Bangkok is one of the best cities in the world for mouth-watering street food - as one US news network proclaimed recently. This goes a long way in helping tourism, and authorities here are spicing up the appeal of Thai food by incorporating gastronomy into the Kingdom's national tourism policy starting this October.
Indeed, plans are brewing to lead countrywide tourism promotion activities with food. Chinatown and Khao San Road are the most popular foodie destinations among foreign visitors.
On the surface, street fare may look affordable and innocuous, just like somtam and pad thai. In reality, it's a gritty world of questionable food hygiene and overpriced seafood that's populated by not just sidewalk vendors, but slick money-laundering mafia bosses as well.
Of course, vendors do know how to cook clean street food, yet many just don't. But that is changing.
Authorities reckon it's time such food is given a complete image makeover. This comes amid a set of stricter regulations being introduced by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) that will change the face of street fare. That means ensuring the presence of street food in Bangkok's tourism drive but in a better, regulated way.
"I have mentioned to several media outlets that it's virtually impossible to do away with street food in Bangkok," Vallop Suwandee told The Nation during an exclusive interview. Vallop, chairman of the advisers to the governor of Bangkok, sees such food as not only a source of livelihood for the poor but also a tourist attraction.
"We care about the poor quite a lot. But by caring, please do not equate this with the inconvenience caused to pedestrians. They have to be concerned about the convenience to pedestrians too," he says.
ENJOYING THE FLAVOUR
In terms of tourism, Vallop says it's the BMA's duty to untiringly promote street food among Thais and foreign visitors to Bangkok "so they can enjoy the flavour and charm of street food in Thailand.
"The prime minister and the Bangkok governor appreciate the fact that CNN recognises our street food. The PM himself has instructed the BMA to make the charm of street food in Bangkok sustainable. We will not limit street food just to Chinatown and Khao San Road," he states.
Vallop believes street food needs to be more sanitary, tasty, affordable - and not obstructive to pedestrians or road traffic. He is consulting Bangkok's administrative laws and colleagues at the Public Health Department to make the two strips - BMA's pilot scheme - fair to sidewalk vendors, pedestrians, diners and motorists.
But that comes with meticulous regulations. The move to regulate street food is being taken as a direct result of the BMA's existing administrative law and complaints (through postcards and BMA's hotline 1555) about food sanitation, pricing and pavement "congestion".
A lack of sanitation is a major worry. Vendors who cook food with their bare hands, wearing no gloves, aprons, or hats, grab the money from customers, then get back to cooking again. Many wash the dishes on the pavement, throw the day's food waste into open sewers, or dump waste on the street without second thoughts.
Regarding cooking, cheap palm oil is commonly used for dishes from fish cakes to gaprao gai. The health-conscious would be easily put off by the levels of saturated fats in cheap cooking oils.
Inky, for example, often goes to Yaowarat and Phetchaburi Soi 5 for street food and is alarmed by the lack of sanitation. "I think I like street food in Bangkok because it's cheap and tasty. But sometimes it's hard to find parking, and I would like street food more if they improved on sanitation," she says.
Vallop admits food hygiene is not so good among sidewalk food stalls.
"We have to admit that the BMA has limited personnel, what with Bangkok's total area of 1,574sq km. It's so vast. Still, we cannot deny this responsibility though there's not enough personnel to supervise the sanitation of street food.
"In my opinion, maybe in the future, the city needs to outsource supervising powers to compensate for the shortages," he says.
Vallop explains that the sanitation strategy - devised a long time ago - involves personnel from the Public Health Department supervising all types of vendors, from fresh-produce markets to sidewalk food stalls.
Overcharging is also among the BMA's concerns. "We have to admit that some of the street food vendors - especially those running seafood stalls - particularly in Chinatown, overcharge their customers. Yes, we have received complaints from foreign and Thai visitors alike. Overcharging exists in general, but Chinatown is a place many would like to visit. So we are also going to bring order there and make it fair to the customer," he says.
Vallop adds that the BMA is working with the Commerce Ministry to regulate food prices by taking Or Tor Kor Market's pricing system as a benchmark. Vendors have to come up with a menu and a price list that can be seen clearly, Vallop says. The cost of pad thai, for example, varies in Chinatown.
"It depends on whether pad thai comes with seafood, or without meat. Normally pad thai without any meat should cost around 50 baht (RM6.40). That's the best price for street food. If you have shrimp, seafood or squid, it could cost more.
"Seafood is sold by weight. This is a matter for the Commerce Ministry that will compare food prices at Chinatown with those of Or Tor Kor. They have references. Some vendors charge exorbitant prices for other dishes too. That's why the ministry will step in," he promises.
Another major issue to be tackled is the local mafia pulling the strings behind street food stalls and shophouses in Bangkok. Vallop admits that if the BMA doesn't step in to regulate street food, influential people - in other words, the local mafia - will.
"They (the mafia) have already stepped in," he says, adding, "we have the names of all vendors, and according to our intelligence, we know who they [the influential people] are. Some are vendors, but most of them are not. I am not saying that it's Yaowarat alone, it's all over Bangkok.
"In the past, we had this at Siam Square, Klong Thom, Silom and even on Sukhumvit Road. What they do is rent out their spaces to vendors for storage. Right now, our governor is trying to clean up the house. All those who stray from the rules will be punished. A lot of city police have been transferred, moved, or dismissed from their positions. In Chinatown, all those influential people should sacrifice themselves for what they have already earned.
