Thaipark: Where human will's stronger than official regulations.


Regulations often make things complicated. There are so many great ideas that have fallen through because people didn't want to deal with the officials and couldn't find or afford anyone who would. In some countries it's easier to start a business; in others it's harder. In New Zealand i.e. it takes about a day to set up a business, whereas in Germany one needs to spare 15 days to get started. When you're not from Germany – especially when you don't speak German – it might take even longer. While some people would give up, others decide not to care at all. Especially when their business was not intended to be one to begin with.

The popular Thai market at Berlin's Preußenpark – better known as Thaipark – is one such case. What's nowadays one of Berlin's most known attractions was started in the mid-1990s as a small gathering of Thai women who simply wanted to enjoy each other's company and find a home away from home. In a country that's rather homeward focused, it became a public curiosity that demonstrated how foreigners make use of public space.

The hospitality of the Thai community quickly spread by word of mouth. Also, articles and mentions of avid foodies in travel guides, magazines and later on blogs might have helped to spread the word. Nowadays, it's not an unusual sight to see about 600 people gather at Preußenpark to experience the Asian holiday vibe in the midst of the German capital.

At first, the picnickers have been sharing and exchanging dishes amongst each other, but as their authentic Thai fare increased in popularity, people started selling their food. The few women that started this popular joint were hardly dedicated sales people. In most cases, they were the wives of guest workers that came to Germany in the 1980s and only worked part time or not at all. Simply put, they couldn't afford to host the increasing number of visitors and started charging people to refund their expenses. Thaipark is thus rather cheap; still, the small pocket money the vendors earn has become an indispensable part of their family's income.

While all of this sounds like a piece of modern wonderland, one shouldn't ignore the hassle the Thai community has been dealing with throughout the last two decades.

Back in the days the German Ordnungsamt dissolved the market each time; mostly because of the strong BBQ smell, which was the common way of preparation in the nineties & early noughties. Also, the amount of rubbish caused protests from residents and regular headlines in sensational press (Here's a link to one such article).

The repetitive conflicts with the officials and the endurance of the Thai community have led to a temporary permission to BBQ in a designated area, far from the meadow, where the community gathered. In the beginning, the community tried to follow the German rules, which were stated on a sign written in German, English and Thai (!). The inefficiency and the inventive spirit have led to the decision to cook on transportable gas cookers instead. The Thai community has professionalised without intending to do so.

While the picnickers are by no means officially organised or have a designated spokesperson, the common interest to keep a piece of their home's culture alive has bonded the gathering to meet at a given time at this very designated place. Throughout the years the picnickers became lighter in their gear to be able to leave the meadow every time the Ordnungsamt comes, only to come back as soon as the order-regulators leave the space. Not to stand out, the picnickers became extremely persnickety; They collect and clear all trash that's left behind and also make sure to hold the public toilet clean to an extent that every five-star-hotel would have a hard time keeping.

The popularity of the park and the care under which the community of picnickers operates has led to Preußenpark becoming a so called "loose space". The Ordnungsamt now only visits the space every couple of weeks to prevent the phenomenon from growing. Given that none of the vendors have an official permit, pay income taxes or fees for the use of the park in general, this is quite an exceptional occurrence.

Phenomenons like these are what makes Berlin such an attractive city to progressively thinking people of the world. At least that's how I see it. I hope I could put some light on this fascinating topic. I'd like to spend some more time on thinking and observing how people use public space in the future and blog a bit more about it here or on Medium. If you'd like to know more about this topic, please treat yourself to an issue of the Austrian Derivé magazine. Christian Haid wrote an amazing piece in the 51st issue, which came out in the spring of last year.