Smoke from burning firewood and the steam of salt from stoves have been a  familiar scene at Bor Huahad by the Songkhram River for six to seven months a year, throughout the dry season. When the flooding season arrives, they get submerged under the water for some three or four months before emerging out of the floodwater for the next rock salt production season, as part of the Songkhram River’s circle of seasons.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Rock salt and the circle of life at the Songkhram River

As the waters recede and salt boiler stoves emerge, a 48-year-old rock salt producer, Meechai Hemala, a Ban Tha Sa-ard resident from the Seka district in Bung Kan province, realizes that the months-long flooding season of the Songkhram River in Thailand’s Northeast is about to end. And soon the production season at this ancient rock salt hub_ Bor Huahad (Huahad Well) will begin. It’s time for him to prepare the cleaning kits and the materials.

The circle of life for rock salt producers at Bor Huahad has continued by the Songkhram River for ages. As the floodwaters in the river dry up in around November, Ban Tha Sa-ard residents return to their stoves and clean them, build makeshift shacks, collect firewood, and start the rock salt production season, which runs throughout the dry season until the rain comes again in around June.

“Every year, we extract rock salt by boiling saline water throughout the dry season. Salt is important to the Isaan [northeastern] people’s food preservation and our way of life. Salt helps preserve the fish we catch, enabling us to make Pla Ra (fermented fish), our most popular food source,” says Mr. Meechai. “Where can we get fish? The same place, the Songkhram River, when it is flooded. So, in this Songkhram Basin we can catch fish, grow rice, and produce salt, which is known to be among the best in Isaan.”

The production of rock salt had influenced a large settlement in the basin. Producers from as far away as Sri Songkhram and Chai Buri districts in Nakhon Phanom province, and even from Mukdahan province in the lower Northeast, used to travel upstream to the Mekong River and then the Songkhram River in search of good locations to make rock salt. Once the floodwater dried up, they dug 20 to 30 metres into the ground looking for salt, scooped saline water up from their newly dug wells, and boiled it in their makeshift shacks. 

Archaeological evidence shows hundreds of such spots along the Songkhram River, marking the area out as the region’s hub for rock salt production.

Once the rock salt was ready, they would load it on their boats and travel along the Songkhram River. Those rock salt producers are known to have travelled a long way along the Mekong River even to Ubon Ratchathani province, the lowest province in the Northeast, to sell their produce. They even crossed the Mekong River and entered Southern Laos to trade their salt. 

The most popular rock salt production spot was Bor Huahad, which from a temporary halt became a permanent settlement and later the village of Ban Tha Sa-ard in 1941.

The Bor Huahad rock salt production hub comprises a conglomerate of makeshift shacks covering boiler stoves. Beside them are saline ponds, where saline water is drawn up from the wells by the river and deposited there. The work normally runs from dawn till dusk with two sets of salt produced at most, or around a ton a day.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Bor Huahad rock salt producers would dig 30 to 50 metres into the earth to build wells, drawing saline water in the wells and sending them through a pump to the ponds. Around the wells, salt can be seen spread around.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

“In the beginning, our production spot was located within the village. We would transport saline water from Bor Huahad to the village and boil it there. But as the community grew and smoke from our firewood disturbed our neighbours, we moved out of the village to boil the salt at Bor Huahad,” says Somrit Charoenchai, 51, the chairman of Bor Huahad rock salt production group, which has been producing rock salt for years.

From its days of glory Bor Huahad’s popularity has faded over time, partly because rock salt production in the region has become industry-based, and is also produced in several other areas. There are a small number of consumers who still prefer rock salt from Bor Huahad, claiming it’s the best to make Pla Ra.

Bor Huahad and Ban Tha Sa-ard residents have also had their internal struggles. Some wanted to modernize their rock salt production, by using modern technology and techniques, including drying the salt in the heat of the sun. This led to saline leakage into adjacent fields and caused soil salinity, bringing to an end the experiment.

After the bad experience, the residents rejected proposals from salt producers outside the community to develop their rock salt production into an industrial activity, using the sun-drying technique. 

“A massive amount of saline water has to be drawn up, causing the ground to collapse, and the salinity to spread widely,” Mr. Somrit says of the residents’ concerns.

The community then developed rules to regulate the residents’ production to ensure they would not become problematic. They were requested to draw saline water up and store it in the ponds in their makeshift shacks. They should boil just enough water to make salt for sale each time, while the rest of the water should be stored in the ponds for the next production season. 

“This is to maximise our use of the resource and to ensure that there would not be leakage into the environment. It is the way to help sustain the profession while preserving the health of the environment and the river, as the residents rely on them when the salt production season ends.

“As the salt production season ends and the floods come, we switch to other professions, such as growing rice, catching fish, and so on. So, we realize that we cannot cause negative impacts to the environment and we are ourselves part of the Songkhram River system,” says Mr. Somrit.

Still, Bor Huahad rock salt producers are facing further challenges. As the popularity of their salt faces competition from large-scale production in other areas, some have decided to leave their profession. Mr. Meechai said there are only around 13 families still making rock salt with their traditional skills. This year, only eight of them produced salt. 

“The investment required for rock salt production has increased, and some families have decided to leave their profession. Still, we have the river to rely on and make a living out of it_fishing, growing rice, and so on. 

“My family has been producing rock salt for over 22 years, and each year we manage to produce around 150 tons. After the season, we then switch to growing rice and fishing. The Songkhram River enables us to continue living here,” says Mr. Meechai. 

