It is the unequal distribution of geographical and climatic features and resources that are at the heart of uneven development in the past and, consequently, that helps to structure markets and processes that have led to some regions becoming wealthier and some poorer than others. These differential distributions are not fixed in time or in place: new resources can be found and old ones depleted, climatic changes make some places more attractive and others less and so forth. Effects are reinforced or undermined in the course of time, which is one reason why we can find now deserted settlements across the Mekong region and others which are growing rapidly.
In James McCarthy’s description of his time surveying and exploring in Siam, from 1881-93, he provides plenty of evidence for how these processes took place in the country. For example, his description of Nan shows how and why it is growing:
“The rice-fields are cultivated to their full extent, there being an excellent system of irrigation, which is not allowed to fall into decay. Advantage was taken of a large swamp, and by piling earth in a circle a reservoir was formed, which supplies hundreds of acres of rice-fields, the soil being particularly productive. According to a simple calculation, the number of men and women who annually contribute rice to the common store in the city is 60,000 (p.80).”
Meanwhile, other sites were decaying or at least failing to grow owing to the nature of the local conditions (of the route from Luang Prabang to Uttaradit):
“There was no drainage whatever, and after a shower the effluvia were so heavy that one fancied them settling like a log. The fevers contracted are not of the ordinary type; violent retching comes on, and the patients sink and die. In some cases in less than twelve hours the disease has done its work. It was not uncommon for a man to be perfectly healthy in the evening, seized by a fever during the night, and a corpse the next morning. Some go perfectly mad. The Chinese seemed to have a great dread of the place during the rainy season; not a single Chinaman would remain. The traders came from Nawng Khai and Pichai during the dry season, but were off before the rainy season (p.73).”
The presence of foreigners is crucial because of their role in promoting foreign trade in local markets. McCarthy provides this vignette of the market at Luang Prabang:
“The market place of Luang Prabang was rather crowded in the mornings, and it was interesting to stroll through the strange medley of men and women bartering and chaffering in their different jargons.
Rupees were not exclusively used as money, but were melted down, and entered largely into the manufacture of the numerous articles executed in handsome designs by the Lao. These comprised cylindrical boxes, basins, mak sets (for the usual betel and areca nut), and handles for daggers and knives.
There were more than twenty Burmans resident in Luang Prabang, and their headman had been over twenty years settled in the town. They carried on a trade with Maulmein in gum-benjamin, raw silk, indigo, wax, and cardamoms.
Raw silk, of excellent quality, was once plentiful all over the province. Improvement was required chiefly in the winding of the silk from the cocoons as the method adopted produced coarse and knotted threads (pp.60-2).”
Then as now, therefore, the presence of thriving markets provided positive externalities to local people and organizations. At its most basic, this represents revenue raising possibilities for local authorities in taxation and for local service providers in offering food and accommodation for travelling merchants. Perhaps more important, though, was the interaction between traders and local artisans (often as part of the untraded sector) which led to the spread of technology, skills and knowledge, all of which contribute to increased productivity (both in terms of the range and number of goods produced) and this in turn leads to an aggregate increase in income and standards of living. A settlement with decent living conditions and a settled agricultural base and in a location that draws merchants is well on the way to becoming a town or a city.