Known for its street food and vendor-lined streets, Bangkok is a kinetic fever dream of flavors, sights, and smells. At every turn, chili-scented alleyways lead to unexpected markets filled with promises of fermented sausages and punishingly spicy papaya salads. Scents of lemongrass and galangal cling to the sultry air and mingle with the vapors of wok-fried noodles. Breathing can be a heady experience.
Or at least, it used to be. On April 18, Bangkok officials announced that, in an effort to clean up the streets and create more space for cars to pass, street vendors on vital walkways would be forced to close up shop or relocate to designated zones by the end of the year. The order is the most severe of a series of restrictive measures enacted by Thailand’s ruling military junta, which has been cracking down on street food since it seized control of the country in 2014. The recent shuttering of Soi 38—a famed hub of food stalls on Sukhumvit Street—is a loss for tourists looking for an authentic taste of Bangkok but also a blow to locals who relied on the vendors for an inexpensive nightly meal.
With the gritty market street scenes swept away, visitors to Bangkok are taking refuge in a far more contained—if not sterilized—gustatory experience that happens indoors. In the city’s air-conditioned malls, food courts may become a haven for vendors as the streets become an increasingly more hostile place to run a business.
What’s more, food courts can provide a kaleidoscope of global options—but items will cost more than the fast and cheap dishes sold on the street. At Siam Paragon, for instance, an upscale mega mall in central Bangkok, the massive ground floor is like an epicurean Epcot Center. Stroll through the food court and you’ll make your way past Eastern and Western options, such as French macarons, Peking duck, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and fried giant squid. You’ll even stumble upon a fully functioning taco truck where you can purchase nachos, carne asada fries, or “Paragon Tacos.” Feeling disoriented? Helpful street signs next to the taco truck indicate that you are (in spirit, at least) smack dab in the middle of San Francisco’s Mission District—Valencia Street is only 500 feet away! At another turn, you’ll find that Dominique Ansel’s cronut—the pastry hybrid heard around the world—has reverberated across the globe and turned up in the form of “the craffle,” a croissant and waffle amalgam stuffed with white chocolate, spinach, or ham and cheese. But nowhere in Bangkok is the cross-pollination of a globalized planet more apparent than at theCOMMONS, a new artisan food hall and community space that opened just over a year ago in the hipster enclave of Thonglor. A little more Berkeley (California) than Brooklyn, theCOMMONS bills itself as “a gathering ground for specialized, quality producers who take pride in what they do, and do it with utmost care.” The four-story market was inspired by public markets around the world—especially Oxbow in Napa Valley—and is housed in a stunning open-air complex filled with hanging plants and growing trees. Visitors can sample Neapolitan pizza at Peppina, barbecue at Meat & Bones, and lobster rolls at The Lobster Lab and sip craft beers at The Beer Cap. After filling up, guests can shop at Sourced Grocers for high-quality spices or kombucha to take back home.
Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan, a Bangkok native who moved to the United States for high school and stayed to receive her MBA degree, cofounded theCOMMONS with her brother, Varatt. Prior to opening the space, the two owned Roast, a popular café in Bangkok that caters to expats in need of a solid avocado toast. (Roast has since relocated to the third floor of theCOMMONS where it sits next to theCOMMONS kitchen, a space for cooking classes and workshops.)
Vichit-Vadakan notes that Thonglor, known for trendy bars like Iron Fairies and Bad Motel, is an ideal location for theCOMMONS due to the cross-section of young locals, expats, and Japanese tourists in the neighborhood. She mentions that, while Western food has been a mainstay in Bangkok for some time, the past few years have seen a wider variety of concepts emerge that are “fresh, creative, and still authentic.”
While the fate of the street vendors remains uncertain, Vichit-Vadakan hopes that tourists will come to theCOMMONS not just for the great food and beautiful design but also, she says, “for a glimpse of what we hope Bangkok neighborhoods will move toward: a community feel, a gathering ground for local producers, and a more wholesome way of life.”
Editor’s Note: On April 21, 2017, the Tourism Authority of Thailand issued a statement clarifying the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s (BMA) stance on food stalls on the city’s main streets. The BMA states that there is no outright ban on the sale of street food, but measures will be enforced to raise food safety standards and ensure the safety and convenience of road users and pedestrians. Still, food halls and the options they offer creative food producers are becoming an increasingly important part of the fast-changing street food scene in Bangkok.