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"Far Away but Never Isolated" by former SEAP Visiting Fellow, Niti Pawakapan

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by Niti Pawakapan, SEAP visiting fellow

The first time I arrived in Khun Yuam, a small market town located some thirty kilometers from the Thailand-Myanmar border, was in the early 1990s. I spent the next sixteen months conducting research on local traders and their trading enterprises, which, I discovered later, were complexly related to other activities in the community. The town’s main road, Highway 108, which had recently been upgraded, collapsed several times during the rainy season; as a result, the Bangkok-Mae Hong Son bus service was canceled a few times. Travel by car was rather unpredictable. There were four public telephone booths where local and long-distant calls could be made. These phones were the only means I used to communicate with the outside world, though some phone booths were often out of order. For the first couple of months I felt that the town seemed so far away from everywhere and everything. Then I began to realize that there was a lot going on.

Sales representatives, mostly from Bangkok, entered the town in their company’s trucks, loaded with all kinds of manufactured products. Some of them arrived every ten days and some every two weeks. The goods were not the only things they brought with them. They also introduced a new system, the hire purchase, to the locals, who wanted to buy their company’s products, ranging from small electrical appliances to motorcycles, but did not have enough cash on hand to pay for them. They also brought Central Thai, the language they used to communicate with the locals who had their own languages. They preferred their Central food, so some local eating houses learned to cook and serve the new cuisine. Every now and then, caravans of itinerary traders came in their pickup trucks. Some of them offered similar goods as those of the sales representatives, but there were also different items such as fresh fruits that were not grown locally, various kinds of sweets, or even household furniture. Seafood, mainly fish, shrimp, and pawns from the country’s eastern coast, was kept fresh in big ice containers in the back of pickup trucks. Some traders even provided outdoor cinema, free of charge, to entertain their local customers. There were Thai and foreign films; the latter were, of course, dubbed in Central Thai.

I returned to Khun Yuam for a short visit in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis(known in Thailand as the Tom Yum Goongcrisis) took place. I wanted to see how the town and its residents were affected by the crisis. I also planned to visit some locals, who had become my friends. It seemed that the impact of the crisis, if any, was minimal. But there were changes. New houses and shops were under construction. Some young people who had been living in Bangkok and were now unemployed returned home. I soon realized why the land was so important to the locals. It did not merely produce food; it also symbolized family and “home,” a place in which one could always take refuge. The crisis confirmed that Khun Yuam was a safe and comfortable refuge for young returnees.

 In 1999 Khun Yuam town became a municipality. It was the first time the town had its own mayor, who was elected by local people. The town had long been under the authority of the district head, a government official appointed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bangkok. The election was a new experience for the locals, but they soon learned to live with it and enjoyed it. Now, they could make their own decision. I visited the town three more times in 2010, 2016, and 2017. During the last visit many residents complained to me about the effects of the country’s economic slowdown, but it was a different story at the weekly markets, which were organized by the municipal office and the district office. Traders came from all over the place. There were ten-wheel refrigerated trucks, transporting sea and freshwater fish, shrimp, pawns, cockles, and frogs to the markets. Various kinds of fresh fruit were offered. Baked goods were not only popular among the children, but also the locals of all ages; it reminded me of the English idiom “sell like hot cakes.” Traders from Mae Hong Son arrived with their sushi, a cuisine no longer foreign to the locals. There were plenty of different foods, cooked and raw, as well as drinks for the customers. Manufactured products; electrical appliances; ready-made clothes, hats, shoes,and sandals; household and small miscellaneous items, either made in Thailand or the People’s Republic of China, could be found at the markets. 

Goods from Myanmar—for example, traditional Shan and herbal medicines; various kinds of nuts, cooking oil, and other ingredients; white candles; Burmese cigars; etc. were transported across the border for local consumption. The weekly market days not only served the town residents, but also the Hmong and Karen who lived in the villages on the hills, near and far. While many Hmong and Karen came down to buy goods, some Hmong women brought the vegetables grown in their hill farms to sell.

 For many Thais, Khun Yuam may seem like a small place so far away. In reality, however, its location is crucial. It was a trading town between northern Thailand and Burma’s Shan States in the nineteenth century. For a long time it has been a market town that serves the hill villages surrounding the town. After the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the government officials of Thailand and Myanmar and local business people have tried to improve the road networks between the border and Khun Yuam town and establish permanent border checkpoints in hopes of boosting trade, business, and tourism developments for both countries. As a matter of fact, some local business persons have for many years tried to promote the town as a border trading hub. The former town mayor, for example, even speculated about building a new highway to Thandwe, a western seashore town in Myanmar, visualizing Khun Yuam as the gateway between Thailand’s northern region and Myanmar’s west coast sea paradise. From my point of view as an anthropologist, Khun Yuam, despite its small size, has never been insignificant or isolated. Not surprising, perhaps, owing to the economic deterioration in the last few years, a border town with the trading prosperity like Khun Yuam offers hope for the country’s economic recovery.

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Niti Pawakapan is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at SEAP in Fall 2017. He teaches at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. He completed his PhD in anthropology at the Australian National University. Before accepting his position at Chulalongkorn, he worked in New Zealand and taught at Yale University and the National University of Singapore. He has published four books in the Thai language and a number of articles, both in Thai and English. His research interests include borderlands studies, local trade and politics, migration, ethnicity and state-ethnic relations, and emotions. He has recently started new research on material culture.

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