The civic authorities in Bangkok are beginning to outlaw the sale of fastfood on certain streets, especially those in trendy, up-and-coming areas like Thonglor. Not everyone is happy about it. After all, street food is trendy too.
Bangkok is unique in having the world’s most elaborate street food culture. A lot of vendors specialise in a single dish — and they get rather good at making it. Although the vast majority of vendors (there are an estimated 380,000) sell relatively low-cost meals, some of them use the finest ingredients and serve an up-market clientele.
For the street photographer, the existence of street vendors in Bangkok offers an excellent opportunity to get some great shots. In the past I’ve tried to keep these shots to a minimum — regarding the subject as too obvious — but now that 15,000 food vendors have already been evicted I’m beginning to change my mind. They represent an entire way of life which could one day disappear.
If only there’d been a few accomplished street photographers operating in Tokyo at the end of the samurai era — or others working in Dickensian London in the early nineteenth century. Think of the treasures they would have preserved! Every city undergoes constant change and we all need to recognise the process before it’s too late.
Food, Work, Sex, Religion, Art
When I look at the photos I take in Bangkok I can see they nearly all relate to food, work, sex, religion or art. Almost every composition you’re likely to find has one or other of these elements within it. Only if you focus on a giant lizard in Lumpini Park will you escape them, but, even then, the lizard is probably thinking about food, or sex, or both.
In recent years I’ve learned quite a lot about Thai food — and Thai attitudes towards it. I’ve helped my partner, food writer Oi Cheepchaiissara, to produce five books and sixteen e-books, taking all the pictures for the e-books and for the most recent of her printed books.
There’s no doubt about it: for the Thais, food is both fun and serious at the same time. It’s long in preparation (that’s the serious part) but quick to cook and fun to eat.
You can tell Thai food is fun to eat by the way people eat it. My featured image (above) shows someone snacking on-the-hoof in a street market on the west (Temple of Dawn) side of the river. Thais enjoy food when they’re alone, when they’re in company, during the morning, afternoon, evening, before bedtime — at any time — and the majority of them remain relatively slim. It’s one of life’s mysteries.
The Western Influence
Among “young upwardly-mobile professionals,” western fast food is popular in Bangkok, as long as it’s fun to eat. Unlike traditional Thai food it always comes in clever packaging and is served from outlets that look reasonably hygienic (above). When you’re dressed in designer clothes it seems to make sense to eat something clean and neat.
Contrast the relaxed, western-style ice cream stand (above) with the frenetic chaos of the street food vendor (below). I’ve called this image “Cleaning Up” although I took it early in the day when you’d normally expect a vendor to be fully prepared for business. However, once he gets that oven with the crooked stovepipe fired up, he’ll be in full swing and there’ll be a queue of customers waiting for him. I’m not sure if that’s his car in the background. Probably not.
One option for the displaced street vendor is to move to an organised market space, perhaps even to an indoor market. Every mall has a busy food hall, patronised by crowds of hungry customers.
One of my personal favourites is a market (below) that’s almost unknown to western tourists: the Old Siam Plaza on Burapha Road. It’s a great place for desserts and occupies a very old building, the first of its kind in Bangkok. The guide books invariably describe it as a “hidden treasure” or a “living museum.” These days it’s very much alive, despite having closed and reopened several times in the past.
Divided into two large open areas and three floors, Old Siam Plaza is a place where you can buy anything from a sniper rifle to a wedding dress. Foodwise it offers every dessert from Woon Grob (crispy jelly) and Kanom Sai Sai (sweet coconut steamed in banana leaf) to Sa Koo Sai Moo (steamed tapioca balls) and Khanom Buang (crispy pancakes).
The growing popularity of sweet foods may have something to do with the spread of air conditioning in Bangkok. Maybe that’s why so many activities are moving indoors.
The famous wholesale flower market, Pak Khlong Talat (“market at the mouth of the canal”) moved indoors in 2016. I suppose it makes sense. Cut flowers last longer in a cool environment. Yet it no longer has the same atmosphere — one which is likely to inspire the street photographer.
The unique atmosphere of Pak Khlong Talat has gone the way of the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market in London. The place is still there. But the life, activity and everything that made it unique have all disappeared into the past. It’s an inevitable — and entirely natural — process, recorded by street photography so that we don’t forget it completely.