Is The Thai Food Market Culture Dying?

When thinking about Thailand many things come to mind immediately and one of them is the food culture including of course the famous food markets. These markets are not just here to attract the crowds of tourists visiting Thailand each year, they are also important for the local community. These markets are however increasingly reducing for several reasons like the food retail transition and also the COVID-19 pandemic. How does the current status of the food markets look like and what is going to happen in the future, using the markets in Bangkok and their developments as an example?

The food markets of Bangkok

1. Floating Markets

Starting before the urbanization of Bangkok, selling their good by transporting them on the rivers was the only way for sellers and vendors to earn money. Even after the development of urban Bangkok with roads and other means of transports, waterside transportation stayed popular in Thailand. Traditionally the goods were sold from one boat to the other. Many floating markets, especially the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market are a nowadays crowded tourist attraction and most of the vendors don´t really sell on a moving boat anymore (Iverson, 2016). Instead, their boats are fixed on the sides of the canals with tourist in boats passing by and stopping from time to time to purchase something (Rosenthal, 18).

The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is is the biggest floating market in Bangkok with lots of tourists, which is why the Thai locals rather visit the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market located outside of the city.

2. Wet markets 

When visiting a wet market, one is able to buy all sorts of fresh food. Vegetables, fruits, meat and fish can be bought there as fresh as even possible as some of the animals even get freshly slaughtered on site. Typical for wet markets are wet and dirty floors, the smell of raw meat and a lot of people at one place. Many locals use wet markets as an opportunity to buy their groceries for the day cheaply and especially fresh.

The most famous and visited one is the Klong Toey Market. Tourist are a rare side at these markets as in western culture most people are not used to the sight of animals getting slaughtered in front of their eyes and the smell is unbearable for many. Most visitors to the market are either locals or restaurant owners (Sandner , 2020).

3. Chinese Market 

The Chinatown area is called Samphanthawong also referred to as Yaowarat by the locals because of its location around the Yaowarat road and it has been a part of Bangkok since 1782. It is one of the world´s biggest Chinatowns with its centre being the Chinatown market. At the market the Chinese immigrants who settled there centuries ago and who are now a fixed part of Bangkok´s community, present and show their culture and traditional food (Pelagictraveler, 2020). Especially at night Chinatown market offer´s a wide variety of traditional Chinese but also Chinese-Thai street food. Even though most of the visitors are tourist, also many locals shop at the Chinese market, especially for fresh mangos.

The supermarket revolution 

Since the early 2000 s a rapid modernization of the food retail systems in East and Southeast Asia, especially in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, some refer to as the “Supermarket Revolution” is developing (Reardon, Timmer, & Minten, 2010). Supermarket, Hypermarkets and convenience stores continue to grow out the “traditional” food purchasing ways like the markets but also the small family-owned shops. Even though many Thai consumers continue to shop at their local market the demand for broader selections of food as well the urbanization and the connected rising income of many supports the revolution.

Also because of globalization, there is a rising demand and international products which can only be supplied by modern food retailing and therefore Supermarkets and co. These big markets have access to global supply chains which increases their diversity of products including food especially (Kelly, Seubsman, Banwell, Dixon, & Sleigh, 2014). In the beginning, many believed that this “revolution” could not happen in Asian countries because of the locals not being conducive to shopping in supermarkets.

Yet still many local people shop at their local markets which even increased with the market’s attraction for tourist. Some markets are even transitioning to be mainly visited by tourist, as for example the floating market mention above. Now however another factor that has impacted the decrease in the visitors to markets and the increase of people shopping in Supermarkets, is the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Impact of the pandemic

That the pandemic of the Corona Virus has led to the shut down of shops and stores, even the public life, is a widely know fact and the food markets of Bangkok have been no exception. When picturing these markets their closure also came to no one´s surprise. Crowded places with sellers and markets stalls lined up close to each other leaving no space. Thousand of tourist and locals walking the streets and buying their food which can also be touched by everyone and has no protection from bacteria.

