The story begins in 1977, when the first tour buses in Chiang Mai began picking up and dropping off tourists to and from one of Chiang Mai’s few hotels, the Chiang Inn, on Chang Klan Road. Entrepreneurial vendors, mainly from crafts outlets in Sankampaeng, saw an opportunity to peddle their wares to tourists returning to their hotel after a day’s elephant riding or sightseeing. Business was good and the vendors settled in, expanding their terrain into the Chor Fah School – where the current Night Bazaar building now stands – which was owned by the Chinese Business Association. Over the years, as trade grew brisker, and more tourists descended, the canny association decided to lease out the land to developers, turning it into what is now known as the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, moving the school out of town (the thirty year contract will expire in a couple of years). In those days there were no foot paths, no municipality involvement, no mafia. The developers built the structure and rented space to businesses who in turned plied their handicraft products and wares to the ever-growing number of tourists.
It didn’t take long for the Night Bazaar to become Chiang Mai’s number one icon.
As trade grew, investors piled in money with five major landowners laying claim to vast tracts of land: along with the association’s Night Bazaar building, the Kalare Night Bazaar was built on the current location of Le Meridien hotel in the late 1980s (since moved to the opposite side of the road to the Night Bazaar), Anusarn Market expanded in the early 1990s to attract food outlets, the Pavilion (where McDonald’s is located) was built in 1995 and more recently the Chiang Inn Plaza opened its doors to much fanfare.
The salad days for the Night Bazaar was when Chiang Mai invested in infrastructure as well as international marketing in preparation for the SEA Games in 1995, attracting up to 1000 business operators and 800 stalls and pavement vendors at any given night. Bussaba Yodbangtoey was Lady Mayor and it was at this time when she first changed municipality laws to allow concessions for pavement vendors. Long term residents of Chiang Mai still shudder at the memory of those days when the lady mayor’s husband and his soldier friends from Bangkok, took over the concession and began to create an atmosphere of terror for many vendors and business operators in the area: demanding tea money, vast concession fees and regularly using intimidation tactics. Legitimate business owners and investors grouped together to ask for help from the national police, and in 1996 a massive sting operation was conducted to wipe out all the mafia with those accused currently going through their last battles in the supreme court (one of those charged has since been issued the death penalty – and received the Royal Pardon, commuted to life sentence – due to his assassination of a governor of Yasothorn).
While the Night Bazaar has thankfully been cleared of major mafia ties, with the staggering sum of money trading hands each night, smaller interest groups have since emerged: corrupt municipal officials demanding vendor concession fees, families and friends of the accused mafia who now claim pavement space and rent anywhere up to 60 trolleys to illegal immigrant vendors (more than 50% are not Thai nationals) which leads to the immigration police having to be paid off to allow this practice to continue, then there are the police who take tea money while turning a blind eye to fake goods, the tourist police and their interests…the list goes on. A new, perhaps smaller scale, but no less insidious system organically emerged with those with influence, cunning or simple luck managing to grab a variety of slices of the Night Bazaar pie.
Today the Tessakij department at the municipality oversee all things Night Bazaar. Legally, trolley vendors are allowed to operate by registering and paying a nominal fee to the municipality and for legitimate business operators, it is business as usual.
Or so you would think…
With the advent of the Saturday and Sunday walking streets, the low tourist numbers and the sluggish economy, Chiang Mai’s stalwart icon, is slowly dying a painful death. Another factor affecting the Night Bazaar is the fact that tour guides do not receive a commission from taking tourists there (some business operators pay up to 800 baht commission per head, while many shops offer up to 35% commission on sales), this is something that all operators, vendors and business owners alike, have had to take on the chin.
“We don’t mind suffering like any other business would when affected by outside elements such as world economy or fair competition,” said one long term business owner who has asked not to be named, “but we want to fix what we can and right now the major problem is the pavement trolleys. They are not only very ugly, they funnel people into the sidewalk channel, creating a stifling shopping atmosphere and strangling trade for fully legitimate business owners, those who rent space, who pay taxes and social security and who actually hire security personnel to look out for theft and pickpockets. Tourists seem to think that it is cheaper to buy products from the pavement vendors, but that is simply not true. What these vendors don’t quite understand is that if we are all strangled to death by them, then there would be no Night Bazaar for them either. We want to work with them to solve this problem, but the owners of the trolleys are not farsighted and refuse to open a dialogue.”
Earlier this year the owners of the vending trolleys, seeing their profits leak to the walking streets, lobbied to have a Night Bazaar weekend walking street, hoping to face their trolleys towards the road to attract larger crowds. This news was greeted well by all involved – though vociferously protested against by the regular walking street vendors – and for four weekends in August trade was brisk. Business operators within the five mall and building structures, fearing lack of walk-ins from the main road, received permission from Tessakij to set up back to back stalls in the middle of the road, something unanticipated by the vending trolleys. The owners of the trolleys were not pleased by this competition and picketed in front of the municipality forcing their hand to temporarily shut down the project – ironic, since they instigated it in the first place. This has led to the Night Bazaar’s latest battle: vending trolley and established business operators.
