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One stream, many stories

"Visiting the market" is not an uncommon topic of conversation among Thais. However, the motivation for going to market differs from that of yesteryear.

Previously, the market was a destination for the purchase of daily fresh ingredients. Now, markets are sites of leisure, shopping for local products and knickknacks, relaxation on nearby waterways or indulgence in nostalgia, which can be shared freely on social media.

This trend is a consequence of a nationwide localisation policy inaugurated in 1999 in response to Thailand's pervasive industrialisation and urbanisation.

On the one hand, this policy assisted in the revitalisation of traditional communities, cultural landscapes and activities such as riverside markets. On the other hand, it also influenced shallow mimicry of traditions, which deprives sites and activities of a historical or social context.

Regardless of either position, one of the main reasons Thais and foreigners visit markets is to catch a glimpse of Thai neighbourhood life, most uniquely in the tight juxtaposition of commercial and living spaces.

These spaces and ways of life are fundamentally Thai, yet now can be rarely witnessed in the contemporary urban landscape. These unique social and spatial configurations are derived from the ties of kinship shared among multigenerational inhabitants.

Such ties are nurtured and accommodated by physical, tangible locales such as rice mills, schools, shrines, temples, mosques, piers, waterfront areas, pocket parks, and theatres. These locales become the life-world that provides the community with its economic, education, spiritual and recreational centres.

The waterfront markets of the Hua Ta Khae, Luang Phaeng,and Khlong Suan neighborhoods unveil themselves along the banks of the Prawet Burirom canal. Despite the markets' proximity to each another, they offer up different narratives reflective of their distinct social milieus.

Located at the intersection where Khlong Prawet Burirom cuts across Khlong Phraya Nagaraj - the border canal that divides Samut Prakan and Chachoengsao provinces - the 112-year-old Khlong Suan market is composed of two sub-markets: the western market in Samut Prakan and the eastern market in Padriew district.

Three culturally different groups lay claim to the market - the Thai Chinese, the Thai Buddhists and the Thai Muslims.

Architecturally, the private dwellings and public spaces, such as the waterfront areas, have been well maintained. A variety of products ranging from home-grown vegetables and fruits, local cuisine and confectionery, old stationery and toys, services such as barbers and cultural attractions such as museums and the annual Chinese opera production, have attracted a number of visitors who contribute to the market's vibrancy.

Several sectors have argued for physical and infrastructural modernisations to the market, which have been opposed by others who are concerned of the balance between economy and ecology, the old and the new.

By contrast, the shop-houses and waterfront spaces of Luang Phaeng market are poorly maintained. Although locals have attempted to reinvigorate the market and the culture of Thai hospitality can be strongly felt, the overall atmosphere is rather subdued even on the weekends.

In slightly better shape is the Hua Ta Khae market. As its size and role as an important hub of transportation, communications and trade has reduced, the market has nearly sunken into oblivion.

A fire in 2013 resulted in inappropriate modifications to affected buildings, which over time hastened the decay of older structures. Subsequently, locals have been working with academics and local authorities to correct the situation and prevent similar future lapses.

They have also tried to promote festive events such as art and music festivals, which take place regularly every first weekend of each month. Traditional annual customs, such as loy kratong, have also been revived.

Given that local communities are microcosms of Thai society and contribute to the country's cultural diversity, it is essential that markets and their surrounding communities cooperate in sharing knowledge and best practices on how to balance tradition with change and growth.

Only through collective initiatives can sustainable communities be truly secured in the national interest.

Waricha Wongphyat, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University. This article is part of the essay entitled "Bangkok Dwellings" in "Small Talk Bangkok: What Makes a City a Good Place for Everyone".


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