Rod-re (Thailand)

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Rod-re (Rod-kub-khao / Rod-phoom-phuang)
Location: Thailand
Thailand map.png
Author: Kisnaphol Wattanawanyoo
Affiliation: University College London, UK.

Original text by Kisnaphol Wattanawanyoo

In Thai, the term ‘rod-re’ is a name given to a form of mobile street vending practice emerged over the last three decades. The prefix ‘rod’ in general indicates any type of vehicle that can be both motorized and non-motorized. The suffix ‘re’ is the adjective describing ‘the act of moving or wandering around into any places’. Thus, ‘rod-re’ is used to describe this particular kind of street vending in the form of modified pick-up truck, filled up with food, goods and products, that moves around the urban area providing market services to various groups of customers. Many of them can be found operating in Bangkok and the neighboring cities, but they can also be found in other big regional cities of the country.


Rod-re can be seen as the adaptation or transformation of the traditional street vending known as ‘harb re’ (hawker). Street vending is a dominant form of urban informality that can be found in cities of the Global South. It is a form of occupation, highly persistent and yet diverse and flexible (Bromley, 2000:1[1]), which fills the gap of incomplete urban services. Mobile street vending or public space vending in Bangkok has long historical roots that date back to the early days of the capital city formation during the period of King Rama I-III (Yasmeen and Nirathron 2014: 3 [2]). The practice of ‘rod-re’ has also incorporated the traditional ‘wet market’, or so-called ‘talaad sod’, and the well-known ‘floating market’ or the ‘talaad nam’, along with the informal street market into a new configuration of contemporary mobile and dispersed marketplaces. Rod-re, along with other various forms/typologies of existing mobile vending found in the Thai cities reflect the persistence of local culture in Thai society (Polakit and Boontharm 2008: 175, 185[3]).


During the 1980s and 1990s, even though Thailand was regarded as one of the ‘Asian tigers’ with rapid economic modernization, there was no decline of such informal sector (Askew 2002). Also, since the 1998 economic crisis, there has been a clear rise of the middle class plunged into the informal sector, as many of the workers who lose their jobs in the formal sector take an informal job such as street vending as an option that allows them to make a living (Bhowmik 2005[4]). This ‘new generation’ of Bangkok Street vendors saw the post-1998 economic crisis as both an opportunity and threat (Maneepong and Walsh 2013[5]).


Despite their contribution to urban life, street vendors are seen by the local authorities and elites as an undesired element, a chaotic eyesore in the cityscape which should be removed from modern urban areas (Crawford 1999[6], 2005[7]; Polakit and Boontharm 2008[8]; Yatmo 2008[9]). At their arrival, street vendors make announcements through a loudspeaker, creating an unpleasantly loud environment. The tension between authorities and vendors over the use of streets, sidewalks and public spaces has often been high. Yet, such tension provides a pictures of the dynamic interplay between vendors, the Thai public (customers) and the Thai authorities, which produces a unique Thai streetscape (Tepwongsirirat 2004[10]). Street vending in the public spaces adds interest to Bangkok street space, and hence vending has become an informal institution in itself (Mateo-Babiano 2012[11]).


Nowadays, mobile street vending can be divided broadly into non-motorized and motorized ones. The existing typologies of mobile vendors can be grouped according to the means of mobility and the response to the contemporary form of transport technology, which are comprised of six sub-groups as it follows (Polakit and Boontharm 2008[12] , Tepwongsirirat 2004[13]): 1) Hab-re (hawker with light bamboo pole/stick and baskets filled with their products and walk around on foot) 2) Rod-khen (push cart) 3) Bicycle and Tricycle (non-motorized peddler) 4) Motorcycle (both the one with container/storage and the one with extra hanging display) 5) Motorcycle (with modified container/storage) and Tricycle (motorized one with modified container/storage) 6) Rod-re (pick-up truck with the modified rear storage and covered-roof to display food, produces, and goods)


From the above typologies, hab-re (hawker) is the only type that still maintains the traditional form of street vending. Rod-khen (push cart) is one of the most popular types with great variations in the cart design that can support various forms of trading activity and investment. The first two types are more ambulatory in nature and can cover nearby distances, whereas bicycles and motorcycles can cover longer distances. The last typology, rod-re , is the most advanced form of mobile vending, capable to cover the longest distances.


This study of rod-re is based on fieldwork data collected by the author in Bangkok in 2015 and 2016. The author conducted part of his research by riding along with or driving after the vendors, depending on the modes of transport and condition. In many cases, the vendors meandered through Bangkok’s busy streets into smaller sois (or alleyways) of the inner neighborhoods and peripheral communities. Following some of these vendors provides the basic understanding of the spatial practices in related to their trading activities. It also reveals how the vendors select and manage their schedules, routes and trajectories.


In order to provide a variety of goods similar to that of more formal kinds of market, and also due to the limitation of the pick-up truck’s back storage and display space, the rod-re vendors have to select certain types of products to fill in their trucks accordingly. This selection shapes the practice of rod-re into three variations, which are: 1. rod-kub-khao (selling fresh food, meat, and vegetables) 2 rod-phak phon-lamai (selling fruits and vegetables) 3 rod-khong-cham or rod-cho-huay (selling wide range of groceries, clothing, fashionable and gift items, also consumerist products)


The first two variations are often mistakably perceived by the public as the same type. The two types might look alike and even provide similar products. But the slight difference or variation here is that rod-kub-khao provides fresh meats, whereas rod-phak phon-lamai do not.


