COFFEE DEMAND IN YALA AND THE SOUTHERN BORDER: THREE CUPS OF COFFEE
I became interested in Yala coffee after coming across the website of Kirikhet Café, which said that coffee first entered Yala in the form of Arabica coffee beans and a drink of Sufi priests from Yemen over a thousand years ago when the Arab world and the Nusantara world, encompassing the ancient Kingdom of Patani, were connected through trade, religion and civilization. Coffee was regarded as medicine and a sacred drink for religious ceremonies. Later, the coffee’s popularity spread to various ethnic groups in the Malay Peninsula, not just to Muslims. “…the practice of placing coffee over the tombs of Sufi priests was integrated into the ancestor worshipping ceremony of the Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist. The symbol of Sufism was revered, accepted and transformed into a local deity that brings good fortune, prosperity and protection against all perils. Today, this belief has evolved into the offering of kopi (coffee) to great-grandfather Toni in the three southern provinces of Thailand, to Dato Kong for the Chinese and Hindus in Malaysia, Singapore, and to Niekta in Cambodia. This is a perfect brew of cultures through coffee, blending people from different beliefs and traditions.”
The expansion of coffee consumption in the southern border provinces of Thailand
Such an interesting story would remain simply an anecdote from the past were it not integrated into the current socio-economic context, which is an important factor in bringing the history of Yala coffee back to life.
The society of the southern border provinces today sees a marked increase in coffee consumption. New coffee shops have sprung up like mushrooms and become new meeting places alongside the old teahouses. Coffee consumption expands horizontally and vertically thanks to various elements in the coffee culture. Many people, especially the younger generations, enjoy procuring and trying new coffee beans from different places. Local baristas, such as one at Onyx in the Pattani City, are constantly inventing new drinks for consumers. Based on participatory observations and decades of experience in the area, I would like to divide the story of coffee culture in the area into three parts.
That cup of coffee in a hipsters’ hands
The coffee culture seen in Yala involves outdoor activities, especially camping, both by the sea and in the mountains. A camping night becomes an occasion where campers bring their own coffee beans to grind and brew for others to enjoy, along with rich conversations among friends. What’s interesting is that quite a few campers are seen as “kings of secondhand fashion.” It is not surprising that many markets in the southern border provinces are central to the coffee culture because the fashion kings can find rare second-hand clothes and shoes at a cheap price. The ability to find such gems, as well as the ability to “mix and match” them to perfectly compliment the wearers’ styles, is a skill lauded by coffee drinkers.
Of course, the main fashion arenas are inevitably cafes in the city and camping grounds.
The vehicles of the members of this cultural community can also represent their identity and taste. Old cars and second-hand vans are converted into motor homes or semi-motor homes to satisfy personal preferences, as a hobby and as a means of transportation for large families and friends who like to take road trips and carry around outdoor and camping gear. Lately, this kind of activity has become more common in the southern border provinces. For example, in Pattani, motor homes have been turned into coffee shops, situated on the side of the road with camping gear as seats.
This cultural community is based on people’s tastes and hobbies, so there are no restrictions on race, religion or even citizenship. This culture cuts across all existing boundaries. Based on my interpretation, the purpose of many activities of people in this community is to “go out” and connect themselves to the world while maintaining their identities. “Going out” is, therefore, not an escape from one’s culture, but rather a way to “mix and match” just like when they choose to dress in second-hand clothes to emphasize their “coolness” and declare their territories for the world to see. I call all these specific characteristics of this cultural community as the “Malay Hipster Culture.”
Coffee and the consumption of coffee, as cultural elements, share the same new meaning: going out, connecting, and mixing and matching your original identities with the world. In this sense, coffee in the southern border provinces takes on a new importance that differs from the historical anecdote introduced earlier.
Coffee shops in gas stations
The second interesting part is the expansion of many gas station coffee shops, led by Cafe Amazon in PTT gas stations to serve consumers from inside and outside of the municipalities across the southern border provinces. I found that many people use gas station coffee shops as meeting points for both work and light conversations. Particularly in the outskirts of the city, gas station coffee shops have replaced traditional teahouses as a meeting place. People from all walks of life frequent this new genre of coffee shops, from local politicians and leaders, religious leaders, and teenagers. In addition, almost all gas stations have provided places of worship for customers. Some even built majestic mosques to serve new lifestyle demand: people come to pray and converse over a tea. For some people, instead of going to a teahouse, they simply head straight to a gas station coffee shop. This utilization of gas station spaces not only caters to passers-by from far away, but also the surrounding communities.
