Agrarian Transformation in Thailand, and Rural-Urban Interactions

One of the great joys of my work is making videos of conversations with scholars who research about Southeast Asia.

It was my great pleasure and honor to recently make this video of a conversation between Professors Jonathan Rigg and Phan Le Ha.

Dr. Jonathan Rigg, Professor and Chair in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, has been researching and writing about rural transformation in Thailand, and Southeast Asia more generally, for decades. On the occasion of the publication of his most recent book, More than Rural: The Textures of Thailand’s Agrarian Transformation, he sat down for this fascinating discussion.


These are some of the issues covered in this fascinating conversation:

02:36 – Jonathan’s intellectual journal from “More than the Soil” (Routledge, 2001) to “More than the Rural” (Hawaii, 2019);

06:40 – The materiality of the urban vs. the values and practices associated with the urban;

10:12 – Moving beyond rural/urban and agrarian/non-agrarian binaries;

12:03 – Urbanization in Asian contexts;

15:52 – The concepts of peri-urban and desakota;

18:58 – The (contested/changing) link between poverty and land;

22:20 – A key point in “More than Rural”;

25:22 – Understanding rural “problems” as strategies.

The History of Domestic Tourism in Thailand

As is well known, in the 1960s and 1970s Thailand became a major destination for international tourists.

During those same years, Thailand’s domestic tourism market also expanded.

I was in the library the other day and came across a magazine that targeted potential Thai tourists in the 1960s and 1970s. In just looking at the images on the front cover of this magazine it’s interesting to see the kind of image of Thailand that was being promoted.

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Revisiting the Vietnamese Annexation of Cambodia (8): Who Exactly was Fighting Whom?

There is an extremely important text for the conflict in the 1830s between “Vietnam,” “Siam” and “Cambodia” that I have never seen an historian use before, and that is the The Strategy for Pacifying the Siamese Raiders and Thuận Bandits (Tiễu bình Tiêm khấu Thuận phỉ phương lược 勦平暹寇順匪方略).

This text contains very detailed information about the conflict between “Vietnam,” “Siam” and “Cambodia” in the early 1830s; much more detailed information than the Nguyễn Dynasty chronicles, The Veritable Records of Đại Nam (Đại Nam thực lục 大南寔錄), contains.

And from those details, one can gain very interesting insights into that conflict.

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Rama VII Discovers Hawaiian History at the Coconut Hut

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni of Siam visited Honolulu in 1931 for only about 24 hours. That is not enough time to really gain an understanding of a new place, and we don’t know what the king and queen really learned during the course of their short visit.

However, in reading the newspaper accounts about their visit today, it is amazing to see how directly the king and queen were exposed to the realities of Hawaii under American rule. In fact, the first instance of this exposure occurred not long after they arrived.

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Huge Aloha for Rama VII in 1931

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and Queen Rambhai Barni of Siam visited Honolulu in 1931. I did not know anything about that, so I decided to try to find information about it.

On Thursday, September 17, 1931, the morning edition of The Honolulu Advertiser stated that “huge aloha” was planned for the king and queen of Siam who were scheduled to stop in Honolulu later that same morning on their voyage back to Siam, after having spent a period of time in America and Canada.

When the royal couple arrived at 11 a.m., they were indeed greeted with “huge aloha.” Thousands of people had come to the pier to greet them on the land while planes welcomed them from the sky.

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The Honolulu-Bangkok World of 1970s Trans-Pacific Raunchiness

The idea that Bangkok is a center of sex tourism is something that is now widely known.

If I remember correctly, the first time I learned anything about this was through (the late) Spalding Gray’s 1987 film, “Swimming to Cambodia,” in which he talks about, among many other things, going to a sex show in Bangkok (probably on Patpong Road) and seeing a woman shoot ping pong balls out of her vagina.

More recently I found a soft-porn movie from 1976, “Emanuelle in Bangkok,” that included a scene of a visit to a similar sex show.


So the idea that Bangkok is a place where one can go to see people “cross certain boundaries,” or where one can oneself “cross certain boundaries,” is something that has existed since at least the 1970s. And my guess would be that this “awareness” is directly linked to the Vietnam War years and the fact that Bangkok was a place for American soldiers to go for “rest and relaxation.”

