There’s a never-ending stream of customers outside Joke Samyan shophouse, all queuing patiently for a bag or two (or six) of jok, silken rice porridge dotted with the vendor’s signature fermented pork meatballs.
But the future of one of Bangkok’s best-known street food vendors is in doubt as the Samyan area of south-central Bangkok gentrifies around it.
“We may have to move. We still don’t know,” says Nieb, the third generation of a family that has run Joke Samyan for the past 60 years. Neighbouring Chinese-Thai seafood restaurant Nakorn Pochana has already made plans to move to the suburbs, Joke Samyan is hoping its popularity will earn it a reprieve from its landlord, Chulalongkorn University, which has gradually been developing the area with condominiums and shops.
“They still haven’t told us for sure if they are going to renew our lease [it runs out in 2020],” said Nieb. “In any case, we will be open somewhere, that’s for sure.”
Joke Samyan is one of a growing number of street food vendors finding themselves crowded out of the neighbourhoods in which they have plied their trade for decades, as landlords in former blue-collar areas strike more lucrative deals with property developers. At the same time, a much-publicised government drive to “reclaim” Bangkok’s pavements is creating public resentment, since 40% of Bangkokians rely on street stalls.
As a result, once-burgeoning markets such as Saphan Lek, Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market) and the On Nut night market have been drastically pruned or even closed. Last year, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 public areas.
“Street vendors in Bangkok provide easy access to cheap food, and job opportunities with low investment,” said Dr Sirirat Sornprasit, a lecturer of urban and regional planning at Chulalongkorn University. But their colonisation of the sidewalks “means that public spaces that should go to citizens are privatised by street food.”
Sornprasit, who buys grilled sticky rice from a mobile vendor every morning for breakfast, says a good compromise would be to set aside areas for “street food courts”, which would allow authorities to control the density of vendors.
Of the main Sukhumvit Road, Soi (alley) 38 was under threat after the area’s new landlords sold the land to a condo developer, but many of the vendors have moved to a space underneath a neighbouring condominium, forming an ad hoc food centre in the evening.
Other vendors have simply refused to move. “Street food is not disappearing in Bangkok. Although a few enclaves popular with foreigners and wealthy Thais have moved on, in most of Bangkok it’s business as usual,” said Dwight Turner of food blog Bangkok Fatty, who favours mom-and-pop stalls and one- or two-dish speciality carts. “So for now, yes, street food is here to stay, but Bangkokians, along with the municipal government, need to think more about how to preserve and support these institutions that we all agree we love.”