When did you first discover Thai Park?
I can still remember walking through the Preußenpark grass, my heart quickening at the sight of the rainbow-coloured umbrellas on the northwest side. Tiptoeing between picnic blankets, reveling in the sight of all the street snacks I’d never been able to order at Berlin Thai restaurants. Handing out one €5 note after another in exchange for boat noodles, mango sticky rice and truly scharf papaya salad.
I called it “magical”, although it wasn’t really. What I and my fellow food vultures were “discovering” had begun as a strategy in self-preservation from a group of Thai women in marriages with inherent power imbalances, seeking community and agency in a country where they had little of either. But yeah, okay, the fact that the Wilmersdorf authorities turned a blind eye to the illicit food dealings in their midst did feel a whole lot like magic. And some of that magic remained in the years that followed, even as travel guides and airline magazines spread the gospel, even as scores of non-Thai vendors selling mediocre dumplings and sugary mojitos diluted the quality, even as the visitor count swelled, the grass withered and the park flooded with trash.
And now it’s all over – or at least, the illicit part of it is. As of August 2021, Thai Park is an official street food market, hosted by Berlin’s Thai Association under the supervision of the Bezirksamt Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. In the future, there will purportedly be a designated market area with some 60 mobile stands, to be stored in a €1.5 million new building (which will also incorporate some badly needed toilets) when they’re not in use. At present, the number of vendors is limited to a corona-compliant 30 and the stands, as it were, are a haphazard mix of folding tables beneath tents and the usual umbrellas, cordoned off by a maze of caution tape.
Officially, only 80 (masked) people can be in the vendor area at a time; on my visit three Sundays in, there were probably three times that, with many more queuing up outside the makeshift entrance. Returning to a stand once you’d already passed was tricky and going for seconds was a pain in the ass, meaning strategic purchasing and about three hands were required.
Aside from that, the offerings weren’t too different from any other edition of Thai Park – save for the presence of a few restaurants, like Kantstraße’s upscale Dao by Meo and the street food canteen Samakki Talad Thai. Noted alumna Siliya Rothert, who spun her noodle soup stand into Wilmersdorf restaurant Thai Art in 2019, was back as well, and I couldn’t resist queuing up for a compostable bowl of yen ta fo for old time’s sake. Unlike in past years, all the stands now display signs listing their dishes (and in some cases, their ingredients). Good news for vegans and folks with allergies; less so for would-be Columbuses who want bragging rights for seeking out rarities like khanom jin or tom saeb, but what’re you gonna do?
As for the trash, it’s still an issue, although some patrons had the presence of mind to bring their own Tupperware. The park renovation plans include a Pfand system for utensils and containers; until then, we can at least expect more wooden forks and paper plates as the EU cracks down on single-use plastic.
So is the magic gone? I dunno. Of course some Berliners will be nostalgic for the black-market days, the way techno old-timers miss illegal 1990s raves and today’s twentysomethings will someday get misty-eyed thinking about Hasenheide. But the same tasty food, a cleaner park, and vendors who can make a name for themselves without fear of arrest are all things to celebrate. (Anyone about to complain that the soups, salads and curries now cost €7-8 instead of €5 can fuck the fuck off, BTW).
And don’t tell anyone, but I did see some plates of food and a bag or two of chillis being traded between Thai families on blankets around Preußenpark’s fringes. The old Thai Park lives on, just not for farangs. As it probably should be.
Thai Park Preußenpark, Wilmersdorf, Apr-Oct, Mon-Fri 12-21, Sat-Sun 10-22 (most vendors and largest crowds on weekend afternoons)