Honolulu, Hawaii was also one of the places that American soldiers could go to for “rest and relaxation” at that time (and it is one of the places were new recruits went first before heading off to Vietnam), and in looking at some newspapers from Hawaii from the early 1970s, I was struck at how “sex oriented” the entertainment in Honolulu at that time was.


For instance, as in Bangkok, there were live sex shows.

act of love

You had Troy and Danielle as “Eric and Eve” doing their “act of love” 4 times a night!!

live 3

Ira and Zelma did it 4 times a night too!!

live 2

And then you had “the 3rd sex ‘them’” – ½ man ½ woman – for “the very broadminded.”

live 4

And then there was “Marilyn and her dog”. . . Really??? Is this sh#t for real??!!!


Then there were movies. Of course, “deep throat [was] it.”


As it was “the very best porn film ever made.”


But certainly “Fornicon: Pattern of Evil,” must have had some merit to it.


And “Mona the Virgin Nymph” must have been educational.


Then there was Japanese porn, like “Felonious Sensuality.”


“Fire of Lust.”


“Co-Ed Pirhanas”. . .


And, of course, “Backside of 17.”


So there was a lot to watch. But there was no need to keep one’s hands entirely to oneself in Honolulu in the early 1970s, because if you were lonely, you could find a “date.”


And if you were stressed out, there were ways to “relax.”


And best of all, if you had to fly from Honolulu to Bangkok, or from Bangkok to Honolulu, there was no need to repress your horniness for even a minute. . .


Because TWA offered two films – “one for general audiences, one for mature.”


And when the film ended, there were hostesses in new uniforms, and that “helped.”

“Same Same But Different” Music in Thailand

I haven’t paid much attention to the Thai music scene for a while, but the other day I was looking around at recent music videos and came across the YouTube channel for GMM Grammy International, a branch of the massive Thai entertainment conglomerate, GMM Grammy.

I was surprised to find there Thai music videos that had subtitles in English, Japanese and Chinese. And there were even videos in which Thai singers said “hi” to their fans in foreign countries.


This made me think back to the early 1990s when satellite TV came to certain parts of Asia. MTV was one of the stations that you could watch then. The MTV at that time covered all of Asia, and mainly showed videos of Western music, but they did show some videos by artists in places like Japan, India, Taiwan, etc.

This was of course in the pre-email era, so viewers actually wrote letters to MTV at that time, and I remember how VJs would read some of the mail, and what was interesting was that there were people in places like India who wrote in and requested to see more of artists from places like Japan.

That was an interesting moment when it looked like some kind of new, transnational music scene would emerge. However, the business people at that time apparently felt that they could make more money by making music television less transnational.


So MTV “broke up” its Asian-wide channel and established channels that fit smaller, more culturally and linguistically homogenous markets. Channel V, another music channel that was set up in the 1990s, did the same.

This of course didn’t stop music from crossing borders. Since the “break up” of music television in Asia there has been a Japan wave and a Korean wave that has influenced popular culture in many ways in places like Southeast Asia.

However, what GMM Grammy International is doing now strikes me as something different. And it reminds me of that “transnational moment” in the early 1990s.

The above video captures the current moment well. There is a Thai girl and a Japanese boy studying English together in Thailand.

They spend time together working on a project, and they do all of the things that countless young tourists from Japan and Korean do every day in places like Bangkok: take pictures, go to a market, try local food, etc. These of course are also all the same things that young Thai travelers do when they go to places like Japan and Korea as well.

In other words, the video shows the common transnational youth culture that has emerged over the past decade or so. That common culture is the result of many things: the expansion in English teaching (note that the teacher in the video appears to be a native speaker of some language other than English), the influence of Japanese and Korean popular culture, the growth of the middle class, the emergence of budget airlines, the Internet, YouTube, plastic surgery. . . the list goes on and on.

same same

That said, the existence of this common transnational youth culture does not of course mean that Asia is becoming homogenous. But to use a Tinglish (Thai-English) phrase, I would say that it does show that at least in urban areas youth culture is now “same same but different.”

And my guess would be that it is that “same same” which is leading a company like GMM Grammy International to try reach across national borders, whereas in the early 1990s it was the “different” that led MTV and Channel V to focus on what was within national borders, even though some of their viewers at that time could clearly see the “same same” already.

