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It was right outside the walls of Wat Pho, the seat of the emerald Buddha in Bangkok. A man with a cart full of fried bugs – grasshoppers to three types of beetles, even tiny scorpions. I walked around tentatively, arguing with myself if I could try one of those. A princely sum of 120 baht for a paper pack mix, he tells me. I balk. There is no way I’m having that much, and I was a poor backpacker anyway. Five minutes of hovering later, he offers be a brown beetle to taste. No photo, or I have to pay.
I accept. He grins as I turn that beetle around slowly with its tiny leg weighing in on my bravado. A swift quelling of nerves and I pop it into my mouth, stomp my feet around like a crazy woman and chew like my life depended on it. It was salty, crunchy, slightly ashen and I quickly gulp down half a bottle of water removing all trace of it from my mouth. The street vendor laughs away, saying something in Thai. The terrible part about travelling alone is that sometimes you don’t have anyone to take photos or videos of these iconic moments in your life, but there is always promise of a revisit with friends.
So imagine the horror when I read reports that come 2018, the opportunity to savour some of Bangkok’s strangest and best street food won’t be there. Just a month after the Thai capital was voted the world’s best destination for street food by CNN, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) announced that all food vendors will be swept off the streets. This is intended to improve the safety and cleanliness of the city and return the pavements to the pedestrians, according to a Nation report.
For a foodie, it was like taking away one of the crucial reasons to hit Bangkok’s streets, where steaming hot bowls of Tom Yum soup call out to you, the morning starts with soupy rice and chicken broth or a salad, fresh-cut slices of pineapples and watermelon brighten up the day and as the night falls, the ever-popular streets in Pratunam, Siam, Chinatown and the popular Khao San Road light up with stalls offering skewered fried chicken and sweet pork kebabs, luscious sausages oozing with cheese and wrapped in bacon and then fried again, spicy noodles and pad thai, and not to forget those sweet coconut milk idlis (for the lack of a better association) and nutella and banana pancakes! For some the fish oil aroma may seem a bit strong and pungent, but one bite and you’re lost in a sweet-sour gastronomic sensation heightened by the clanking of woks, sizzles of oil splashed around and deep glugs of beer.
For the more adventurous, there are the bug carts, which are more for tourists than locals, but a top draw and Facebook and Instagram fad nevertheless.
For two days it was hard to imagine the jam-packed squares without gas-lit food carts and a bunch of plastic chairs around, people from all walks of life sharing stories, sipping and slurping fresh seafood, trigger-happy tourists soaking in the vibrant food culture of a city that – to one’s mind – stands to lose it soul should the plan go through. So it came as a huge relief when Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports, announced in a detailed Facebook post that the media reports were false, and that the vendors won’t be barred from the streets but regulated. This means, they’d only be able to sell during certain hours.
“4. All personnel dealing with the street food preparation and services will be required to attend the training programs to be organized by the City. Moreover, they must pass the test before being allowed to their food stalls.
5. Particular attentions will be paid to their procedures of dish cleaning and waste management, i.e., the dish cleaning on pavement would be definitely prohibited”, he wrote in the post, which may leave more picky tourists pleased that hygiene will no long be an issue.
But the street-food-loving Indian in me does wonder — would sanitised ‘street food khao galis’ still have the same effect? Would our olfactory nerves still tingle and mouth still salivate at the mere thought of plastic bagfuls of fried meat soaked in sweet-sour chilli sauce and bowls of steaming spicy, gingery, lemongrass-infused chicken noodle soup?
That’s a possibility one is ready to live with, because the alternative over the past two days was just way too depressing.