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Urban and Rural Thailand

On Thursday, 18 April 2019, Professor Jonathan Rigg from Bristol University gave a FASS seminar entitled 'More than Urban: Viewing Urban Poverty Through a Rural Lens', in which he discussed the transition from rural to urban living in Thailand.

If Thailand were following the expected developmental route found in western countries, one would expect people to be moving from the countryside to the cities, and the size of farms should be increasing. But this does not seem to be happening.


If we look at the period from 1980 till 1995, a time of huge expansion in the Thai economy, we see that there was only a small decrease in the proportion of people who claimed to be living in the countryside. Why? Is the data flawed in some way?


United States: Farm-size transition, 1850-2015


Thailand: Farm-size transition, 1960-2013

If we compare the trends for the number of people living in the countryside (blue bars) and the size of farms (orange lines) in the United States with those of Thailand, we find contrasting patterns: the number of rural dwellers in Thailand is not decreasing, and the size of farms is not increasing.

There are two basic reasons for this: in Thailand, industrial development is often interspersed with rice fields, so people do not need to leave the countryside in order to work in factories; and people in Thailand tend to cling on to their land, as somewhere to retreat to in a time of crisis, so they do not sell their land to allow farms to become larger.

Rural housing in Thailand, 1982


Rural housing in Thailand, 1994


Rural housing in Thailand, 2008

The standard of housing has certainly developed between 1982 and 2008, but much of the income for rural dwellers now comes from those who work nearby and from the remittances of young people who have moved to the cities.