The Death of Charm – is Thailand losing its mojo?

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I don’t want to sound like some old fart expat whining about the way things used to be “back in the day” or to drone on about the things we are losing in the name of “development”.

What’s more, I don’t want to tell Thai people what parts of their culture are precious and should be preserved. And I certainly don’t want to spark any conspiracy theories about what evil lurks at the core of the “gentrification” movement here in Thailand.

I don’t want to do any of those things … but I’m probably going to.

 

 

 

Taking the “guest” out of “guesthouse”

A hot topic in the tourist areas of Thailand these days is the “crackdown” on guesthouses, hostels and smallish hotels. From Krabi to Chiang Mai, officials have been raiding “illegal hotels” threatening owners with closure, fines and even imprisonment.

The enforcement of a The Hotel Act is in full swing. The original law came into effect in 2004, but has mostly been shrugged off by small operators. The act defines what constitutes a hotel and outlines myriad rules, requirements and licenses that must be obtained to legally run a hotel.

 

 

In 2016, a new commitment to applying the law all across Thailand was expressed by the prevailing authorities and enforcement began in earnest.

How significant is the problem?

It is said that about 60 percent of all hotel rooms across Thailand are in violation of the hotel act. That’s about 500,000 rooms. In Krabi Province it is estimated that 90 percent of all rooms for rent daily are illegal.

In Phuket only 900 out of about 2,700 hotels were found to have proper licences in a 2016 sweep. During the past two months vigorous hotel inspections have occurred in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and now Pattaya.

 

 

One Jomtien Beach guesthouse owner I spoke to is in a panic. “I’ve been operating here for 18 years,” he said. “Now I’ve got to rent my rooms monthly or risk going to jail.”

Most guesthouse owners would comply with the hotel act if they could. Unfortunately, the law is not written with them in mind and they can’t adhere to the standards meant for on a big facility with hundreds of rooms.

“The law calls for 15 percent of the property to be a ‘green area’,” a Pattaya guesthouse owner told me. “I’m in a four-floor double shophouse … how do I get a green area?”

 

 

The Thai government has made it clear that any business establishment renting rooms on a daily basis must comply within the next three years or face shutdown.

So, it seems the day of the mom-n-pop guesthouse is numbered. That goes for the funky beach bungalows in Koh Samui, the backpacker dorms in Chiang Mai and the Bohemian flop-houses on Bangkok’s Khaosan Road.

Some feel the big hotel chains are to blame. They reason that small operators have hurt their business by use of booking agents like AirBnB, Agoda, Home Away and the like and the big hotels are pressuring the Government to protect their interests.

While some of that may be valid, I point to a more sinister development. I call it the “gentrification” movement.

Those in power seem determined to scrub the well-earned patina off Thailand and turn it into some contrived ideal of a tourist destination. A sterile, unoffensive, plastic place with palm trees.

They want Thailand to be Singapore; in fact I’ve heard those exact words mouthed by a minister.

 

Taking the “street” out of “street food”

Don’t believe me?

 

 

Look what’s happened to Thailand’s iconic street food scene. We’ve all seen TV shows about travel to Thailand and every last one of them dedicates a significant portion to the fabulous street cuisine.

When someone asks a traveler “what do you remember most about Thailand?” street food ranks right up there with temples and tuk-tuks. Foodie gods like Gordon Ramsay and the recently departed Anthony Bourdain have been raving about it for decades.

 

 

About two years ago officials turned their focus to Thailand’s food stalls and rolling restaurants. I’ve witnessed it. While living in Bangkok, I saw the systematic dismantling of the On Nut Night Market.

As recently as last year, I recall coming home and stopping at one of the 20 or so carts set up in front of the Big C shopping centre at On Nut for some Hat Yai chicken or a quick Pad Thai.
One night I came home and it was gone.

Nothing was left but an empty sidewalk. People I’d seen every day for two years had disappeared.

And it’s happening all over the capital. Last year the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 different public areas. Some of these impromptu food courts have been handed down generation after generation for more than 50 years. Now they are being shut or crowded into miserable little “designated street food” areas.

What is the point of street food if it isn’t on the street?

 

 

Why is to so hard for Thai people to understand what foreigners find charming about their country?

When I think of the most memorable times I’ve had here, they haven’t been sitting in the lobby of a five-star hotel. They’ve been opening the windows of my corner room in a funky guesthouse in Chiang Mai’s Old City and hearing the monks chant and the roosters crow.

When I think of all the memorable meals I’ve eaten here, they haven’t been at some Michelin-starred glamourant. They have been with a big-ass bowl of duck noodles, sitting on a plastic stool with sweat running down my back enjoying the best people-watching available on this planet.

According to Dictionary.com, “gentrification” means: the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite. What it really means is homogenising. What it means is “un-flavouring”. What it really means is the demise of charm.

On the brighter side, we are blessed to be here while there is still a significant amount of charm left. Get out there this week and get yourself some before someone builds a ‘15 percent green area hotel’ on it.

 

By Bart Walters

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