Smoke from burnt firewood and steam of salt from stoves for over six to seven months throughout the dry season has long been a familiar scene at Bor Huahad by the Songkhram River. When the flooding season arrives, they all would then submerge under the floodwater for some three or four months before emerging out of the floodwater for the next rock salt production season, being part of the Songkhram River’s circle.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Rock Salt and the Circle of the Songkhram River

As the salt boiler stoves emerge out the water, 48-year-old rock salt producer Meechai Hemala, a Ban Tha Sa-ard resident in Seka district of Bung Kan province in the Northeast, realizes that the months-long flooding season of the Songkhram River is about to end, while the rock salt production season of this ancient rock salt production hub Bor Huahad (Huahad Well) is about to return, and it’s time for him to prepare cleaning kits and salt boiling items. 

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

“Every year, we will extract rock salt by boiling the saline water throughout the dry season. Why? Because salt is important to the Isaan (Northeastern) people’s food preservation, our way of life. Salt will help preserve the fish we catch, enabling us to make Pla Ra (fermented fish), our most popular food source. 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 produced in Isaan,” said Mr. Meechai.

Production of rock salt had influenced a large settlement in the basin. Producers as far as Sri Songkhram, Chai Buri, Nakhon Phanom, and even Mukdaharn province in the Lower Northeast travelled upstream through the Mekong River and then the Songkhram River in search of good locations to produce rock salt. Once the floodwater dried up, they then dug the ground, as deep as 20 to 30 meters in search of the salt, scooped saline water up from their new wells, and boiled it under their makeshift shacks. 

Archaeological evidence shows hundreds of such spots along the Songkhram River, making rock salt production here the region’s hub.

As they finished producing rock salt, they would then load it to their boats before travelling along the Songkhram River to trade it. These rock salt producers even travelled along the Mekong River to trade the salt as far as Ubon Ratchathani province, the Lowest of the Northeast. They even crossed the Mekong River and entered Southern Laos to trade their salt. 

The most popular rock salt production spot was Bor Huahad, prompting temporary stops-by to become a permanent settlement and later a village of Ban Tha Sa-ard in 1941.

The Bor Huahad rock salt production hub comprises a conglomerate of makeshift shacks covering boiler stoves. Next are saline ponds, where saline water is drawn up from the wells by the river and rested 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 into the earth up to 30 to 50 meters to build wells before drawing saline water inside the wells and send it through a pump to the ponds. Around the wells, salt can be seen spreading around.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

“At 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 then moved out from the village to boil the salt at the spot, Bor Huahad,” said Somrit Charoenchai, 51-year-old, a chairman of Bor Huahad rock salt production group, who has been producing rock salt for years.

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

Bor Huahad and Ban Tha Sa-ard residents also struggled internally. Some wanted to modernize their rock salt production, trying to produce the salt with modern technology and techniques including drying the salt under the heat of the sun. This prompted saline leakage to adjacent fields and salinity, prompting them to call it over.

With such a bad experience, the residents rejected proposals from salt producers outside the community to develop their rock salt production into an industry-based production using the sun-drying technique. “The massive amount of saline water would be drawn up, prompting the ground to collapse, while salinity would spread widely,” Mr. Somrit said of the residents’ concerns.

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

“This is to maximise our use of the resource and to ensure that there would not be leakage to the environment,” said Mr. Somrit, adding that it’s the way to help maintain and preserve 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 well.

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

Still, Bor Huahad rock salt producers are facing further challenges. As the popularity of their salt has been competed by large-scale production in other areas, some have decided to leave their profession. Mr. Meechai said there are only around 13 families left to continue producing rock salt with their traditional skills. This year, only eight of them produced the salt. 

“The investment in rock salt production becomes higher and some families have decided to leave their profession behind. 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 of the salt. After the season, we would then switch to rice growing and fishing. The Songkhram River enables us to continue our living here,” said Mr. Meechai, while pointing to the more and more uncertain future brought by development projects planned on the river itself as well as those on the Mekong River, which could have altered their cycles as well as their circles of life that are long 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 labours in a 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), a chairman of Bor Huahad rock salt production group, said the 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 and need not find jobs elsewhere, he said.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom

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

These days, rock salt producers there also use rubber trees as their firewood. Natural wood becomes scant as the forest law prohibits tree cutting and forest clearing, prompting their investment to become higher as years go by.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Boiled salt would be rested over a bamboo-made grate, which covers a pond next to the boiler stove The used saline water would be poured back into the pond and rest there for the next use. This is an effort of the rock salt producers to prevent environmental impacts from their salt production. Seen in the picture is a crystallising salt underneath the grate.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Jao Por Kham Daeng Shrine is believed to be the first resident who had discovered Bor Huahad. Every year, rock salt producers would come to the shrine and worship him to ask for his permission to produce rock salt in the area. During the dispute with state authorities, who wished 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 crystalising, rock salt at Bor Huahad would be packed for sale. In the past, it would 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 in such a specific time and location of the Songkhram River.
Photo: Pit Yaopirom
Seasonally flooded forest shrubs, known as Pa Bung Pa Tham, around Bor Huahad is where the residents can collect 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 20 km away, travel to Pa Bung Pa Tham around Bor Huahad to collect reed, 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 importance of the Lower Songkhram Basin and the Songkhram River itself as the last free-flowing tributary of the Mekong River in the Northeast have become once again in the spotlight. 

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, with the size measured around 6,473 square kilometres or 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 or around 34,400 rai is designated as a Ramsar site, the website of the Convention’s Parties notes.

According to Ramsar, the basin regularly 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 similar phenomenon is Tonle Sap in Cambodia, the largest inland lake of 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 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 characters of habitats in turn are important to freshwater animals and wildlife in the area, especially the seasonally flooded forest shrubs known locally as Bung-Tham forests. 192 species of fish alone are recorded there. 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 in bio-diversity of the basin has long been supporting locals’ livelihoods, forming their unique ways of life and culture of the Songkhram Basin, including this rock salt production, which over time have become increasingly under threat by rapid development including dam development in the Mekong and in the Songkhram River itself.

Rock Salt and the Circle of the Songkhram River is part of the exclusive photo essay series to present to the public the values of the river basins and tributaries of the country and the Mekong region, in terms of their rich in bio-diversity, unique landscapes and geographies, livelihoods, and culture, which could soon vanish unnoticeably because of such rapid development.