Soi Ari sets the street market example

Chakorn Loetnithat

Trying to bring order to Bangkok’s street food and street markets has long been a hot issue in the country’s capital. Whenever the authorities try to ban vendors from selling food or merchandise on footpaths, the question arises: Is banning the only solution? Aren’t there any other alternatives that might take into account the needs of all parties, from vendors to consumers and pedestrians?

Street food and street markets are not only a part of the colourful charm of our capital city which attracts tourists from all over the world, but they are also a source of economically priced food for everyone, whatever your income level.

According to the WEIGO research team in 2018, consumers spend on average 357 baht more per month on the prepared meals because the price of street food is cheaper than food courts, canteens or restaurants by around 16.5%. For the lowest-paid workers, that monthly expenditure is just equivalent to slightly more than one day of their income at minimum wage rates.

Furthermore, street markets are also a kind of tool, driving the economy and creating jobs for many people, given that their services are widely available across Bangkok. However, their place in the economy is what is known as the “informal sector”. That means vendors are neither registered at the Commerce Ministry nor pay taxes, and importantly, it is unlikely that their food would meet the required hygiene standards.

Although street food and street markets play an important role in Bangkok’s grassroots economy, they have never been developed systematically or professionally.

In fact, their management has been pretty much unchanged since World War II – a big contrast with the well-organised food stalls of our ASEAN partner Singapore.Bangkok’s street vendors are regarded as temporary businesses. Local authorities only grant them an unofficial waiver or temporary permission to sell their food or merchandise on footpaths – nothing that could be described as sustainable management. So what is the alternative?

An interesting case study in Bangkok is a “waived” (or relaxed) zone around Soi Ari in Phaya Thai district, an area in the centre of the capital. Over the past few years, Phaya Thai District Office, the local authority there, set down guidelines aimed at improving footpath usage for both pedestrians and vendors. It is well managed and well received by both vendors and customers, thus the outcomes have been satisfactory.

There are three elements to the system: space, sales hours and participation procedure.

Space: The footpath at the mouth of Soi Ari is big enough to accommodate street food and other vendors. At the same time, the local authorities designate and limit the size of stalls. As a result, there is less reason for conflict between pedestrians and vendors.

Selling hours: Vendors sell ready-to-eat food and merchandise only in the morning and at lunchtime. Soi Ari is surrounded by office buildings, so these times suit office workers whom most of the vendors’ wares are aimed at. The clear selling hours also make it easier for the local authorities to schedule clean-up times.

Participation: Phaya Thai District Office has created an atmosphere of public participation and open-mindedness by listening to problems and suggestions from all parties before designing the arrangement, with vendors agreeing to abide by a system of self-regulation. In addition, the Urban Design and Development Centre (UDCC), part of a consultancy service providing urban planning and design solutions based on knowledge of the community, has been advising the office on space management and landscape improvement.

The future of the Soi Ari zone is uncertain because in 2015, the government tightened the enforcement of laws in an effort to bring order to Bangkok’s sidewalks. For instance, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), a government agency which is in charge of the administrative role in the capital, is imposing a number of measures on the city’s walkway such as rearranging the motorcycle taxi queues, banning barricades (trees or any other unauthorised items), and revoking street vendor licences. However, the development of Soi Ari could serve as a case study and example for other areas.

In the long run, it is not only about space management. The government and relevant state agencies involved should bring street vendors into the formal economic system by registering them. Value can be added to the vendor’s businesses by promoting street food with hygienic standards and providing support to independently owned souvenir shops and promoting them to become small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Thus, the discussion over Bangkok’s street food and street markets should go beyond banning or merely setting selling hours. It should move toward a proper sustainable system by learning from examples both in Bangkok and other big cities worldwide.

Chakorn Loetnithat is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
“Street markets are also a kind of tool, driving the economy and creating jobs.”

First Publish: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, November 28, 2018