“The business operators want to kick out all of the trolleys,” said Nid, who owns a clothes stall at the Night Bazaar as well as the Sunday Walking Street, and whose sentiments have been echoed by many vendors interviewed. “The guy I rent the trolley from and all my fellow vendors have been told that the big business owners want to get rid of all of us.”
“This is simply untrue,” said a businesswoman who has owned a handicraft shop in Chiang Inn Plaza for many years. “We have categorically stated that we want to work with the trolley vendors, they are also good for the Night Bazaar. All we want to do is organise them better so that they don’t block access to our shops, perhaps find more attractive looking trolleys to replace these ugly gray and plastic ones, even try to work out more competitive pricing so that they too can move into any number of empty lots available for rent. We just want to be given a fair chance to do business too, because right now, people are locked into the pavement by all the vendors and hardly any shoppers venture into our businesses.”
A leaflet war has been waging over the past two months with angry trolley vendors who have received false information from trolley owners spreading word of the imminent forced shutdown of pavement vendors. Threatened interest groups such as business operators of the Night Bazaar have also pleaded their case in a large five page document calling for dialogue and Saturday and Sunday walking street vendors have been arguing their points with thousands of leaflets handed out each weekend.
“The fact is that we are all dying right now,” said another long term business man in Kalare Night Bazaar who refuses to be named. “The last three years have been terrible, and we project that if nothing is changed then the Night Bazaar will be officially dead in less than two years. We are not threatened by the walking streets because their clientele is more Thai, while we have always attracted foreign tourists; we are not too stressed about the world economy as we believe it will get better. We lay the blame on the vending trolley owners who refuse to work with us to the benefit of everyone. They are anti change, anti difficulty. The trolley operators cause so many problems including the daily chaos on the streets between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when they set up their stalls, dragging their trolleys down the roads. The value of the Night Bazaar is degrading. A 1.8 metre shop front at Warorot Market can charge a concession fee of 900,000 baht or more, even five years ago, you would have had to pay 700-800,000 baht for the same size shop front at the Night Bazaar. Today, you can get one for less than 200,000 baht. One of the problems is that there is a lot of dissemination of information, mainly false, which is causing confusion. During the Thaksin Shinawatra government, banks were told that they could lend up to 50,000 baht to someone who operates a vending trolley, using their trolley as collateral. Some of them now think that they actually own the pavement space they are on. This makes it hard to talk about redesigning the entire area to benefit everyone.”
“I think this is simply a drop of honey in a bees’ nest of issues,” said a rather poetic Decha Pooplap, head of the Tessakij Department of the municipality, in charge of cleanliness, security and stability, whose purview encompasses ongoing issues at the Night Bazaar. “All they need to do is sit down to talk; the problem they are complaining about is not great. The real problem is what is affecting everyone – the economy, the political situation. We want to act, but we don’t want to upset anyone. Each side needs to sympathise with the other. I feel for the businesses blocked off by the trolleys – I call them tanks – but the businesses must also understand that the tanks are so much more convenient for the vendors as they can keep them locked up and safe and a whole new industry has arisen to safe-keep tanks, to set them up and close them down. All the vendors have to do is turn up and sell. It is so much more convenient for them than having to carry their wares to place on a mat or table each day.”
Lord Mayor Tassanai Buranupakorn has, surprisingly, publically announced his intentions to sort out this mess. And in order to give him the tools to do so, 300 business operators have clubbed together and filed a lawsuit against illegal vending trolleys. Their intention to give the municipality power to not cave into picketing and to step up and act as arbiter between the different groups. “We couldn’t get the message across to them that we need them as much as they need us. We need to work together, so we need to go through the proper channels now and hope that the authorities will step in and help us all,” said the businesswoman from Chiang Inn Plaza.
“I agree with the law suit, it will give us at the municipality a key to tackle this issue,” added Decha.
It is estimated that over 60% of businesses within the five big projects have since closed shop.
The outlook is not rosy for Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar. However, many of those involved appear to have high hopes that the new mayor will keep his promise and try to help ease the situation. Should the economy gain strength and tourists return, vendors reorganised into a system which does not hamper other business interest, tea money officials clamped down upon and perhaps the entire area made to be more attractive, a revival is possible.
The story of the Night Bazaar has not ended yet and there is still hope for many who ply their trade nightly of a happily ever after.
[Ed. Because of the delicate and complex nature of issues facing the Night Bazaar and those involved with it, all those interviewed, except for the municipal official, have asked to remain anonymous.]