When the latest stab at this street food ban thing started, my husband said everything would return back to normal by year-end. The assumption was that the political will to kick out vendors over and over again would eventually run dry, allowing them (although maybe not the old ones) to come back to the spaces they were once forced to vacate.
This has sort of happened at Asoke Intersection, prime street food real estate that once commanded up to 30,000 baht “rent” a month from the police. I don’t know what (or who) the vendors are paying now, but they are (almost) all back: the chicken bitter melon noodles, the pad Thai, the egg rolls, the strange mayonnaise-forward salads with hard boiled eggs, and most importantly, the fried chicken. The only one I am missing is the Isaan vendor in front of Maduzi, who made wonderful larb when she wasn’t fighting with her husband. I fear — like the curry rice vendor and made-to-order vendors on my own small soi — I will never see her again.
But, as of right now, the move towards progress continues apace. Forward, ever forward, spaces that have been cleared last year — Siam Square, and the Saphan Phut area next to the Flower Market — remain so, saving space for the eagerly anticipated projects set to join the city skyline. And the vendors themselves, trusting in the powers that be, have been moved to spaces set aside for them by various government agencies, with varying results.
Trude, who is actually researching Siam Square, showed me this market the other day, a sweaty 10-minute walk from the BACC (Bangkok Art and Culture Centre) past Jim Thompson’s House. Set under a highway bypass, there was once high hopes for this place, literally illustrated by the lines and numbers marking where each vendor was supposed to set up. Today, five food vendors (two beverage, one congee/chicken rice, one soup noodles with pork, one made-to-order) remain in an area originally meant for around 50; a generously-sized dining area has been placed in the corner.
Despite the promise of a full year rent-free, most of the vendors have moved to other markets like Klong Toey, said one of the beverage vendors, Sumet. “Since we are old, we thought we would just stay for the year and then decide what to do,” he said. Customers trickle in from time to time, and there is none of the urgency that you’d imagine you might feel from vendors who sell far less than they had expected. It’s easy-going, quiet, actually peaceful; worth bringing a book and lingering over a Thai coffee when it isn’t raining. That’s not to say that this market isn’t doomed, because it is.
The prognosis is murkier for the Saphan Phut Market, moved from its riverside location to a former parking lot next to the Boat Pier (Tha Ruea) off of Rama IV Road. That’s because it just might work. Marvel- and Star Wars-themed t-shirts, hair accessories, women’s underwear — you see these things everywhere, sure. Pad Thai, soup noodles, sweet waffles, and, oddly, plenty of yum mamuang (mango spicy salad). Even more optimistically, seafood cooked to order, ready to be folded into omelets or, yes, mixed with lime juice and chilies into yet another salad:
There are even the standard culinary aberrations one would expect to stumble upon at any Thai night bazaar, like innocent fried chicken, cruelly doused in “tom yum” , pizza or BBQ spices:
Or my personal nemesis, Thai street sushi, featuring heroic amounts of shrimp roe, imitation crabmeat and mayonnaise:
That’s not all: a string of bars, music blaring loudly enough to rival that of any establishment on Khao Sarn Road, shows that market organizers have every intention of making a real go of it here, cleaving to the “Talad Rot Fai” model as best as they can. But attendance is spotty because of the rain. And the vendors are starting to fall away, after only six months of the market’s opening. If the market can hold on until the cold season of Nov-Feb, the vendors might tell a different story. But right now it feels like the backyard barbecue of your least favorite co-worker, the kind of party Ted Cruz might throw, only with booze and no soup.