OPINION: Why Bangkok street food sucks

OPINION – Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to slaughter a sacred cow. Especially when it’s shitting all over the sidewalk. The holy soiler of our beloved streets I’ll be examining in this article is something people often – and incorrectly – cite as one of the best things about living in Bangkok: street food.

I’ve lived here for two-and-a-half years, so I know a lot more than most people about street “cuisine.” It’s almost never organic, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be called “artisanal.” If it contains meat, it will be the cheapest meat money can buy, meat made from animals that have endured a lifetime of sheer hell before being slaughtered, chopped into little pieces and deep-fried in two-month-old palm oil for your dubious “pleasure.”

And it’s dangerous. Where there is street food, there are rats and even worse vermin. The product has often been sitting out in the searing Bangkok heat all day before it reaches your tender insides. Sometimes, to cut costs, vendors wash plates and silverware in khlong water. We all know what goes in the khlongs – and it ain’t dish soap. People can and have died after eating street food. Ask any doctor in the city – street food is literally killer.

“But street food tastes so good,” I hear you whimper. “Don’t trash street food, it tastes so good.” To that, I give you three letters: ‘M’, ‘S’ and ‘G’. Monosodium glutamate is the dirty little secret of the dirty little street food world. This is because MSG is the easiest way a vendor with a meager budget can put out a product that tastes good. MSG is a mind-altering chemical that makes you think food tastes better than it really does. It is a lie. Street food is a lie.

And what’s so great about sitting on shitty plastic furniture, inhaling fumes and listening to engine noise while you eat, anyway? Most annoying of all, street food stalls make it a nightmare to navigate the Bangkok sidewalks, which are narrow enough as it is. Because Grandma Daeng insists on setting up her fried-banana shack on the pavement every morning, many are now less than half the width they need to be. The result is constant bottlenecks that make fantasizing about acts of ultraviolence against other pedestrians a regular feature of our daily commutes.

Yet despite the serious problems associated with street food, it remains the go-to option for two groups of people in Bangkok: the poor, and middle-class people with something to prove – namely, that they too are “street.” To the latter, I can only remark as an incredulous Ice-T once did when Vanilla Ice made that claim: “What street you from? Sesame Street?”

Let me tell you a secret, guys: the poor only eat street food because they have to. They would love to be able to eat good, honest cooking that shows respect to its ingredients. They would love to be able to sit down and enjoy a meal in an attractive venue sealed from the toxic fumes of the city. They, too, yearn to enjoy the pleasures of the Sizzler salad bar. But they can’t. You, on the other hand, have a choice. And yet, in a condescending slap in the face to poor people everywhere, you choose street food. You choose lies.

Bangkok is in dire need of a solution to the street food problem. As is often the case with issues of urban management, the city must look to Singapore for the answer. Aware of the problem since the 1950s, the authorities in Singapore moved troublesome vendors into “hawker centers” and, later, air-conditioned food courts. Happily, street food in today’s Singapore is sold in an environment the authorities can control. It’s safe, regulated and the streets of the city are a pleasure to stroll down.

Of course, Bangkok already has food courts, which are generally where the finest street food can be found. But if the city wants to become truly world class, it needs to follow Singapore in making food courts not only the norm, but the rule. Let’s clean up these streets.

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Illustration: Oliver Raw

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Reader Interactions


  1. I am from Singapore.
    I love Thailand.

    I visited Bangkok many times as a tourist.
    I love street food in Bangkok. I eat lots of street food when I tour Bangkok.
    I only got food poisoning ONCE in Bangkok. It was not from street food. It was from eating breakfast in a 4-star hotel (Novotel Siam Square) in Bangkok. I forgive them and it remains my favourite Bangkok hotel.

    I have eaten at Sizzler in Singapore. Nothing to shout about. If one wants to be snobbish about it, Sizzler is not even middle-class.

    I love street food in Singapore too. When I was young I ate at many street side food stalls in Singapore. Nowadays they are in food courts or coffeeshops. The food courts and hawker centres are not always very clean because we have a labour shortage of cleaners. Sometimes you can see stacks of plates left on the tables.

    The new generation of hawkers in Singapore cannot cook as well as their parents or grand parents. Many food stalls or even restaurants close in Singapore because the children want to be in another occupation.

    The secret is that on weekends, many Singaporeans go north to nearby Johor Bahru to get their food fix because the hawker cooking there is good and more reasonably priced.

    Thailand is so much bigger than Singapore.
    Even Bangkok, is so big compared to Singapore.
    There is no comparison.
    It is much easier to implement and enforce guidelines and rules in a small city like Singapore.

    Changes take time. We cannot just transplant our food court experience into another country. We have to understand the culture and history of another country. Thai society is structured in its own unique way.

    Before we jump to conclusions, let me make it clear that in Singapore we have LOTS of poor people too – who have no choice but to eat street food because they cannot afford the high end restaurants.

