Visitors are usually acquainted with the idea of street food from their own countries, but this is often limited to scenic spots. The idea is to admire the scenery while eating and drinking, with the emphasis on the atmosphere, and the food secondary.
But when they come to Thailand they find a street food scene that seems strange and exciting, but also a little challenging. As they sit eating, cars may swerve by a little too close for comfort, or the big umbrella that keeps the sun off may tip over on top of them.
The parts of Bangkok where tourists find the most fun and excitement in streetside dining, and where the food is most delicious, are the areas around Yaowarat and New Road. Just before it gets dark the edges of the sidewalks and the adjoining street are transformed from walkways into restaurants. Tables and chairs appear on the pavement and grills blaze up to cook seafood or pork satays, luring customers with their fragrant smoke. Other stalls sell toasted bread with butter and jam, phat Thai, curry and rice, noodle dishes like kui jap, and bua loy nam king (sticky rice-flour dumplings stuffed with sweetened black sesame floating in ginger broth).
As people crowd in to buy, fires from the restaurants and stalls flare up, creating an amusement park-like atmosphere. Queues of customers form in front of popular stalls, and some don't bother with the queues at all. Newcomers have to vie for their food or keep an eye on the occupied tables to pounce as soon as one of them is vacated by setting a leg against one of the chairs to reserve it.
Chinatown is not the only place in Bangkok where these food stalls thrive. Every major street in town has its stalls and vendors with pushcarts. If the road goes through an important commercial area there will be a great number of them, and many will do business all night long. When they pack up and go home, other vendors selling breakfast foods come to replace them. Stalls in commercial or community centres where the traffic is high might sell not only prepared food to be eaten on the spot, but also fruits, vegetables, and ready-cooked dishes to be taken away in plastic bags. It is no wonder that tourists noticing all of this for the first time might see Thailand as a country where strange and intriguing foods are available everywhere, all the time, and where there is an attractive and lively street life centred around good eating.
Streetside food has been a part of Thailand's culinary culture for a long time. Originally, Thais cooked most of their food at home, but if there was a dish that they couldn't make they would purchase it from outside. Foods like this might include Chinese noodle dishes that were sold from boats or by wandering vendors. Thais also made foods for sale. At first, sweets like khanom taan (made from sugar palm fruits) or banana-based khanom kluay could be sold from boats paddled along canals or from portable set-ups balanced over the shoulder. Fixed shops and restaurants only came later when more Thais took jobs outside the home.
But the wandering vendors did not disappear. On the contrary, their number increased because there was no charge for the space along the sidewalks and streets. If they were good cooks people liked their goods and they sold well. Then they might settle down to a single location and help give the street where they did business an identity. People all over town would know that this or that dish was available on a given street and be willing to drive or otherwise make their way there to enjoy it.
In Thailand, street food is not limited to Bangkok. Even the smallest, quietest provinces have their streetside vendors, most of whom head out to sell in the evening and do business until late. They usually choose an open area like a traffic circle or the space around the town clock tower. This kind of food is known as to-roong (all night) food, and local people know what is available and will go to buy some when the craving strikes. Thai tourists also know that if they want to have an inexpensive supper with plenty of choices, they should go to look at the to-roong offerings.
But not everyone is sold on street food as delicious and fun. Some people, especially in Bangkok, don't like it because they think it is dirty and creates disorder. They feel that the vendors do not respect pedestrians' rights, especially in areas where there are many working people. In places where people are on the move, like Sukhumvit and Silom roads, vendors and pushcarts can fill the sidewalks and set up tables and chairs that make the walkways tough going for those on foot and in a hurry. Sometimes people get so irritated that arguments and fights break out.
Worst of all is Sathon Road, originally intended to be Thailand's Wall Street, complete with new laws governing construction that specified that there must be expansive open areas in front of every building where ornamental plants could be grown. Sidewalks were to be wide, even and clean.
But the vendors and pushcarts selling food came crowding in, mostly in the morning, to sell breakfast to office workers who had left home in the morning without having eaten anything. The Metropolitan Police ignored the situation or came to work after the vendors had already filled the sidewalks. Left undisturbed, their numbers increased until there were 10 stalls where there had previously been just one, and a month later there were 100 of them. At that point it became impossible to establish any kind of orderliness or cleanliness. The chaos that resulted is the result of failure to put a preventative plan in place beforehand, or even thinking about such a measure.
It is not hard to create an orderly, well-organised street food area anywhere if there is a person in charge who has the authority to maintain it. There is always a way out of any problem. When the demands of both the sellers and the customers are known, spaces for both of them can be set up. The area should be on a street or soi that is not a major thoroughfare, so that it will not cause traffic problems. The whole street might be closed off as an eating and selling area at night, and then opened to traffic as usual in the morning.
A fresh market is another good place to set up a night-time streetfood area, because the market does business during the day and is empty at night.
There are already stalls and walkways and places for rubbish to be discarded, as well as electricity and water. Markets are easy to clean up, and since they are covered over, if it rains no one gets wet. Traffic can easily be controlled.
If our street food centres could be set up and maintained in this way, Thailand really would be the best place for roadside eating that is delicious, fun, well organised, and clean, and would keep its street food reputation shiny for a long time to come.