.
Aussie chef David Thompson also appears in this episode.
Thailand has consistently ranked as one of the most popular travel destinations for Australians and many cite its vibrant street life and street food culture as the main reasons for travel. But something’s happening in Bangkok that could change the city forever.
Street vendors have been a constant presence in Bangkok – selling everything from lottery tickets to hot lunches. Thousands of vendors have been ordered off the main streets and footpaths as Thailand’s military government attempts to restore order and clean up the city – fuelling a fierce debate over public space in the capital.
As part of the so-called beautification of Bangkok, authorities are moving some poorer communities to the city’s fringes to make room for a riverfront boulevard. But does clearing away street food vendors from sidewalks and displacing communities make the city more liveable – or less likeable?
This Tuesday, SBS Dateline reporter Amos Robert’s travels to Thailand to investigate the changing face of Bangkok. He meets locals and authorities who embrace and advocate for a cleaner, more modernised city and those who fear the capital is in danger of losing its soul.
Almost every day for the past 20 years, Saiyon Panya has prepared one of Thailand’s signature street food dishes, Son Tam. She’d parked her cart for eight years in the same place, where devoted customers became friends. But in 2015, city authorities told Saiyon – and all other vendors occupying the area – that they had to leave. “They said there was nowhere that selling would be permitted. If you broke the rule, you’d be arrested”, Saiyon tells Dateline.
“These days, we’re all affected. Some people are barred from selling in an area so they go back home to farm. For people who still keep trying to resist, like me, if they evict you, you go elsewhere and still sell food.”
Forced to roam the streets in search of new customers, Saiyon’s earnings have taken a real hit and many of her fellow vendors have been forced to leave Bangkok.
Celebrity Australian chef David Thompson runs what many regard as the best Thai restaurant in Bangkok, but he’s addicted to street food and says it performs a much greater social function for new migrants and the city’s poor. “The first place you land is actually on the streets, because you can set yourself up and give yourself a job that will give you a lift into a more stable job”, David tells Dateline.
“It’s not just about feeding people nor, as the government suggest, about entertaining tourists. It provides food for the poor who work in this city and are minimum wage – they need to eat somewhere. They can’t eat in flash restaurants or slum it as we charmingly do as we come to a place like this. They need this type of institution.”
Tuesday 4 July at 9.30pm on SBS.