Working Women and Exploitative States in Premodern Southeast Asia

As the field of Southeast Asian Studies developed (particularly in North America and Australia) in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the ideas that came to be established as a defining feature of Southeast Asia as a region was the idea that traditionally women in Southeast Asia were “better off” or “more autonomous” than women in other parts of the world, particularly in East and South Asia.

A Google search for “women in Southeast Asia,” easily brings up information which is representative of that interpretation:

“The 11 countries of Southeast Asia include over 550 million people. Despite great linguistic and cultural diversity, the region is characterized by the relatively favorable position of women in comparison with neighboring East or South Asia.

“This has been explained by several factors: traditionally, kinship was traced though both maternal and paternal lines; a daughter was not a financial burden because of the widespread practice of bride price; a married couple often lived with or near the wife’s parents; women had prominent roles in indigenous ritual; their labor was essential in agricultural [work], and they dominated local markets.

“Over time, however, the rise of centralized states and the spread of imported philosophies and religions (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity) increasingly privileged males and stressed female subordination. Although such influences were most noticeable among the elite, the strength of local traditions was always a moderating force.”


This characterization of Southeast Asia was created largely by scholars from outside the region, and by using sources that were written by people from outside the region. In particular, scholars who have tried to characterize “traditional” Southeast Asia have relied heavily on the writings of European travelers to the region, and there is a good reason for doing so.

As Anthony Reid points out in the opening passages of Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, Europeans wrote about things that people in the region did not record (like how they ate). Such things were too obvious to local people to need to write about. However, to Europeans they were interesting because they were different from what existed in their own societies.

In talking about places that were different from their own societies, early European travelers to Southeast Asia of course viewed what they saw with a certain degree of bias, and that is something which scholars in the second half of the twentieth century sought to ignore, or to “read through the lines” in order to see something closer to “the truth.”

But how do we know what is a bias and what is not?


I was thinking about this characterization of the status of women in traditional Southeast Asia and the kinds of sources that were used to create that characterization recently as I was reading a book entitled China Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, with some account of Ava and the Burmese, Siam and Anam. Published in 1853, this book was largely written by a certain Julia Corner, but the parts at the end about Burma, Siam and Annam were attributed to “a gentleman who was devoted much time to the study of China and the Indo-Chinese nations.”

This is what this gentleman had to say about women in Annam:

“. . . the women of Annam are treated with very little respect or tenderness. Provided he do not kill her outright, her husband may inflict the severest corporal punishment upon his wife without being called to any account, and without forfeiting the good opinion of his neighbors.

“The gentlemen of our mission were constantly annoyed by the cries of poor women, and by the sight of husbands publicly bambooing their wives.

“An Annamese boatman told an American trader that wives require a great deal of caning, – that nothing but the bamboo could keep them in proper discipline and order.” (327)


As far as I know, none of the “imported philosophies” of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that were part of the cultural mix of Annam/Vietnam at that time have much to say about the importance of beating women, but perhaps one could make an argument that Buddhism and Confucianism do privilege men.

However, do they do so to the extent that they could transform a society from one in which men did not beat their wives to one in which they did beat their wives?

Or perhaps no one was getting beaten, and this information about women getting caned and bambooed was simply this author’s invention and represents his bias? If that is the case, then how can we know that?


This same author also talked about the work that women did in Annam and Siam. This is what he said about Annam:

“. . . a large amount of the male population is absorbed by the army and other services of government, the women of the poorer classes have an uncommon share of hard work.

“It is, indeed, often said, that in this country the labor of the women supports the men. They plough, harrow, reap, and carry heaven burdens; and they are also shopkeepers, pedlers, brokers, and money-changers.” (328)

And this is what the author wrote about Siam:

“Like the women of the poor in Cochin-China, the poor females in Siam perform all manner of hard labor, and for the same reason – so many of the men are taken from their own work by the heavy military conscription. They row the boats, carry burdens, plough, sow, and harrow.” (387)


From these passages it is clear that women’s labor was “essential” for agriculture, and we can get a sense that they “dominated” the markets, but this author did not describe that fact in positive terms.

Instead, from his perspective the fact that women were working in the fields and trying to make money in the market was connected to the fact that they were living in a society where their husbands were being exploited by the state, and could not support their families.