He points to the uncertain future created by development projects planned on the river itself as well as those on the Mekong River, which could alter their cycles as well as their circle of life that has long been dependent on them.

Some ancient wells can still be seen in the area. In the past, rock salt producers used bamboo-made baskets to scoop up the saline water out of the wells each time.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
To produce rock salt each time, around eight to 10 hours are needed to boil saline water, which would yield around 500 to 600 kilograms of the salt. Rock salt producers can produce the salt twice a day or around a ton a day.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Rock salt production at Bor Huahad is still household-based, using labour from within the family. Because of its small-scale production, it causes only minor impacts on the environment as well as the river itself. They thus can recover when the production ceases in the flooding season.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Mr. Somrit Charoenchai (above left), the chairman of Bor Huahad rock salt production group, says that rock salt producers in the group can produce around 400 to 500 tons a year. Although it doesn’t generate much income, the profession enables them to make a living at home, without needing to find jobs elsewhere, he says.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

It’s believed that their traditional technique of boiling salt with firewood helps givetheir salt a special quality. 
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

These days, rock salt producers there also use rubber trees as their firewood. Natural wood has become scant as forest law prohibits tree cutting and forest clearing, requiring them to make higher investments as the years go by.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Boiled salt is placed over a bamboo-made grate, which covers a pond next to the boiler stove. The used saline water pours back into the pond and remainsthere for the next use. This is part of efforts by rock salt producers to prevent environmental impacts from their salt production. Seen in the picture is salt crystallizing underneath the grate.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Jao Por Kham Daeng Shrine is believed to be built in memory of the first resident who had discovered Bor Huahad. Every year, rock salt producers come to the shrine and worship him to ask for his permission to produce rock salt in the area. During a dispute with state authorities, who aimed to ban their rock salt production in the area as it’s a public area, the residents used their claim over the shrine to fight against the state until they were allowed to continue their ancient profession.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
After drying and crystallizing, rock salt at Bor Huahad is packed for sale. In the past, it used to be transported along the river, through the Mekong, to the lower Northeast and Southern Laos. The salt remains popular among the residents living along the river and the lower Mekong area.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Salt is a significant item in food preservation, and in the Northeast it’s a must for residents. Salt from the Songkhram River has long been part of the Isaan people’s food preservation culture, dubbed as Watthanatham Pla Dak (fermented fish culture). It has helped shape this unique culture of the Isaan people.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

During the dry season, the residents can also collect forest products by the river or fish in the river, several of which can be found only at a specific time and location on the Songkhram River
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
Around Bor Huahad, residents can collect seasonally flooded forest shrubs, known as Pa Bung Pa Tham, bamboo shoots and other forest products to feed their families and for sale.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Residents further away, like from Seka district, which is about 20km away, travel to Pa Bung Pa Tham around Bor Huahad to collect reeds, locally known as Pheu, as the place is a large Pheu forest. They claim they are of good quality for mat weaving.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

Having been designated as the country’s 15th Ramsar Site, an international wetland status recognition, the spotlight has once again turned to the importance of the Lower Songkhram Basin and the Songkhram River itself as the last free-flowing tributary of the Mekong River in the Northeast. 

Running over 400 kilometres through the upper Northeastern area before discharging into the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province, the Songkhram River contributes around 1.8% of average annual flows and shapes the second largest basin of the Northeast, only after the Mun-Chi River Basin, measured at around 6,473 square kilometres, covering around four million rai, according to Ramsar Site Information Service. 

Approximately, 54% of the overall Songkhram Basin could be classified as “wetlands”, and the most extensive area is concentrated in the lowland floodplains of the Lower Songkhram River Basin, a crucial part of which, around 34,400 rai, is designated as a Ramsar site, the website of the Convention’s Parties notes.

According to Ramsar, the basin additionally experiences a distinctive natural cycle of the annual flood events, which is much influenced by the Mekong’s hydrology and its so-called backflow. The other well-known place that experiences such a phenomenon is Tonle Sap in Cambodia, the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia. 

Ramsar further notes that about 80,000 to 96,000 hectares (ha) of the basin, or around 500,000 to 600,000 rai are estimated to be inundated by this kind of seasonal flooding every year during July to September, the peak flooding period. It’s prominently called the “flood pulse” phenomenon, contributing to complex water-based geographical characters, ranging from permanent and temporary surface water sources, artificial and natural wetland habitats, and a range of riverine, floodplain, lacustrine, palustrine, and salt-water wetlands.

Various habitat characteristics and sub-ecosystems are in turn important for freshwater animals and wildlife in the area, especially the lowland floodplain forests known locally as Bung-Tham forests (Lowland swamp and forest shurbs). The designated Ramsar site alone has recorded at least 192 species of fish. Other threatened species include the critically endangered Baer’s pochard, the endangered catfish, and the vulnerable king cobra, making the basin and the river itself geographically unique, according to Ramsar.

The rich biodiversity of the basin has long been supporting locals’ livelihoods, spawning the unique life and culture of the Songkhram Basin, including the rock salt production, which over time has increasingly come under threat from rapid development, including the construction of dams in the Mekong and on the Songkhram River itself.

Rock Salt and the Circle of Life at the Songkhram River is part of an exclusive photo essay series to present to the public the values of the river basins and tributaries of the country and the Mekong region, their rich biodiversity, unique landscape and geography, livelihood and culture, which could soon vanish without a trace because of rapid development in the region.