‘It’s a shocking idea': outcry over Bangkok street vendor ban

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Tourists and stallholders say citys attempt to sanitise the bustling, chaotic Khaosan Road is stripping the area of its charm

Few streets evoke the chaos of Bangkok like the Khaosan Road, a place of pilgrimage for tanned, dreadlocked, tassle-adorned backpackers for decades.

Yet this week, in an attempt to impose some order on the capitals famed tourist road, the Thai authorities ordered all street vendors selling food, clothes and trinkets to clear off the pavements during the day.

The edict caused an outcry from locals and tourists alike. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), a form of city police, has been accused of trying to sanitise the atmosphere that makes this stretch such a draw for millions each year and at the expense of the streets 200 vendors, who already have meagre earnings.

Khaosan Road locator map

Its such a shame, its a shocking idea, said Taisha Thompson, who was visiting from Sydney. We came here this time last year and the street was full of food and it was amazing, it was a beautiful atmosphere. I was wondering what had happened, the atmosphere is entirely different now. They are wrong if they think this is what visitors want.

Sitting surrounded by beads, gold buddhas, elephant-embroidered trousers and an assortment of coloured, dreadlocked hair extensions, one shop owner who has had a business on the Khaosan Road for more than 20 years was downbeat. On a Thursday afternoon, the day after the clearance, the road was unusually deserted.

Gone were the stalls, and with them the tourists who would usually be purchasing mango smoothies, pad thai and cheap sunglasses.

She declined to give her name for fear of angering the authorities. Yes, its been quiet since the street vendors were cleared, she said. The street is now orderly but I think its lost the charm. As you can see it now looks quite ordinary, like any other street in the world.

The vendors have been here for a long time and [they] created the atmosphere. Yes, some shops or business operators may not like the stalls setting up and blocking their front doors but it isnt always the case. There are much worse spots nearby where people cant walk on footpaths.

Bangkok
Bangkok city officials speak to a street vendor after the daytime ban on stalls was implemented. Photograph: Panu Wongcha-Um/Reuters

She shook her head. I have been here for almost 20 years and, to me, those vendors on footpaths are like brothers and sisters. When tourists ask me what happened [here], all I can tell them is government control.

The BMAs controversial edict keeps Khaosan Road empty in the daytime in stark contrast to the surrounding streets, which have vendors every few metres and restrict all street sellers to the evenings. After 6pm, stalls are allowed to set up in the road in strictly allotted slots. A similar approach was taken in neighbouring Singapore, where street life exists only in highly regimented spaces.

Yet, as most vendors have pointed out, most people trawling the Khaosan Road at night are not looking to shop but to taste the streets notorious nightlife. They argue the plan takes the life out of the street during the day, and have petitioned the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, to intervene.

Independent stalls helped develop this street over the last 30 years until it became an important Bangkok landmark, said Yada Pornpetrumpa, the president of the Khaosan Road street vendor association. Now, the government wont even listen to us.

Phai, who has a stall selling feathery beaded dreamcatchers, is chagrined by the new rules. Nobody wants to buy a dreamcatcher in the night-time, so this plan is no good for me, he said. Tourists come shopping here in the day. I used to do good business, and then I [went] home at night.

In order to get around the new law, Phai had set up his stall in a cramped alcove, but business was much poorer than usual he had only sold two dreamcatchers that day to passing tourists, rather than the usual dozen.

It was a similar story for fruit juice seller Dao, who had been forced to move to a small hole in the wall instead of her usual pavement spot. She had made just 500 baht (11), a fraction of her usual takings, because tourists had been driven elsewhere for their shopping and eating.

We were here two weeks ago and there was so much more going on, said Alice Preece, 22, from Yorkshire. We had to walk down the road with our rucksacks on and it was a nightmare trying to get around all the street vendors, so its nice to have a bit of space but its taken the buzz away. That chaos is what makes Bangkok Bangkok. Its messy and mad they shouldnt try to clean that away.

It is not the first time Thailands military government has tried to impose order in Bangkoks tourist hotspots. In January last year, Sukhumvit, a district popular with expats, was cleared of its street vendors. Stalls selling everything from shoe-fixing services and fried chicken to fish balls, somtam (papaya salad) and fresh fruit, disappeared from the busy pavements, again prompting complaints that the soul of the city was being sanitised.

The Sukhumvit clearance has not been entirely successful, however. Many stallholders remain, using moveable carts that can be quickly picked up if authorities approach.

Most vendors on the Khaosan Road remain hopeful that the BMA will abandon its unpopular rule.

Vikram Bahardu, who usually sells clothing, said the row was now about money and saving face. Negotiations have taken place between the BMA and traders about a possible levy on daytime carts, rather than kicking them off altogether.

They used to charge us 500 baht per month, now they are talking about charging 1,000 baht, maybe 2,000 baht, to let us sell on the streets in the daytime, said Bahardu. All I want is not to lose my stall.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/aug/04/bangkok-street-vendor-ban-prompts-outcry-thailand

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