BANGKOK — IN the heart of Bangkok, there is a place where the morning rush begins at 2 a.m., where people from the countryside come to stock their food carts, where farmers sell to urban consumers and merchants peddle goods ranging from Chinese herbal medicine to color TVs.
The messy but thriving Khlong Toey market is the city's largest and most varied fresh-food marketplace. Here, anything from green papayas to free-range chickens, from eels to cooked insects, can be purchased - wholesale or retail.
But the market's prime location has thrown its future into question. Rising property values have prompted talk of building a commercial complex on the site, which is among the largest "undeveloped" areas in the city.
The debate over the market's future is one that is repeating itself throughout Thailand as fast-paced development collides with traditional ways of life.
Surging economic growth has changed the face of Bangkok in the last 30 years.
Thailand's capital has exploded to five times its 1968 size. Other outdoor markets around the city are eroding or facing eviction threats of their own as development alters residential and traffic patterns.
In the case of the Khlong Toey market, the Port Authority of Thailand which owns the land, is keeping its intentions close to the vest. But the authority's 1994 decision to stop renewing long-term leases for merchants, and occasional reports that a shopping mall is on the way, alarm market organizers.
The authority's public relations office insists there are no current plans to develop the area, and that modernizing is the first priority of the recently appointed directors. But an official at the authority, who requested anonymity, said the body would like to use the area "more efficiently," perhaps for hotel, office, or retail space, and that money has been budgeted for a feasibility study of a range of land-use options. Some space is likely to be reserved for the market, he said, although merchants might have to move from the sprawling outdoor space to a modern multistory building.
To those fighting to save the market, the issue is foremost an economic one. Douglas Lucius, an urban planner who has studied the market at length, points to its value to Bangkok's low-income community: Nearby slum residents depend on it as a cheap source of food, and farmers are able avoid the middle man by selling directly.
Mr. Lucius's research was commissioned by the Duang Prateep Foundation, a local group assisting the slum neighborhood. He maintains that the market is an important "social elevator" because it allows uneducated migrants from the countryside into the thriving informal sector to buy food in its roughest form and save money.
According to Lucius's survey, the market sustains 2,500 businesses and employs about 9,000 people.
Other critics of the pattern of Bangkok's development also argue that markets like Khlong Toey give life to the city and are a part of Thai culture that should not disappear to make way for more air-conditioned shopping malls.
"If we let every fresh-food market die, what will happen to the way of life?" asks Chaiwat Thirapantu of Bangkok Forum, a group that aims to make the city more livable and foster greater public involvement in charting the city's future. He worries that many of the street vendors that provide cheap, fresh food may disappear if the market is forced out.
Mr. Chaiwat also notes that Bangkok already has lost some of its distinct communities. Chinatown, for example, was a vivid place with theaters contributing to an active nightlife. Now many of the merchants have moved farther out and commute to their shops, he says.
Several urban planners say that persuading the government to stop a high-rise that will obstruct a famous temple has been easier than attempting to preserve old communities, stop water-transport canals from being filled in, or safeguarding other elements of traditional Thai society.
Suwattana Thadaniti, an assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Department at Chulalongkorn University, argues that too frequently the government's first step in developing an area has been to kick out the local people.
Apichat Wongkaew, another urban planner, agrees. He says, for the most part, development decisions in Bangkok have been driven by questions of profit, rather than following principles of good planning. And he says that the pattern of unplanned development is being repeated around the country. Organizations like the planning association he launched have been too weak to have much effect, but are starting to have a little more influence, he said.
At the Khlong Toey market, the merchants are starting to organize, and local nongovernmental organizations have begun trying to get attention before it is too late to stop the wheels of development. Santi Ngow, a member of the market's managing committee, says the merchants will stage demonstrations if the Port Authority insists they move. A multistory building is unacceptable, he insists, saying that the indoor air will not be good for the merchants and that a big building would shatter the market's culture.
Mr. Apichat, the planner, suggests that for the moment, both sides have taken extreme positions and that the market may need to make some compromises, such as keeping the area cleaner. It is unlikely that the merchants will be able to stop the development entirely, he says, but they may be able to influence the scale of the complex and the type of development.