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The Oasis of Soi Somkid
By Office for the Bangkok Rules and Treatment of Offenders
Soi Somkid, known as the alley next to Central Chidlom, is a crowded small alley full of construction sites, low-rise condominiums, and office buildings located in the heart of Bangkok city. There’re trees planted on one side along the street and a small canal that runs through the entire alley on the other side. Together with the cool breeze that blows lightly through the trees, it has given the oasis vibe to Soi Somkid, in contrast to the heat of 32°C weather.
Deep in the alley, around 500 meters from the entrance, there’s a medium-sized food cart parked right under the big tree. The cart is eye-catching with a mini glass pantry and various food trays displayed in the front and a black name sign labeled as ‘Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid’ on the top. The regular commuters of Soi Somkid would get used to hearing an old lady gently greet the customer with her heartwarming voice “Please stop by if you are hungry… let me serve you some lunch…” while scooping rice from the cooker. Next to her is a middle-aged lady with a big smile on her face handing a food package to the customer.
“Somkid is the name of this alley. I didn’t include the word ‘Soi’ just in case we move to somewhere else, so the existing customer could remember us”, said Kaen, the owner of Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid. Soi means alley and the term Kao-Gaeng refers to curry with rice in Thai. It is typical for Kao-Gaeng vendors to have various options of curry to serve with rice as a main. At Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid, the standard menus that are available every day include fried chicken, garlic chicken, and chicken sausage. There will be three options for curry and the curry menus will change every day, depending on what the customers have requested for each day. The ‘Monday Special’ menu where the customers have requested the most is beef green curry. Kaen has chosen Monday for this special menu because it is the only day where other food vendors around this area are closed, so it will be exceptionally busy for Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid. Since the beef menu would cost a little more than others, it is also how Kaen can make sure that there won’t be any leftovers and that she could earn some profits from it. Before the curfew period, Kaen has also offered an extra eggs menu like a sunny-side-up and omelette. However, it has to be cancelled due to a small number of customers during the pandemic curfew. Kaen assures that if the situation is back to normal the amount and choices of curry will also be increased accordingly.
The regular customers of Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid range from taxi drivers and delivery riders to security guards, construction workers, and office workers. The vendor starts getting busy at around 11 am until the food has sold out slightly after 2 pm. Apart from the hygienic and delicious meal Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid can offer, another reason this place has attracted so many customers is the budget-friendly price range. “We charge 25 THB ($0.75) for rice with a choice of curry, 30 THB ($0.90) for two curries, and only 35 THB ($1.05) for three curries. Most of my customers live from hand to mouth. If I raised the price even for 5 or 10 THB, it would affect them... So 25 THB it is” Kaen explained to us why she decided to stick with the same price range even during the outbreak of Covid-19. If Soi Somkid is an oasis for the commuters in the middle of the busy Bangkok, Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid can also be seen as an oasis for the drivers and workers within this area.
“If Soi Somkid is an oasis for the commuters in the middle of the busy Bangkok, Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid can also be seen as an oasis for the drivers and workers within this area.”
Kaen had spent her childhood in the restaurant ever since she could remember. She started helping out at her aunt’s restaurant when she was five years old and her first time in front of the stove was when she first entered primary school. As a grown-up, she still had her mindset on her family’s food vendor business as she decided to take vocational certificate training in basic of commerce. Even when she was imprisoned, Kaen was assigned as a chef in the kitchen and had to spend most of her time in prison cooking for both the prisoners and officers. Until she was released, Kaen still held on to this path of being a food seller as she decided to work with her dad at Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid. It is her ambition in cooking and determination to continue her dad’s food vendor business that encourages her to live for the future and never look back to the past.
After Kaen was released from the prison, she helped her dad cook and sell food at Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid with the old cart her dad has been using for years. Later, Kaen had an opportunity to join the ‘Hygiene Street Food for Chance’ programme by the Thailand Insistute of Justice (TIJ) that offers an opportunity for the former prisoners to join the training that will enhance their hygienic cooking skills,the essential business knowledge for the street food industry and a small grant to start a business. She had completed her training and received a new food cart at the end of the programme. With the collaboration TIJ has with an international partner, Kaen’s food cart was sponsored by the Incarceration Nations Network (INN) under ‘The Writing on the Wall’ project which accumulated writings and drawings in various languages from prisoners all over the world. The project aims to exemplify the unheard voice of the prisoners by displaying their expression on different locations. Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid is also part of this project, the writings and drawings on the cart are the testimonials from the foreign prisoners.
“I was so happy when they accepted my application for the training, because I know I would never be able to afford the new cart with such a small amount of profit I made from the old cart” Kaen shared with us of how overwhelmed she was to be receiving a new cart “This new cart has attracted so many commuters to stop by. I also received a lot of compliments from my customers, they said this new cart makes the food look even more delicious and hygienic… I'm over the moon just knowing they are happy with my food” Kaen added that the new cart has attracted the condo residents, who later became the new regular customer at Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid because of how appealing the cart is. Her profit also rises from 200-300 THB ($6-$9) to 700-900 THB ($21-$27) per day in the first month she has received the cart.
Kaen said that she has no secret recipes or any special techniques in cooking, but it is ‘heart’ and ‘dedication’ that are the keys to her delicious food. She believes that looking back to the past is useless. All that matters to her today are Rarn Kao-Gaeng Somkid and her customers, which drive her forward. It is the duty to cook a quality meal for her customers that brings meaning to her life.