Street Vending: Covid Seems to Have Killed a Bangkok Icon

By Pattama Vilailert

BANGKOK (IDN) — Street vendors have been an iconic attraction for millions of tourists that visited Bangkok each year before the COVID-19 pandemic. In perfect tune with the Thais’ approach to enjoying life to its fullest, including eating and shopping, street vendors have set their carts in the heart of Thai people and Bangkok for a century, serving both Thais and foreigners.

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns that have devastated the tourist industry in Thailand have also seriously impacted the livelihood of street vendors. When the pandemic broke out, about 40 million tourists flocked to Thailand every year. Street vending was seen as a sustainable livelihood option for millions of Thais. Tourists have started to trickle into Thailand since the lifting of travel restrictions in November 2021. Still, there are serious question marks whether the traditional street vending could be revived to its past glory? 

IDN travelled down the Khao San Road, a backpacker’s haven, and Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s nightlife paradise, to witness the life of street vendors after the country reopened to tourists five months ago.  

The Khaosan Road Business Operators Association president, Sanga Ruangwattanakul revealed in a recent media interview that at the end of 2019, 80% of business revenues here were from international tourists. The effects of COVID -19 are severe: Khaosan Road used to be busy 24 hours. “Before the outbreak, a stall here was sold at 1 million baht (29,670 USD). A few small stalls have survived; owners have gone back to their hometowns,” he said, predicting that newcomers might come instead if tourists start to flow.

< Yordchai looks forward to tourists returning to support his business. 

Ruangwattanakul’s opinion matches Yordchai’s, a street seller of games and gadgets. “I have been a vendor here for over 30 years. I decided to invest in 15,000 Baht monthly rent for a two metered space to set up my stall since I did not have a million to buy a stall,” Yordchai told IDN. His investment was worthy until COVID-19 hit the business. He earned around 3,000 Baht (90 USD) a day, but since the first lockdown in 2020, he could hardly make both ends meet. However, Yordchai participated in the government’s co-payment stimulus scheme, first launched in October 2020.

According to Thailand’s Finance Ministry statement, the co-payment stimulus scheme “Khon La Khrueng” is aimed to stimulate domestic consumption and economic growth. The government subsidises 50% of food, drink and general goods purchase. The total subsidy is limited to 150 baht (4.45 USD) per person a day from the first to third phases. For the fourth phase, which started in February 2022, the total subsidy decreased to 120 baht (3.56 USD) per person per day.

However, Yordchai said, “Even though I joined the co-payment package, I still had to use my savings to pay rent for a room and daily expenses. So I pin my hope on the return of tourists to Khaosan Road as I am 62 years old; I don’t know what else to do”. From December 2021, he saw international tourists wandering on Khaosan Road while he began to pick up his sales to 500 Baht (15.80 USD) a day.

In addition to street vendors, the co-payment stimulus package covers state welfare cardholders and those in need of special assistance. The participant needs to download Pao Tang application onto a smartphone to register for the program. According to DATAREPORTAL, there were 54.5 million smartphone users in Thailand in January 2022, accounting for 77.8% of the total population.

IDN met Nuy, a food street vendor living in the Khaosan area since she was born. “Before the pandemic, various nationalities of tourists came here, and I made over 4,000 Baht (119 USD) each day,” she told IDN. “But since the first lockdown in March 2020, I could not sell food; I just stayed home and came out to my stall when I knew that some generous people would come to give food to the needy”.

When she came to her stall during the pandemic, she met other vendors and some tourists that could not fly back home, reaching for free food. Nuy could not participate in any government stimulus packages. She has no access to a smartphone, so she lives on her saving and free food. She reopened her street stall in November 2021, “I am 60 years old and just live by, and I don’t think I can do much to change my future”, she told IDN.   

In the nightlife paradise area of Sukhumvit, 40-year-old Noknoy shared her incredible story with IDN. “I was a waitress in the bar in Alley 11, a famous area for tourists, for 20 years and to my surprise, the bar was shut down permanently last month (March 2022). I contemplated how to move on with my life, then I decided to put up a cart near the Sky train station to sell drinks to passers by”, she said, pointing out that she is a brand new street vendor and has a lot to learn, like what day street vendors are prohibited on the road. Unlike her co-workers, during the COVID-19 outbreak, she did not return to her home in Surin, a province in the Northeast Thailand. She worked in the bar until it closed for good. 

Noknoy participated in We Win (Roa Chana) stimulus package. As stated on Thailand’s Ministry of Finance website, criteria for participation include people’s level of income and savings, as shown in the government record. People from all walks of life are eligible for the subsidy, including freelancers, vendors and farmers. With the new life path that COVID-19 brought her, she earns around 600-700 Baht (20 USD) a day from foreign tourists and local Thais.

Along Sukhumvit Road, not far from Noknoy stall, IDN found a classic cloth stall vendor, Suay. Before the pandemic, thousands of tourists flocked to the night markets on the pavements 365 days to bargain and buy colourful Thai dresses, clothes, shoes and bags. Noknoy had a stall on Sukhumvit Road for over 30 years.

“I made over 5,000 Baht (150 USD) a day before the outbreak, but during a series of lockdown, I just used up my saving and waited for the time to reopen my stall,” she said with a sad smile. “I came back to my stall right after the government reopened Thailand to foreign tourists in November 2021”. She is confident that tourists will come back to Sukhumvit. “When nightfall, you won’t be able to walk here, and it is my time to make money,” she says, though the jam-packed pavements are still to come.  

The life of street vendors in touristic areas of Bangkok largely depends on international tourists. Numbers of them have gone back to their hometowns during COVID-19. They might return if they have some capital to prolong the traditional street business. Some street stalls are being replaced with newcomers. Whether they are old or new, the tourists would recognise the colour, vibrancy, and great aroma of Thai cuisine served on the streets at bargain prices. One hopes that these sights will slowly come alive to give Bangkok that flavour that is a magnet to millions of people worldwide. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 April 2022]

Photo: Handful of tourists in a deserted Khaosan which was before the pandemic filled with street stalls and tourists. Credit: Pattama Vilailert.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 20 April 2022.

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