"They occupy maybe 10 slots of the pavement. And you have three factories, that means you have 30 slots occupied by individual vendors who act like nominees of these factories. These factories just use the slots of the vendors as outlets for their products without paying tax or rent, and also cause inconvenience to the public. The public should be kept informed about all this," he says.
All said, is Vallop afraid of the mafia? "I think everyone at city hall is working in good faith, serving the public. We have requested all those behind the scenes to be aware that we are serving the public.
"Everyone should respect the law. They should sacrifice themselves for the sake and benefit of the public. I think they know this. Some people in certain areas, especially in the centre of Bangkok, are being closely watched by the anti-money laundering commission right now. They are looking into their accounts and some figures are unexplainable," he reveals.
The strict regulations are already being implemented. Vallop says the BMA is organising an orientation course in cooking - from food preparation to food safety and hygiene targeting sidewalk vendors.
"The BMA calls upon all food vendors [in Chinatown] to take the two-day orientation course no matter how many years they have been in the food business.
"The orientation course being held in conjunction with the Public Health Ministry will provide instructions on food preparation and the proper condition of ingredients, among other things.
"What fish sauce can they use, for example. They just can't use any ingredients or condiments. We will also train them on how to clean their hands appropriately, clean dishes, or operate in case they get the flu.
"The training is necessary because we won't allow dish washing on the pavement anymore," he pledges.
The two-day orientation course consists of a pre-test and a final test. If they don't pass the final test, they won't be allowed to go back to their business. Those who have passed the test will be issued an ID card with their photo and a barcode.
Things are indeed changing on the ground. Vallop says the vendors are moving their stalls to the outer edge of the pavement in Yaowarat so that pedestrians can walk along the space near the shophouses. The left lane of four-laned Yaowarat Road is also reserved for pedestrians after 6pm.
The owner of a noodle stall in Chinatown confirms new regulations are now being implemented. She has to move her stall from the middle of the subsoil to the outer edge.
"Yes, new regulations have come into effect. We can't put chairs in the middle of the soi anymore. Stalls can be set up from 6pm only. I have to pay 500 baht (RM64) to municipal police and another 500 baht to city police for the space," she says.
Another vendor who sells tube noodles stuffed with cabbage, bamboo shoots, pork and chicken says she has to wear both an apron and a hat as part of the regulations.
"Previously I wore only an apron, but not a hat. I pay rent of 1,000 baht (RM130) a month and for operating on the pavement. You get fined 2,000 baht (RM260) if you set up chairs on the street. You can sell food on the pavement only," she says.
Vallop declares regulations for street food will be fully enforced towards the end of the year. With improvements to the street food scene, the goal is not to restrict promotion of street food to just the two foodie neighbourhoods but to highlight street food in Bangkok in its entirety as part of the national tourism plan.
The BMA is working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to maximise the impact of food on tourism. BMA and TAT officials are discussing ways to promote street food in Chinatown, Khao San and other areas.
"We will go into details such as how to make Yaowarat food stalls remain free from uniformity of stall design. TAT would like Yaowarat and Khao San to retain their own identity, not to make stalls look the same," Vallop says.
Vallop's vision of Bangkok street food is influenced by his overseas travels. To him, the countries in Asia that have the best street food management include Singapore and Japan.
"I think people in Singapore are so disciplined and concerned about the public and not so 'individualistic'. They don't act according to their own whims. It all comes down to public awareness. Everyone should be aware that it is their duty to respect the law."
Eating is driving tourism these days, says Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor for Marketing Communications at TAT. Food is part of TAT's grand scheme of gastronomy tourism. Street food is a segment that won't be promoted on its own but as part of Thailand's gastronomy tourism.
"In Thailand, you can dine at several places - from street food stalls to resorts and restaurants. Street food is an important dimension that helps tourists learn about Thainess," Chattan points out.
Chattan insists Thailand is ready to tap into gastronomy tourism given the dramatic increase in food-related spending by foreign visitors.
"We have learned that over the past three years, the main reason for coming to Thailand has been food, then it's shopping and Thai hospitality. Food has become the No.1 reason for three years in a row.
"It's clear spending on food is on the increase every year. Thailand is ready to push gastronomy tourism. We have lots of high-quality restaurants where our chefs' skills are recognised widely," says Chattan.
"We will have marketing promotions using food as the main thrust. For example, in Phuket, they will have to try seafood. If we are promoting Chiang Mai, food - for example khao soi - will be used to promote the destination. For Ayutthaya, you need to try grilled river prawns. There are many ways that food can add up to tourism strategy," he says.
As for the capital, Chattan says food is one of Bangkok's enduring charms. It's a city where one can eat around the clock with a wide choice of not just Thai food but Japanese, French, Italian, Indian cuisine and more. "I agree with the BMA for starting with Chinatown and Khao San as a pilot project. Doing this across the board is difficult. Later, we can carry out the project in other places. Thailand is well recognised by tourists. But there are 'a million shades of Thailand'. So, open up to the new shade!"
Vallop reckons street food not only tastes good but should also be integrated with "our renowned Thai hospitality and 'Thai smile'".
"Vendors need to keep in mind that they are not just presenting Thailand to visitors. They need to be aware that visitors will go back to their countries and help us promote the charms and taste of street food and Thai food to their friends and families.
"… I would like visitors to understand that city hall cares about cleanliness and food hygiene," Vallop says.