Many gas station cafés in this area are therefore more crowded than in other regions. It is not hard to find an acquaintance sipping a coffee in a gas station coffee shop, or to find yourself being dragged into a conversation that may last for hours.
Once, during a trip to Hat Yai after I concluded a focus group discussion in Chana District, I stopped to buy coffee at the Amazon Cafe in the PTT gas station at the Nok Khao intersection. Then I happened to meet 4-5 participants from the above-mentioned focus group continuing the discussion, given that there were some questions that had been left unanswered since they did not have the time to express their opinions as much as they wanted. When they saw me, they invited me into the coffee circle and we talked for more than an hour, giving me all the information I needed. One more thing that I discovered is that although almost every gas station cafe is a gathering place, the location of the gas station affects how people express themselves. In this accident conversation, the participants felt safer and freer to express themselves. I assumed that, although there are quite a few cafe Amazon outlets in the city, the gas station cafes are often located along the main roads a little bit “far from the city,” which makes people feel more private, much like a personal space in their regular local coffee shop or teahouse in the city.
My experience with the gas station coffee shop taught me that if I want to distance myself from the crowd, I should go to a less crowded gas station. Bangchak gas station café “Inthanin” is always the first choice in my mind but sometimes I meet acquaintances anyway. Once while I was traveling from Pattani to Hat Yai, I turned right past the Don Yang intersection and on the left-hand side lined a number of gas stations. That day I avoided the Amazon Cafe in the PTT gas station because that branch was large and popular with a prayer building. I chose the Bangchak gas station and went straight to the Inthanin coffee shop. The method of choosing a coffee shop as mentioned above seems to be a well-known secret because I met two academic friends who were traveling to Satun and chose to take a break at Inthanin café for the same reason as me. The two friends were sipping coffee and planning a curriculum, and it was expected that their conversation would drag on until they drove to Satun.
The growth of coffee shops and the urbanization of Yala
The third part is where I pay special attention as it involves the supply of coffee in the area, the topic that will be discussed in the next chapter. The demand for coffee and the emergence of new coffee shops seems to be in line with the urbanization and demographic dynamics. Rakchat Suwan, or Kook, president of the Civil Society Council of the Southernmost Thailand, who has lived and observed the life of Yala for a long time, provided interesting insights. He said that the emergence of universities in Yala was a factor that prompted people in the area and outside to open shops, leading to business boom. Originally, the Chinese-Thai own most of the businesses in the area and like to send their children to study elsewhere. Over time, more and more of these Chinese and Thai Buddhist descendants left the area to pursue higher education and work outside their hometown and decided not to return, in contrast to the Malay people from the southern border provinces who choose to enter Yala for economic reasons. A prime example is the house rental business. Most Chinese-Thais are property owners but as their children do not return home and nobody takes care of the assets, they rent the property to Malays.
This demographic change is related to the pattern of coffee shop emergence. The original coffee shops called Kopi shops are owned by the Chinese-Thai who hire the Malay to manage the business for them. However, the number of traditional kopi shops has greatly dwindled and the regular customers tend to be older. The change has nothing to do with differences in customer identities because the kopi shops that still exist have welcomed both Chinese, Thai and Malay customers. Not just coffee shops, other businesses are also adjusting to meet demographic changes. For example, many dim sum restaurants have begun to adopt halal standards to welcome more Malay Muslim customers. The breakfast tradition in Yala reflects the adaptation of businesses that wish to find a balance between the Chinese-Thai and Malay even though many of these traditional kopi restaurants have perished.
The decline in kopi shops is associated with another demographic variable, the age range. Kook said that “There are fewer customers (of Kopi shops). The new generations do not come in because these shops are not their style.” But the type of shop that grows against these odds is a freshly brewed coffee café. We have also found a modern coffee shop in Yala may attract not only teenagers but also a wider range of people. People of all identities frequent modern coffee shops just like they do to traditional kopi shops, but the decision to “glue oneself to a seat” in a cafe is influenced by the age range and purpose of visit of each customer. We find that some modern coffee shops have their own personalities. Under these conditions, Kook has classified modern coffee shops in Yala City into three major groups, namely formal coffee shops, teen coffee shops, and niche coffee shops. For example, customers who want a place to work or have a business conversation often choose “Kiri Khet Cafe” or “Chao Doi Cafe.” “Camel Tea Cafe” is known as a headquarters of Liverpool fans in Yala, for example.
Hearing this information, I feel like wearing a Manchester United shirt and walk into the Camel Tea Café, sit there and ridicule the defeat of ‘Liverpool.’ I believe there will be many occasions for me.
