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Salt, Seasons and Sampans: Riverine Trade and Trqansport in Central Thailand
Asian Language & Literature Occasional Papers
  • James A. Hafner, University of Massachusetts - Amherst
Publication Date
Introduction Since Sir John Bowring first recorded these impressions of the central plain of Thailand in the middle of the last, century, time has unalterably changed the context of his account, though not entirely its accuracy. The ‘feracious jungle’ which covered much of the lower central plain in Bowring's time began to disappear under the plow of the Thai peasant farmer in the latter decades of the last century. By 1900 the landscape had been almost entirely converted to an intensive system of irrigated wet-padi production for export. The establishrnent and growth of this commercial agricultural economy has resulted in this region becoming the most productive, developed, and densely settled area of the country. The rapidly growing Bangkok Metropolitan Area, scarcely a shadow of itself in Bowring’s time, dominates this commercial agricultural and industrializing landscape. However, the pivotal role of the ‘Meinam’ or Chaophraya river and other natural and manmade waterways in this region has been diminished only recently. Over this complex network flows padi, rice, maize, consumer staples, exotic fruits and vegetables, and an almost unending variety of goods and produce destined for Bangkok and other locations within the region. Since early in the 19th century this inland waterway network has occupied a central position in the economic, communications, and social interaction of the country. Boats of all shapes' sizes, and functions have plied these waterways to carry agricultural produce to Bangkok for export, to distribute food staples to the population, and to serve as the major communications and transport medium for the region. Not until the immediate postwar period did an expanding highway network, urbanization, and dramatic shifts in government investments in land transport network. Here we may turn to the flows of commodities in space and time, patterns of directional movement in commodity shipment and distribution, the changing composition of trade and commodity shipment on the waterways, and the links which may tie these patterns to settlements, productive activities, and other locational or areal phenomena. By seeking to compare and identify patterns, distributions, and connectivities in both space and time we can gain a fuller understanding of the dynamics of this system. Four broad areas of pattern, distribution, and process are of immediate interest to us here. First, we explore some of the characteristics of the inland waterway network related to its early development, its use for trade and commodity flows, and constraints these characteristics impose on these activities. Secondly, we turn to the composition of local trade. Here our concern is with low-bulk, short-haul movements of consumer staples rather than the shipment of high bulk, long-haul movements of agricultural commodities, construction aggregates, and timber. Specific attention will be focused on six commodity categories typical of the loca1 trade process; wood-forest products, consumer staples, fruit, vegetables, fertilizers, and miscellaneous cargoes. Our exclusion of the high bulk agricultural commodities (padi, rice, maize), construction aggregates (sand, stone, cement), and certain classes of forest products is based on the assumption that these commodities are seldom associated with the process of local trade. A third area of interest concerns the types of participants in the local trade system. That is, who is involved in local trade activities, what do their activities indicate about the structure of trade and its links to the local economy, and how do their activities fluctuate seasonally and spatially. Finally, we seek to incorporate the various patterns and processes of local trade into a general model of riverine trade dynamics. The background for this study lies in an extended period of research in Thailand begun in 1966 by a team composed of personnel from the Department of Geography, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Thai colleagues from the Applied Scientific Research Corporation of Thailand located in Bangkok. The task defined in this project was to complete a comprehensive survey of transport systems in Thailand. This included studies of the water, rail, and road transport industries which were completed in late 1969. The data base for this study comes from three primary sources: (1) a series of four census-surveys of trade and vessel movement on the inland waterways completed during 1966-1968 (2) over 500 interviews with owner-operators of vessels operating on the inland waterways; and (3) lock-passage records collected during the same period at all navigation-irrigation locks within the central plain. This aggregate data base was intended to provide the essential information upon which an analysis of the structure, organization, and operations of inland water transportation could be made. It is evident from the foregoing comments that the data to be considered here is not current, and may in some respects be seen as a historical rather than contemporary record. To our knowledge this information represents the only compreshensive survey of inland water transport and trade to have been completed in Thailand.l While over ten years have passed since these materials were collected, there are few substantive reasons which would lead us to question the contemporary accuracy of the broader patterns outlined here. There has most certainly been some continued erosion of the economic contributions of local trade, loss of commodities to the more competitive road transport system, and even changes in the volumes of commodity flows. However, we persist in our belief that the broad structural outlines of local trade, the activities of local traders, and the general patterns of commodity flows seasonally and spatially remain as representative today as they were almost fifteen years ago. We of courser assume full responsibility for any errors or misinterpretations which may exist in this study. (1)The only other study completed on inland water transport in Thailand is a survey done by the Harbour Department in 1964. Its primary concern was with measuring commodity flows to and from Bangkok by vessel type and commodity. Much of this data is directly or indirectly incorporated in the study presented here. (see, Thailand, Harbour Department, Survey of Inland Waterway Transportation, Central Rivers Basin, 1964. Bangkok: The National Economic Development Board and The National Statistical Office (1966?)
Citation Information
James A. Hafner. "Salt, Seasons and Sampans: Riverine Trade and Trqansport in Central Thailand" (1980)
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