Also, when following the news during the pandemic markets have often functioned as “super-spreader” events with hundreds of people getting infected. In December 2020 Thailand has been hit by what some saw as the worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic. A seafood market near Bangkok has been seen as the cause of this outbreak as a few hundred cases were all linked with a visit to this market. The Thai government has responded by urging people to stay away from such gatherings (BBC, 2020).

More news of markets being the cause of increased numbers of infections have been published recently which has led to some market closures (The Star Online, 2021). There even is negative coverage coming from western news portals concerning the wet markets in Asia because of their high infection rates (Fowler, 2020).

That is however not the only reason for the negative connection towards food markets. Wet markets in China have been speculated to be the origin of the Covid-19 virus because of the wild animals sold there. This has led to many people demanding the abolishment of such markets. The retracing has not yet been proven definite but has definitely left a negative stamp on the market culture in general (Sontag, 2021).

Outlook into the future

Despite the negative media coverage Thai food markets have been and will be an essential part of the Thai culture. The question remains whether the number of markets will decrease in the future. Even though many people are shifting towards more convenient and diverse supermarkets the freshness of the food at a local is yet to be beaten. This is what especially local cooks and restaurant owners value. Many chefs love and need the food markets as they are essential to Thai cooking because them being nearly the only source of fresh ingredients (Sontag, 2021).

 

Even though many people have generated negative emotions towards especially the wet markets the attraction of them stay the same. The nature of these markets is so different compared to what western culture is used to, which is why many western have the urge to visit and experience it themselves.

The question for the future is whether those markets can fully regain their strengths in the future. The impact of negative media coverage has been severe, as well as closure. The markets need to regain their image maybe by developing certain measurements concerning hygiene by still trying to keep the same charisma. With at least tourists visiting and shopping on the markets many will survive, yet it is likely for the number of markets to decrease depending on the severity of the supermarket revolution. It also questionable whether these markets only existing for the sake of tourism undermines the tradition behind them commercializing the experience.

References 

BBC. (2020, December 21). Covid-19: Thailand tests thousands after virus outbreak in seafood market. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55391417

Fowler, A. (2020, July 25). Why chefs love asia’s fascinating wet markets. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://guide.michelin.com/sg/en/article/features/bangkok–thailand-wet-markets

Iverson, K. (2016, August 31). An introduction to thailand’s floating markets. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/an-introduction-to-thailands-floating-markets/

Kelly, M., Seubsman, S., Banwell, C., Dixon, J., & Sleigh, A. (2014). Thailand’s food Retail transition: Supermarket and fresh market effects on diet quality and health. British Food Journal, 116(7), 1180-1193. doi:10.1108/bfj-08-2013-0210

Pelagictraveler. (2020, January 05). Chinatown market BANGKOK. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.nightmarketbangkok.com/night-market-bangkok/chinatown-market-bangkok/

Reardon, T., Timmer, C. P., & Minten, B. (2010). Supermarket revolution in Asia and Emerging development strategies to include small farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(31), 12332-12337. doi:10.1073/pnas.1003160108

Sandner, A. (2020, March 25). Khlong Toei MARKET Bangkok. Der Authentische WET MARKET. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from https://www.culinarypixel.de/khlong-toei-market-bangkok-der-authentische-wet-market/

SOMEBODY FEED PHIL, by Philp Rosenthal, Netflix original series, Season 1 Episode 1, 2018. https://www.netflix.com/de-en/title/80146601

Sontag, S. (2021, March 10). Wet markets are essential to thai cooking. so why are they disappearing? Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://food52.com/blog/25572-why-wet-markets-are-essential?utm_source=partnerize&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=Food52&clickref=1101lfnnVIMc

The Star Online. (2021, March 15). Thailand detects New market-linked Covid-19 cluster in Bangkok. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2021/03/15/thailand-detects-new-market-linked-covid-19-cluster-in-bangkok

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