And the fact that Kook chose Khiri Khet Café as a meeting place for our discussion indicates a few of those social implications: (1) the purpose of the meeting, which is a research interview that requires a formal setting, and (2) the age range and maturity of interlocutors. In my opinion, the decoration and atmosphere of the café is somewhat attractive to the younger generations, such as the rooftop terrace overlooking the mountains and Yala city, ideal for teenagers who like to snap some nice shots of the city, but these young people will not spend much time in the café and will leave when they are done clicking. At the same time, the layout of the café provides many corners suitable for quiet conversations for middle-aged and older customers, who like to sit and exchange words for a long time.
The aforementioned growth of modern coffee shops in Yala is happening against the backdrop of the rapidly changing urban context, including the installation of free wifi towers in the municipality zone, the transformation of old markets into tourist attractions, and the municipality’s policy of providing city bikes service for tourists to cycle around the city, etc. This context facilitates the expansion not only of the coffee shop business, but also the artistic activities that Yala City Municipality promotes. This urban context corresponds to the current wave of population change that differs considerably from the past. Kook found that a handful of the younger generation of Chinese-Thai did not migrate to seek higher education and career opportunities as others did, but they continued their family businesses, particularly, hotel businesses and phone shops. Some members of the new generation of the Chinese-Thai also play a role in the provincial chamber of commerce, and many have teamed up to create spaces for street art and sports in public areas, thus expanding the common space of the community, connecting hundreds of people. This dynamic is reinforced by the recent “return of the Chinese-Thai to their homeland,” especially after Covid-19 hit Thailand. Since the economic prosperity and employment opportunities of the country are centralized in Bangkok, the current economic downturn means that many people have lost their jobs and decided to return to their homeland because at least they have basic necessities, and even businesses they inherit from their parents. The new generation of the Chinese-Thai who ventured outside is also affected by the depressing economy. Many of these Chinese-Thai teenagers decided to come back to do business at home in Yala because nowadays the area has access to the online system and is fairly modernized.
The urban development context of Yala seen through the expansion of modern coffee shops presents both opportunities and challenges. On the challenging side, Kook is concerned that although the current situation has made the younger generation, including Chinese-Thai youths, see opportunities to conduct business and develop their home cities, such outcomes may be due to temporary economic constraints in the capital and will not be sustainable. If the overall economy of the country recovers, these young people may return to Bangkok. Kook sees that this scenario could happen because in his view, the economic lifestyle and ambition of these new generations is not to continue their family businesses, but to pursue a career that is consistent with their field of study, interests, and skills they possess, but these skills might not be useful in their hometown, or the wages might not be high enough to meet their expectation. In summary, a major challenge for the Yala City (and the urban areas in the other two provinces in the Southernmost Thailand) is that the career market is not diversified enough to accommodate a wide range of high-skilled people. In comparison, the job markets in Bangkok and other large cities outside the southern border provinces are wider and more in line with their dreams.
Regarding development opportunities, Yala, and particularly in the city, has a self-reliant economy. People here have a higher purchasing power compared to those in the two other southern border provinces, Pattani and Narathiwat. The wealthy Chinese-Thai and civil servants are the key drivers. The strength of the latter group lies in their stable income and the fact that Yala is designated as the administrative center for the southernmost provinces. The socio-economic developments and the state policies mentioned earlier have led to an important demographic outcome. As Kook said, “There are fewer and fewer Yala-born people in the area. At the moment, we are seeing mostly outsiders (civil servants from other provinces and economic migrants from nearby areas – researcher’s opinion). The current Yala urban population is very mixed.” This is a general characteristic of any urban city. Under these conditions, Yala is positioned as a large market in the southern border provinces, not as a fresh market, a wholesale market, an old market or any market physically, but in a socio-economic sense that makes the whole Yala city a marketplace. Yala is a center for people with high purchasing power who are ready to consume products from all directions, not only coffee but also many other food and beverages that will be discussed in the next chapter.
Focus group discussion
Rakchat S., President of the Civil Society Council of the Southernmost Thailand. Kirikhet Coffee
Shop, February 19, 2021.
Duangdee S., Kitikhet manager and representatives of SAP (Southern agriculture product) coffee entrepreneurs. Phone call interview. February 19, 2021.
“The birth of Kirikhet Yala Coffee,” Kirikhet (online), accessed on June 30, 2021 on https://www.kirikhet.com/aboutus.
This story is the fourth of mini series on “Food Dialogue for Social Cohesion” written by Mr. Arthit Thongin as a part of the independent research under the Southern Thailand Social Innovation Platform initiated by UNDP.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or the UN Member States.”