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Bangkok’s Street Food Vendors Are Going Cashless (and That’s a Big Deal)

Widespread mobile pay makes grabbing lunch easier for locals and tourists alike

A street food vendor on Thanon Phahon Yothin in Bangkok
Sophia Lucero/Flickr

October marked the final month of Thailand’s year-long mourning period following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In the final days of September, amid the crowds of mourners dressed in black, the food stalls along Phahon Yothin 7, in the northern Bangkok neighborhood of Ari, received a colorful makeover: With stalls covered in bright pink signage, the street’s food vendors became the first group in the city to begin accepting payment via QR code.

“Not as many people use it now, but they will in the future,” says Bamnika Sonthi, who sells mango sticky rice on Phahon Yothin 7. A small plastic displayette, almost hidden by a stack of ripe mangos, holds a printout with her personal QR code. Customers scan the code, input the price, and moments after they send payment, her phone buzzes with a notification of receipt. During the lunch rush, as the sidewalk presses with people quickly trying to buy food, multiple customers huddle around her QR code, all paying at the same time. On the two-block stretch of road, home to approximately 40 vendors, nearly all have begun accepting mobile payment, and depending on what they sell, transactions usually range from 5 to 70 baht (or $0.15 to $2.11 USD).

Beyond serving as a major tourism draw and providing a livelihood for an estimated 380,000 vendors, street food plays a critical role in feeding Bangkok’s population. At just 310 baht ($9.35 USD) a day, Bangkok’s minimum wage means many can’t afford to eat at restaurants, and street food is often cheaper than cooking at home. Because of its price and convenience, street food has become an integral part of the Thai day, with stalls attracting crowds during meal times and serving a steady stream of customers at all hours.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Phahon Yothin 7, and street food in general, is the testing ground for an initiative by the country’s Government Savings Bank, which hopes to make mobile pay more widespread. GSB’s new Thailand Street Food program does not collect any fees from vendors, and the program’s goal isn’t to monetize on cashless transactions. Instead, the bank hopes to create new habits and sell consumers on the convenience of mobile payments — allowing banks to save in the long run as consumers switch away from cash transactions.

While larger chains in Thailand like McDonald’s already accept mobile payments through services like LINEpay, using your phone to pay with bank account funds is still quite new. GSB’s program targets smaller vendors who don’t already have corporate partnerships that could slow or prevent them from embracing mobile banking. In addition to helping vendors set up QR codes and offering technical support, GSB has also begun offering 3 million baht ($90,607) low-interest loans to street vendors who are part of the program. According to Thanyatip Rathaprasert, who works in the bank’s marketing department and specifically focuses on mobile banking, the program plans to expand to provinces like Phuket and Chonburi in the coming months.

“Thailand is so behind on these things, so it’s nice we can say we have started to use cashless payments,” says Chaiwat Kanom Pansip, a fish curry puff vendor involved in the program. “But lots of people don’t know about them yet.” He believes that while mobile payments won’t be widely adopted overnight, the collaboration between GSB and street vendors has already successfully legitimized the neighborhood’s street food, which fell under threat last year.

Since 2014, Bangkok’s municipal government has targeted street food in its campaign to improve hygiene and cut down congestion on the city’s sidewalks. The uncertain future of Bangkok’s street food has earned widespread coverage, as some areas of the city have been cleared and others have been threatened. In December 2016, officials told Ari vendors they would need to leave by March 8, before ultimately reversing the decision at the last minute. Many vendors across Bangkok remain nervous about the uncertainty surrounding government street food bans, and Ari’s community of vendors has worked to actively improve their image to better their chances of survival.

But the crucial role street food plays in people’s everyday lives, and the convenience that it represents, is what makes it the perfect vehicle for Thai banks looking to popularize mobile payments. “[Many] people like routine, and they like using real money,” says Thanyatip, acknowledging that the 500 baht ($15.09) credit card minimums required by many businesses made people accustomed to using cash for daily transactions. By allowing people to make small street food purchases using their phones, the hope is that mobile payments will become reinforced by multiple daily visits to street vendors.

In countries like China, cashless payments have been the norm in urban areas for years, but Thailand has lagged in adopting e-pay due to “a dearth of digital literacy.” Until this year there was little standardization in e-pay options, making it difficult to transfer money between different banks and requiring consumers to use different QR codes depending on the service they were paying with. As part of the Bank of Thailand’s push for standardization, in May Mastercard, UnionPay, and Visa launched a standardized QR code, with the country’s banks implementing the system at the end of August.

Vendors in Thanon Phahon Yothin.
Sophia Lucero/Flickr

Vendors like Chaiwat praise mobile payments because they lessen the need to carry as much change for customers who pay cash, and they are now at less risk of having their entire day’s earnings stolen if they get robbed. At no extra cost, customers are protected against counterfeit money and can avoid carrying around large amounts of cash.

Bamnika, the mango sticky rice vendor, believes that as banks continue to send customers promotional offers and discounts through messaging platforms like LINE, people will have more incentives to begin paying via QR code. Thanyatip agrees that promotional offers will play an important role in encouraging people to begin using mobile payments on the street. She believes that this past year some banks kept their promotions subdued out of respect for the official period of mourning, but now that the king’s cremation ceremony has ended, more will begin to heavily market incentives for mobile pay.

Because QR payments sent to street vendors aren’t subject to any fees, GSB isn’t directly profiting from street vendor sales in Ari. The program’s goal isn’t to monetize cashless transactions, but to create new habits and show consumers how convenient and easy mobile payments can be, with the hope that these new spending habits will benefit the bank in the future.

Until then, street vendors are on the front lines, acquainting customers with cashless payments. In the first weeks of the program, bank representatives had their own stall, where they taught people how to sign up for and use mobile banking. Though representatives continue to regularly visit the area to check in, much of the responsibility for training customers has now fallen on the shoulders of street vendors, who can sometimes be seen coaching customers through the steps of paying using their QR code.

“All the vendors like it, and it makes things easier for customers because it takes less time,” says orange juice vendor Noi. The convenience of quickly grabbing food and not having to dig around for change is attracting more people to try cashless payments, says Chaiwat, who now has regular customers who only pay him via mobile. As more people start paying using their phones, other customers are growing curious and testing out the system, too.

While vendors are doing much of the legwork in popularizing mobile payments, they continue to benefit from aligning themselves with larger business interests. Noi credits GSB for helping the vendors this past year as they fought to stay in Ari. Her theory for the bank’s involvement? If you visit the area during midday, you’ll find the sidewalks crammed with hungry bank employees looking for lunch.

Micaela Marini Higgs is a freelance arts and culture writer based in Bangkok who moonlights as a collage artist.
Editor: Erin DeJesus