So from that perspective, can we say that the centralized states of Siam and Annam were privileging men and suppressing women? Or would it be more accurate to say that these states suppressed poor men and left poor women to find their own means to survive?


To be fair, many scholars today (particularly those who have long studied this matter) realize that the lives of women in premodern Southeast Asia were not as rosy as they were originally depicted by scholars in the second half of the twentieth century.

However, when I read passages like the ones above, I continue to feel that the way we write about the past today is still much too “favorable.”

Many societies in the past (all over the world) were oppressive and exploitative. That, however, is a point which, scholars in the second half of the twentieth century downplayed. Writing in the immediate post-colonial era, scholars were eager to return some dignity to people in Southeast Asia by characterizing Southeast Asian societies differently from the ways that some colonial-era scholars had done – that is, by emphasizing the “strengths” of Southeast Asian societies, rather than their “weaknesses.”

Women were seen as one of the strengths of Southeast Asian societies. But perhaps in reality their “favorable position” had a lot to do with the weaknesses of Southeast Asian states.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always good to go back to the sources that scholars base their arguments on and rethink the issues that they talked about.

Beautiful Saigon, Cambodian Girls and Cathay Pacific Airlines

There is a very famous Vietnamese song from the 1960s written by Y Vân called “Saigon is Beautiful” (Sài Gòn đẹp lắm). I remember being in Bangkok a few years ago and hearing a Thai version of this song when I was in a restaurant or a taxi or someplace like that (and a reader wrote a while ago that her heard the Thai version once on Internet radio).

At the time I thought it was interesting that a Vietnamese song had been recorded by someone outside of Vietnam.

Today I was listening to some clips of songs that are being digitized by The Cambodian Vintage Music Archive and there is one by the late great Cambodian singer, Sinn Sisamouth, called “Girls Today” (Srey Srey Elov) from 1970 that is clearly inspired by “Saigon is Beautiful.” However, Sinn Sisamouth gives it a distinctly Cambodian flavor.

Finally, I found that Hong Kong singer, Frances Yip (葉麗儀), recorded a version of “Saigon is Beautiful” in 1974. This version of the song was apparently used by Cathay Pacific Airlines for promotional purposes.

It’s fascinating to see the international life that this song had.

If anyone can locate the Thai version of this song, please let me know.

The Absence of the Kwien in 1914 Chiang Mai

I was reading a book from 1914 called the Directory for Bangkok and Siam. Intended as a guidebook for foreign businessmen, this book contains a lot of practical information about Siam, and it also contains a lot of statistics.
It has, for instances, statistics about the number of vehicles of different kinds in the country.
In 1914 the main means of transportation on land was a bullock-cart called a kwien.
kwien picture
At the same time, the prevalence of rivers and canals in the central part of the country meant that boats were an effective way to travel as well.
It is thus not surprising to see that there were a lot of small boats in use in 1914.
In comparing the use of kwien and small boats, as one might expect, we can see that small boats were more numerous around Bangkok, whereas kwien were more numerous in places like the northeast.
Kwien & small boats
When I mapped this data out, however, I was surprised to see that there were not many kwien in the north.
Kwien & small boats map
Looking at the statistics for the number of bullocks in the country, I saw that there were over 300,000 in the north (Bayap) and over 800,000 in the northeast (Isan). . .
. . . which when projected onto a map looks something like this:
bullock map
In terms of population, however, there were only about 200,000 more people living in the northeast, as compared to the north.
So the north and the northeast were two of the most populous areas. . .
pop heatmap
. . . and yet there were many more kwien in the northeast.
W. A. Graham wrote about the kwien in his 1913 work, Siam: A Handbook of Practical, Commercial, and Political Information. He surmised that the kwien was probably of Cambodian origin as it was “found all through that country and Siam, though apparently unknown in the Shan States or Burma” (pg. 311).
That may be the case, but it seems odd that it never caught on in the area around Chiang Mai. The statistics in the Directory for Bangkok and Siam suggests that people didn’t really use vehicles of any type in the Chiang Mai region.
At the same time, they had by far the largest number of elephants in the country, but not enough for common people to possess them.
So how did people transport goods in and around Chiang Mai?