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Bangkok street sellers live to fry another day

Gentrification
Thailand

For decades Bangkok’s technicolor and chaotic Khao San Road has been serving up mountains of pad thai, mango sticky rice and barbecued scorpion.

At the heart of the market, which looks like a locale from Blade Runner, is an army of vendors – often working long hours for meagre pay – who cook and sell the city’s iconic street food, widely considered the best in the world.

But now they are fighting to save their livelihoods.

In August, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration threatened Khao San Road’s 200 sellers with eviction in the interests of ‘cleanliness, safety and order’. After a public outcry, the authorities backtracked but still stipulated that business could only be done from 6pm to midnight, wiping out daytime trade.

‘It’s very worrying,’ says Yada Pornpetrumpa, president of the Khao San Road Street Vendors’ Association. ‘People come here because it is unlike anywhere else in the city.’

‘If they try to make it like every other street in Bangkok, nobody will come,’ agrees Phinong, who has worked on Khao San Road for the past 10 years. ‘We’ll lose our work.’

Since 2014, some 17,000 street hawkers have lost their licences across the city and there are fears of a wider attempt to sanitize the capital. The forces of gentrification have added to a growing atmosphere of discontent with the military government, which came to power in a 2014 coup, ahead of pivotal elections in February.

The Khao San Vendors’ Association has fought back with protests and collective bargaining with city officials, and has secured good coverage of their campaign by local media. Negotiations are ongoing. ‘We will protest and petition until the authorities listen,’ says Pornpetrumpa. For the time being, Bangkok’s street vendors will live to fry another day.

New Internationalist issue 517 magazine cover This article is from the December 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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