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A food court in Bangkok, Thailand, operating at 25 per cent capacity. Photo: EPA

Coronavirus pandemic in Thailand leaves Bangkok restaurants in turmoil

  • Amid a third wave of infections, eateries have been forced to close, suspend or limit operations, while those that hobble on are banned from selling alcohol, which usually accounts for up to 55 per cent of takings
  • With 50,000 restaurants thought to have closed and the same again on the brink, owners say the high-end Michelin-starred venues may be fine, but a famously eclectic scene risks becoming a little less eclectic
Bangkok’s celebrated food scene is in turmoil as the kingdom struggles to control the coronavirus pandemic, leaving restaurateurs wheezing under the weight of overheads without customers and raging at a government that has imposed an alcohol ban but failed to support staff wages. 
In a city where a tangy, spicy bite is never more than a few metres away - from some of the world’s best street food to Michelin-starred restaurants - eateries have been forced to close, suspend or limit operations since a third wave of infections began in April.

Other businesses have hobbled on without alcohol sales - responsible for 35 to 55 per cent of takings - or resorted to selling booze illegally to entice customers to their tables, despite the risk of hefty fines by a government contending with the most severe outbreak of the virus yet. 

So far more than 1,400 Thais have been killed by the virus.

Authorities say they will consider extending opening hours to 11pm and lifting the alcohol ban in coming weeks.

A waitress at a seaside restaurant in Bangpu, on the outskirts of Bangkok. Photo: AFP

But restaurant owners say it is too late and have a long list of complaints: no provision of tests or vaccines for customer-facing staff, an absence of wage relief, shortened opening hours, the booze ban and bungled communication about when they will be allowed to operate as normal.

“Nothing is clear ... can we resume our business in 14 days, will we be getting any help?” Thitid Tassanakajohn, executive chef at Michelin-starred Le Du, asked on behalf of the sector on Facebook recently. 

“It’s like we’re being put in a boat to drift away to die one at a time.” 

The lament from Le Du, which for now is offering a limited menu including golden snapper and local wagyu short rib at a near 20 per cent discount, was echoed across the country. 

Bangkok’s swapping street food for fine dining, but will the tourists bite?

Thailand’s Restaurant Association says 50,000 restaurants have been forced to close, with the same number teetering on the edge without government help.
In Bangkok, the pain is being felt sharpest in the mid-range restaurants that have attracted overseas visitors for years with high quality dishes but prices well below those of Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

“There is no solid governmental policy to assist and support stand-alone restaurant businesses,” said chef Bo Songvisava.

In May, Bo and her husband Dylan Jones were forced to close their acclaimed restaurant Bo.lan after 13 years of fine dining.

Bo and her husband Dylan Jones were forced to close their acclaimed restaurant Bo.lan after 13 years of fine dining. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Round after round of the pandemic had hammered business, she said, but the government’s latest partial lockdown and the restrictions imposed were the final straw.

“After the third wave, there were 14 days of semi-lockdown, during which restaurants were allowed to operate takeaway only,” she said.    

“Then, they allowed a quarter of the seating to be used, but with an alcohol ban. For me, that put an end to the culinary scene.” 

Bo cites the lack of vaccine provision for hospitality staff as further evidence of an uncaring government attitude to the sector, particularly as it is heavily dependent on migrant labour in kitchens. Foreigners are last in line for vaccines, which are only just being rolled out.

The independent mid-tier, with its diversity of food, innovation and owner-driven character, is being erased from some Bangkok neighbourhoods, raising fears the city’s culinary reputation is now on the line.

“Bangkok has already lost some important restaurants,” said Jarrett Wrisley, a long-time Bangkok restaurant owner, who predicts big chains will swoop on struggling businesses and homogenise the city’s once eclectic food scene. 

“The high-end restaurants catering to the wealthy will be fine. The restaurants serving the working class will also survive. But there’ll be fewer standalone restaurants and more chain restaurants,” he said.


Bangkok’s street food scene is world famous. Photo: Vijitra Duangdee

Bounce back?

Others are more optimistic for the future of a city which has reinvented itself after repeated economic and political crises and natural disasters before - luring new investment as one of the world’s most visited cities, with abundant homegrown produce and cheaper rents and labour than other Asian hubs like Hong Kong.

“Bangkok will bounce back for sure,” said Naphalai Areesorn, former editor-in-chief of society magazine Thai Tatler.

“Everything will go back to what it was, because of the reputation of Bangkok, the attitude and mentality. Thais are very sociable people. We’re dying to get back out there.” 

As a marker of the resilience of Thai restaurants, Michelin - the givers of the famous stars - say three quarters of their recognised restaurants in the city are open, well above the global average as the pandemic decimates food businesses everywhere.

Will tourism reopenings and more stimulus be enough to kick-start Thailand’s post-pandemic economic recovery?

What made Bangkok “unique”, said Tippawan Nitijessadawong, Michelin Guide Thailand Director, was its gastronomic diversity.

“You can enjoy local culture reflected in a bowl of noodles, a great street food, for lunch then end with cutting-edge fine dining at some skyscraper for dinner on the same day,” she said. 

“We think the city will hold strong on its position.”

But it may be too late for some of the food scene’s best-known faces who have run out of road after juggling staff salaries, bank loans, rents and collapsed income over a punishing 14 months.

“The government has done absolutely nothing to help us… zero,” said Wrisely.

 “People like me are going out of business for good.”