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Street Eaters

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STREET EATERS

By Andrew Biggs

Living in Bangkok is like winning the lottery; it’s surprising how many relatives and friends, and children of estranged friends, come out of the woodwork at vacation time.

I have international visitors visiting me regularly, dear reader. This is how I know, despite being allergic to seafood, precisely how long it takes for fish to go off.

It is the small price I pay for living in paradise.

Many guests are happy to fend for themselves and enjoy exploring this city. Like you, I too have had house guests who display character traits of special needs students. My liquor cabinet finds itself depleted more rapidly than usual, and that’s not even taking into account what the visitors are drinking.

On that glorious day when the visitors leave, I find myself driving off to Suvarnabhumi, slightly over the speed limit to ensure the experience is over and done with as quickly as possible.

During that journey I always ask them a simple question: “What did you enjoy the most about Thailand?”

The answer is invariably the same. The Thai people. The friendliness, the politeness and the hospitality afforded to them during their short stay by the locals. Even the special needs visitors admit to that.

I continue to pry. “What else?” I ask, and weirdly, the next answer is always the same as well.

The food.

The nice restaurants, yes, but it’s the street food that grabs everyone. Those fried bananas that give you angina just looking at them. Pad thai off the street. Isan sausages. Grilled squid. Somtam and sticky rice. Khanom krok. A thousand different taste sensations amid the swirling cacophony of Bangkok streets.

If this column is being read by any of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s upper echelons, then this information should evoke pride in the knowledge that people and food are what tourists find impressive here.

But they should also feel revulsion, like I am feeling, that those in power are threatening to eradicate one of those two desirable aspects. And no, it’s not genocide.

There are two terrible events going on in the world at this moment.

The first is the tension building up between the United States and various hotspots such as Syria and North Korea. The second is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s attempt to rid Bangkok of street food.

I’m going to leave the first topic for international media analysts. This is not laziness, but an attempt to spare you from what could evolve into an often repeated philosophy on the cataclysmic effect Donald Trump may have on the extinction of the human species.

So let’s do the other one.

For the BMA to announce it is going to kill all street food must be grounds for the BMA’s removal … yet again.

If Bangkok must eradicate its street food because it’s messy and unhygienic, then let Paris dismantle the Eiffel Tower because it’s old. Make London tear down Big Ben because people don’t read traditional clock faces any longer, and have Istanbul close its spice markets because they smell.

As for Amsterdam, surely those tulip fields would be better off utilized as condominium projects.

There are moments in a country’s history where the general populace feels the need to rise up and demand change and this has to be such a time.

I’m talking about grass-roots battles for change, in an era when those in power are no longer serving the common good, like the French Revolution or the Boston Tea Party in the United States. How quaint that we can bundle the BMA into those events, but we surely can and must.

Thais have experience in such changes. Coincidentally, the swapping of that bronze plaque beside the statue of King Chulalongkorn last week is a reminder of it happening right here.

That memorial plaque commemorated the 1932 revolution in which Siam turned into a constitutional monarchy after 800 years of an absolute monarchy.

Last week staunch royalists dug it up, as if that somehow made the event go away, and replaced it with a plaque with a more feel-good message in support of the monarchy. Oh but we are off the track, as usual.

I believe that we, the people of Bangkok city, like the people of Syria, or North Korea (or the United States) need to rise up against the despots in charge. We do not have an al-Assad or Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump at our helm. But we do have the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

No street food?

Bangkok is in danger of obliterating the very thing that attracts 30 million tourists here annually —a lot of them staying at my place.

In fact, “obliterate” appears to be the word of the year in two very distinct forms.  

The first is the systematic destruction of every market, theatre, park, vacant lot, wooden mansion, and any other structure built in the 20th century in order to construct condominium complexes.

Sukhumvit Road is now a corridor of condos with exciting names like Nature Park, The Happy, The Millennium and The Coast.  This is progress and the tenets of capitalism at work, and I should be grateful. The frequency of my houseguests will dwindle as they discover the Land of Smiles has turned into the Land of “luxury” 26-square-metre granny flats overlooking a non-existent coast.

The other danger is the BMA’s plan to eradicate Bangkok’s street food in the interests of hygiene and tidiness and safety.

Hygiene? Tidiness? Safety?

Since when have these ever been important issues?

Look at the roads! We just farewelled 390 Thais over Songkran, killed in car accidents. We just nixed a law that would have prevented people from sitting in the backs of pickups — all because it might upset some folk who need to get to and from work.

For more than two decades successive Thai governments have wrestled with the uncomfortable international reputation of Bangkok being the sex capital of the world.

Governments have promoted other areas of Thailand that attract tourists. And come on, let’s face it. If it ain’t sex, it’s gotta be the food.

This has got to be the most exciting cuisine in the world, ranging from the five-star restaurants right down to the street food. The latter can be controlled and tidied up, if need be, but eradicated?

And we are forgetting the greatest group of consumers of street food. These are people far away from the 30 million tourists who visit here each year. They are the 68 million Thais, many of whom slave away on a minimum wage of 300 Baht per day, who have no alternative but to eat off the street.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we perhaps don’t need to stage an uprising, dear readers. The ramifications of this decree are so deadly to the tourism economy that it has to be shot down.

Either way, the street food goes or the BMA goes. And I’m not giving up my pad thai for anybody.

/Andrew

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