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.
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”.
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.