Only metres from Raan Jay Fai, Bangkok's first street food operator awarded a Michelin star, inspectors patrol the streets checking the permits of the few small food stalls granted the privilege of operating on the well-trafficked stretch of road. A local woman steps between the uniformed officers and the stall holder they're speaking with and animatedly berates them.
"This is our city, not yours," she yells, her sentiments translated for me after the altercation. "You have killed our city."
When Thailand's government was over-turned in the coup of May 2014, one of the edicts of the newly ruling junta was the introduction of widespread controls over Bangkok's many unauthorised street food businesses. The incoming military government argued food stall operators posed a threat to the safety of locals and tourists through not only their unregulated food-handling practices, but the dangerous makeshift nature of their kerb-side operations.
Some celebrated the changes implemented by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in 2017. Officially, the campaign has been christened the Return the Pavement to the People operation; colloquially it's known simply as the "clean up", with supporters blaming the many rogue street food stalls for congestion, garbage problems, rat and vermin infestations, and sewage system blockages that exacerbated the city's frequent floods.
Others, like the woman confronting the inspectors, feared for the future of one of the most celebrated aspects of Bangkok's culture, concerned that regulation would snuff out the city's culinary heart.
So nearly three years after the changes were implemented, what does Bangkok's contemporary street food scene look like? Does it still offer the vibrant counterpoint to the city's many fine dining establishments, or has it been rendered benign by overly judicious intervention?
Returning Khao San Road to the tourists
Pre-crackdown, food vendors on the infamous Khao San Road filled any available space on the nightclub-lined street, making the walk from one end to the other a winding, time-consuming maze of a journey. Today the strip is classified as "pedestrian-only", the BMA's code for a street-vendor-free area, despite original assurances the tourist hub would remain untouched. Only a handful of permissible food stalls remain, relegated to specified pockets of the road, pitching mostly overpriced noodles and Instagrammable skewers topped with scorpions, tarantulas and chunks of crocodile meat.
"It's much better now," says the operator of one of the street's bigger clubs. Inside, staff greatly outnumber the two customers sipping on their Singha longnecks. "People get their food from us now instead of from the stalls."
While the short stretch of road, closed to traffic, still sees its nightly surge in tourist numbers, visitors are aggressively hawked into clubs rather than spending time navigating the largely garbage-free strip. For many these days, a visit to Khao San Road entails a quick walk from one end to a waiting tuk-tuk at the other, ready to be shuttled off to somewhere less regulated ("Pretty quiet tonight," one man says disappointedly to his friend as they disappear around a corner).
Elsewhere the crackdown has been just as severe. Sukhumvit Soi 38 in Bangkok's inner west was one of the city's most renowned food hubs, bustling with upward of 100 stalls. Post-regulation, only a dozen remain tucked discreetly into an adjacent hotel car park.
"So many have had to shut down," says Kamon, a young woman working alongside her mother at their family's stall, slinging mango sticky rice and a small selection of other desserts. "Some moved to other places if they could, but most just had to stop […] How can they survive now? What can they do? It's unfair."
Some have found jobs, she explains, but most now mount their stalls illegally in sparsely trafficked alleyways and hope for customers; that, and leniency from any officials who may come their way.
The view from Chinatown
Yaowarat Road, the main artery of Bangkok's Chinatown, is one of the few precincts that has, to date, been spared from the crackdown. Street corners and narrow laneways are still crowded with stalls, while tourists navigate narrow footpaths in search of food, then sit on the edge of the road slurping noodles and reaching into bags of deep-fried snacks.
"This is what all of Bangkok used to be like," says James, a regular visitor from the United States. "It's such a shame, but at least we still have this."
The area was granted exemptions by the BMA after international media drew attention to the impending plight of the city's street food culture. But the reprieve seems to have been temporary, and moves are underway to transform this holdout into another "pedestrian-only" zone.
Counting the cost of the crackdown
The junta's campaign promised a more regulated market. In reality, according to locals, the execution of operation Return the Pavement to the People has simply pushed illegal vendors into less visible corners of the city. Licenses attract an annual fee of 300 baht – for scale, a plate of noodles will sell for 50 baht, though profit margins are paper-thin – plus an additional 300 baht for something called an annual "health check". Guidelines stipulate the vendor's allocated area of operation is reviewed only once every two years, but many have learned a license offers no security should the BMA choose to reclassify an entire zone.
There are still many street food options available throughout the city – notable spots include Bangrak Food Centre and Silom Soi 20 in the south-east, and the area around Nang Loeng Market. But it's the central districts that have experienced a notable drop in stall numbers. Since 2016, the number of permissible street-food areas has fallen from 683 to 175, according to figures by the Network of Thai Street Vendors for Sustainable Development.
Recent reports suggest the perceived success of the initiative to date will prompt a widening of the controls, limiting food options even further for both tourists and locals – who rely on street food for affordable meals – and leave more families without a source of income.
The measures, according to return visitors, have had the desired effect – reducing the amount of rubbish on the street and making it easier to navigate the city by foot – but many argue that what has been lost is far more significant.
"I didn't come to Bangkok to eat in restaurants," says Jessica, travelling from Canada. "Having to duck between the stalls, finding something unexpected to eat, was one of the exciting things about this city."
Back at Raan Jay Fai, a passing man yells at the impromptu activist and lowers himself in an apologetic half-bow toward the food inspectors. For some, the fight to preserve the city's culinary and cultural heartbeat goes on; for others, this is progress.