With an intelligence network so good that they have been compared with the CIA, Thai street vendors are often first on the scene at “guerrilla” democracy protests in Bangkok, where they hawk sour pork and fishballs to a democracy-hungry crowd.
After a government crackdown last week, protest groups had begun keeping the venues for their demonstrations — which have demanded the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and reforms to the monarchy — secret until the last minute, in a bid to outsmart authorities.
However, protesters quickly noticed that they are often second on the scene, behind food vendors setting up their carts and readying themselves for a busy night of brisk sales.
Meatball seller Rattapol Sukpa said that he stays ahead of the curve by monitoring Facebook for hints of the latest locations, and is in constant contact with other vendors, who tip each other off.
“My earnings were good before, but selling at the protest sites, you sell out faster than usual,” the 19-year-old said, as he set up near the Victory Monument.
Business has been booming since the protest movement began in July, with the vendors becoming a regular feature on the sidelines.
A post on Tuesday calling on people to come and rally at a new protest venue carried a picture of a food cart with a caption that read: “Let’s send the CIA there first.”
Rattapol said that the bonanza has also given him a better work-life balance, enabling him to sell out his entire cart by 8pm, instead of the usual midnight closing time.
Protesters are calling for serious changes to Thailand’s status quo — an overhaul of Prayuth’s administration, a rewrite to the military-scripted constitution and reforms to the kingdom’s unassailable monarchy.
However, their gatherings also bring a food festival vibe. Sour pork and rice sausage balls, a delicacy of Thailand’s northeast provinces, hang like beaded necklaces from a street vendor’s push cart, ready to be fried up and served with cabbage in plastic bags.
Also on the menu are hotdogs, soups, cold drinks, pickled fruits and satay sticks.
Some vendors have their cooking stations attached to their motorbikes, making it easier to high-tail to the rally zones.
Selling food to captive crowds often numbering in the tens of thousands is increasingly lucrative, said Anucha Noipan, a fried chicken vendor who used to make US$97 per day.
“Since I’ve started selling at the protest sites, I have doubled my income to about 6,000 baht [US$191.94] a day,” the 21-year-old said.
New to the scene after leaving a job as a rubber farmer, Anucha said that he agrees with the movement’s demands and would not sell his crispy fried chicken at rival rallies fronted by royalist supporters.
“I do not think I have the same point of view on politics with the Yellow Shirts,” he said, referring to a term used for the pro-monarchy bloc.
Tensions ratcheted last week, with police deploying water cannons against protesters in Bangkok’s central shopping district, drawing widespread condemnation from Thai society as images of the attack pinged across social media.
As his chicken thighs sizzle in a frying pan, Nattapol Sai-ngarm said that he is conscious of the risks of doing business in such a dicey environment, but that the economy’s freefall in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has left him with no choice.
“I used to be scared” of a police crackdown, he said. “But I’ve been coming every day, so I’ve gotten used to it.”
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