    And not every Singaporean who visits Bangkok can afford to eat at fine dining restaurants in The Peninsula or Oriental Hotel. Some Singaporean tourists in Bangkok, also eat Bangkok street food "because they have to" – they cannot afford anything else.

    The rich in Thailand are super rich. But Thailand, like Singapore has many poor people too. The poor are also human and we should not denigrate the food that they eat on daily basis.

    One last thing.
    Thailand is an agricultural country. The soil is blessed with fertility and it produces good fruits and vegetables. I have eaten pineapples in Bangkok. They taste and smell different – better.

  2. Oh yeah, I am an expert because I've lived her two and a half years. That's a good one. You sound like a whiny fuck from back home. Get the fuck to Singapore where everything is so clean, pleasant and boring.

  3. Two in denial, and one a "teacher"! Oh, dear. I only tolerated Bangkok for a year and left for an island down south. But I still don't trust the food sold on the streets, even though the air is fresher and the exhaust is less.

    Here's an example of why: I watched a fruit seller cutting up fruit on his stall and selling it on nice clean plates. He was very neatly dressed with an apron which he used to dry his hands.

    Then he decided to clean up around his stall. So he got his brush out from underneath the stall and swept up and made a nice neat pile out of all the dog poo, rotten fruit, dirt and dead insects. Then he put his brush back under the stall.

    But how did he get the grass brush underneath? He grabbed the grass and pulled it all together and inserted the broom (grass end first) under the stall.

    He then wiped his filthy hands on his apron and carried on cutting the fruit. Lovely.

  4. " Second, most of this people go buy their meat on Big*******, fresh as it can be in thailand without drugs and chemicals"

    i meant on Big Morning Markets*

  5. Since you lived here only Two and a half years, i suggest you just stop giving "your" opinion cause you obvioulsy don't know much about food in Thailand.

    Since i shared the life of such "Chefs" in my fiancée's family, i can tell you :
    First most people don't use MSG… The majority of MSG users are small sized Tourist restaurant, that pretend to make western food but since it doesn't have the same taste than in our countries, they add a bit of this to make us feel home.

    Second, most of this people go buy their meat on Big, fresh as it can be in thailand without drugs and chemicals, and most overcook it, wich makes it safer then most restaurant venues.

    And Third, when you have a bad culinary knowledge ( i am working in restaurants for 7 years now, and all together i spent more time than you did in Thailand, so i like to think what i am talking about ), just look up to the Western Chefs living in THailand and ask them where is the best food to be found in Bkk…. They will all send down that stole, just by the railway, you know, the one you just spat on just by looking at its location and dresscode…



  6. Well done Terence Wang, a great article and 100% correct. I have been either living in or visiting Thailand for decades and you Mr Wang, speak the truth. Unlike of course so many of those who have commented on the article who clearly haven't actually bothered reading the article – so typical. In no way is Terrance Wang advocating MacDonalds or expensive restaurants or whatever, what an absurd notion and is a pure invention of his detractors. And street vendors selling food made with organic meat, I just about fell off my chair laughing, what planet are they on! All Terrance is saying is that we want hawker stalls (or food vendors, call it what you want) who provide good quality, safe, food in a clean and tidy environment, as happens in Singapore. You are so, so, right, cheap, good quality food, yes, bring it on. Cheap rubbish food which will kill you before long if you eat it too often (or adversely affect your brain as it clearly does many people living in Thailand) let alone customers having to endure the stink and noise of the traffic, then no way. Time for Bangkok and the rest of Thailand to literally clean up its act.

  7. what did u said can be right.. but not always… and do not think that if u go in the restaurant its better… sometimes its even worst! ill tell u that because im a chef and ive been working in thailand in some restaurant in sukhunvit (very expensive one) and really sometimes its better food from the streets! thay are not professional at all!! the best things to do about food i think is learn some thai recipes then cook at home.. but of course its more expensive then food stole. my experience i get food poisoned once in a restaurant and never on the street.. but right now im cooking at home and its much more better!

  8. As long as you only lived here 2 and a half years, this article worth little and you definitely doesn't have the advantage of the experience on this point. You probably prefer to eat a tender meat, shooted with all kind of proteins and drugs to make him having less fat and bigger muscles aren't you? Well, it's your choice and Bangkok is a very convenient city for you as there are McDonalds and KFC's everywhere. On my side, I prefer to eat a clean, not very romantic to eat meat but knowing the cow or the chicken has been grown naturally eating grass instead of drugs. Since when subjective can be debated? You don't like the taste, fine. However, you can't say that the street food is awful and dirty. It is clean, tasty and very healthy if you know where to go.

  9. Been living here for a year, had no problem with Street food at all only once i had really bad food poison and of course it was a meal from a restaurant.

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