Another common feature of these two types is connoted in the given nickname of rod-phoom-phuang . The word ‘phoom-phuang’ – means ‘in bundle’, and hence rod-phoom-phuang in this context refers to the outstanding display of ready-made packages of the products in small bundles, hanging on both sides of the truck. Most people consider both rod-kub-khao and rod-phoom-phuang as the same one, and use these names interchangeably. But for most of the vendors, they prefer to be called rod-kub-khao or rod-re , rather than rod-phoom-phuang , as the latter could also refer to the motorcycle type of food vending.


The third type of variation, rod-khong-cham or rod-cho-huay , is a kind of grocery shop which also provides clothing and other consumer goods. Besides variations in their product provision and their display features, the three types of mobile market also have different target groups of customers.


In fulfilling the daily need of food and services, vendors play a crucial role, especially in the everyday life of those inhabitants who are in remote areas and far away from marketplaces, or those who find it inconvenient to move around. Vendors bring the market to the customers’ doorsteps. Mundane spaces are transformed into a temporary marketplace, an ephemeral social gathering. Vendors’ presence also fosters interaction between the people who live and work within a given area. Moreover, in some cases, different social classes are drawn together through such temporary market event, yielding a mix which rarely happen nowadays.


As rod-re takes place in what Askew (2002[14]) called the ‘subsector of urban informality’, with larger amount of investment and better means of accumulation, these vendors seem to be making profit. Also, due to their mobile nature and their economic status, for a long time they have not been the authorities’ top priority in terms of being removed from the urban landscape. However, then new regulation on banning street vending from major Bangkok streets imposed in mid-September 2016 by the Thai Government might affect the resilience of this practice. Yet, recently, the conflicts that have risen in relation to street vending is not between local authorities and vendors, but rather between vendors themselves, ranging from minor arguments to major disputes in terms of competing for the same group of customers, or operating in overlapping areas.


In summary, rod-re has evolved from the traditional mobile vending as a practice which makes a good use of the interstitial, fragmented urban spaces providing economic opportunities to vendors. It is a creative appropriation of space-time by the ordinary people. With their strong characteristics of diversity, fluidity and flexibility, these practices generate enough creativity in negotiating the possibilities of the informal economy and its spaces (Askew 2002:74- 75[15]).

Notes

  1. Bromley,R., 2000. ‘Street Vending and Public Policy: A Global Review’, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy , 20 (1/2):1-29.
  2. Yasmeen, G. and Nirathron, N. 2014, Vending in Public Space: The Case of Bangkok, WEIGO Policy Brief (Urban Policies) No. 14, http://wiego.org/publications/vending-public-space-case-bangkok. accessed 10 January 2015
  3. Polakit,K. and Boontharm,D., 2008. ‘Mobile vendors: persistence of local culture in the changing global economy of Bangkok’, in Herbele,L. and Opp,S., (eds.), Local Sustainable Urban Development in Globalised World . Alsdershot: Ashgate.
  4. Bhowmik,S., 2005. ‘Street Vendors in Asia: A Review’, Economic & Political Weekly , 40(22/23):2256-2264.
  5. Maneepong,C., and Walsh J., 2013. ‘A New Generation of Bangkok Street Vendors: Economic Crisis as Opportunity and Threat’, Cities , 34: 37–43.
  6. Crawford, M. 1999. Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life. in J. Chase et al., (eds.), Everyday Urbanism . New York: Monacelli Press.
  7. Crawford, M., 2005. Everyday Urbanism. in R. Mehrotra, (ed.), Everyday Urbanism. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan.
  8. Polakit,K. and Boontharm,D., 2008. ‘Mobile vendors: persistence of local culture in the changing global economy of Bangkok’, in Herbele,L. and Opp,S., (eds.), Local Sustainable Urban Development in Globalised World . Alsdershot: Ashgate.
  9. Yatmo, Y.A., 2008. ‘Street Vendors as ‘Out of Place’ Urban Elements’, Journal of Urban Design , 13(3):387-402.
  10. Tepwongsirirat, P., 2004. The Vendor and the Street: The use and management of public spaces in Bangkok. Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania.
  11. Mateo-Babiano, I., 2012. ‘Public Life in Bangkok’s Urban Spaces’, Habitat International , 36(2012):452-461
  12. Polakit,K. and Boontharm,D., 2008. ‘Mobile vendors: persistence of local culture in the changing global economy of Bangkok’, in Herbele,L. and Opp,S., (eds.), Local Sustainable Urban Development in Globalised World . Alsdershot: Ashgate.
  13. Tepwongsirirat, P., 2004. The Vendor and the Street: The use and management of public spaces in Bangkok. Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania.
  14. Askew, M., 2002. Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation . London: Routledge.
  15. Askew, M., 2002. Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation . London: Routledge.