Intern Pim Seubsaeng, a recent graduate of Chiang Mai University, tackles her first opinion piece, the drama that is unfolding online and in meeting halls all over the city over the use of Tha Pae Gate.
Chiang Mai prides itself as a historical city, and at 720 years, it is one of the oldest constantly inhabited cities in Thailand. The old square mile moat has five gates, with the most well-known, and distinctive one being Tha Pae Gate, the only gate which still has a door…even though the latest version is less than 30 years old. The public square in front of Tha Pae has long been used for public events and the area was the first to have been developed, as tourists began to pour into the city three decades ago. Many urban shops flourish around Tha Pae Gate with Tha Pae Road leading from the Governor’s Residence by the river straight to the iconic gate.
Today Tha Pae Gate is constantly abuzz with tourists and vendors. Especially on Sunday nights when The Sunday Walking Street occurs and over 30,000 people descend to wander, eat, drink and shop. On the crowded street filled with shops, handmade arts and craft, as well as local food and snacks are on sale by hundreds of vendors. Live bands are performed, local festivals held here and on any given day or night there is usually some sort of public activity going on in the square.
Its popularity has led to traffic congestion and unruly and haphazard stalls, signs, vendors, and shops operating in the area. Much of this is illegal, as the area is public property, managed by the municipality.
In November last year, following protests by many activists, authorities began to clean up Tha Pae Gate, a sign was erected announcing “This area is state property and ancient. Do not trespass”, hundreds of vendors were told to clear out, no longer to sell their wares. Wires were buried, the area cleared of detritus, and the square became a peaceful meeting point with tourists cooling under the shade, feeding pigeons, and watching the world go by. Activists were happy that the public space was returned to the public and the gate now restored to its old(ish) glory.
The past month, however, have seen vendors come out in protest. Many of these vendors have said that for ten years they have been earning their livelihoods at Tha Pae Gate each Sunday, with income going directly to the 900 families which depend on them. The vendors raised enough of an outcry that they have garnered significant support from sections of the Chiang Mai community who believe that they should be allowed to use the space and beg authorities to show compassion to them.
Recently the governor held a meeting with the mayor, the army and relevant parties to solve this issue. It was agreed that 264 vendors would be allowed to return to the Sunday market as long as they fit into the Retro Market theme. Further conditions that they must have a Thai ID card, be registered as a Chiang Mai resident, be a taxpayer, and be registered at the Chiang Mai Municipality.
On May 23rd, after being suspended for six months, it was announced that the Sunday vendors are scheduled to start up again on the 2nd Sunday of June.
The governor has allocated 40 percent for public use and 60 percent for vendors only on Sunday evenings.
I am in two minds about this decision. Having visited markets in Korea and Japan where vendors are well organised, placed in a way which does not obscure the scenery, have high hygiene standards and do not cause traffic problems, I see the benefits of such a market. On the other hand, I also agree with protesters who say that the vendors should simply go and join the other vendors at the Sunday Walking Street and leave the area uncluttered.
I think that Chiang Mai people should collaborate to have a better social organisation. We should not sacrifice an important and historic place like Tha Pae Gate for only a handful of people. It is not only to keep the city’s charm preserved for future generations, but also to keep its history, identity and culture intact for us and our many visitors.