“My family works in paddy fields. We grow rice all year round…” Toeng sang a popular country song along the way. “My family works in sea salt farms, we sell salt to buy rice…” Everyone cheerfully chorused the next lines of the song. During one weekend in January, Pangram went to Phetchaburi province, to the sea salt farms belonged to her Uncle Tan. All of her cousins; Toeng, Tong, Pong and little Ung also went there.
Uncle Tan drove a pick-up truck to get the children at Phetchaburi city bus station. Then he drove them straight out of town to Baan Laem, a district on the sea coast. “They are swiftlet’s buildings. You see, swiftlets are flying around them. People purposely build that kind of buildings for swiftlets to make nests inside. Then they collect the edible nests for sale. Bird nest is an extraordinary business,” explained Uncle Tan. “What are those buildings, Uncle? Why are there so many holes on the walls?” Pangram asked.
Uncle Tan showed all kinds of sea salt products to everyone. “There are many kinds of salts we harvest from the farms; ‘cooking salt’, ‘gypsum’ used as cosmetic powder, ‘epsom salt’ used in medicine and “salted earth soil fertilizer” used as soil amendment. Pangram was wide-eyes with special interest in gypsum – ‘the cosmetic powder’. Later, they arrived at Uncle Tan’s sea salt factory. Pangram was so excited to see the process of refining sea salt with a big refining machine. Uncle Tan designed the machine himself because natural sea salts are mixed with mud that made them look kind of impure.
On the first Friday morning of January, Grandpa Pott, an elderly sea salt farmer who lived nearby took Pangram and her cousins to pay respect to the house of the holy spirits, the guardians of all sea salt farms. The spirits were called Great Grandpa Pook and Great Grandma Pak. “Were Great Grandpa Pook and Great Grandma Pak your great ancestors, Uncle?,” asked Pangram. “No, they were ancestors of the first sea salt farmer in Thailand. All Thai sea salt farmers had worshipped them since ancient time.” Then Grandpa Pott made a wish on the spirits for his salt farms to be productive all through the year. “Crab!” Toeng shouted and alerted everyone.
Immediately, the children stamped on the dike heading toward the small pond to gather salt water. There were plenty of holes in the dike which were inhabited by mangrove crabs, field crabs and climbing perch fish. “No need to run, Kids. Once crabs go to lay eggs in the evaporation ponds, they will naturally turn into salted crabs. We can easily catch many of them for food any day,” said Grandpa Pott.
Pangram followed the trail of mangrove crabs along the ridges of the ponds. She led her cousins passed the first, the second and the third evaporation ponds. At one time, they stopped to taste leaves of seepweed growing on the ridge. “Oh, it’s very salty!”
“Take these nets and help me skim Fleur de Sel off the surface of water. We coat grilled fish and grilled meat with this kind of salt. It’s delicate flavor tastes so good. You know salt farmers unwillingly sell this special salt because we just want to keep them for our own cooking.” Grandpa Pott explained while showing the children how to skim the delicate Fleur de Sel off water. Then they got to the salt crystallization pond, where sea water was pink. The pink color indicated the intense salinity in the pond. There were ‘Fleur de Sel’ or ‘flowers of salt’ skimmed on the surface of the pond. After that, Grandpa Pott threw some cooked rice into the pond to measure its salinity. The rice floated to the surface and Grandpa Pott said the plot already reached salinity 24 ‰. So he pumped out sea water from the plot.
Early next morning, laborers came to scrap off salt from the plot. They divided and gathered salts into lines of piles with traditional wooden hand tools. Pangram and little Ung helped carrying an ice-container to the plot so the laborers can have cold water to drink and to wash their faces. It was extremely hot.
Days later, it was time to carry all the harvested salt into the salt storage shed. There were so many laborers to do the hard work. The children lined up a separated line to help carrying the salt into the shed, because the laborers walked too fast for them to catch up.
Then Uncle Tan drove his truck to load the raw salts out of the storage shed to the refining machine in his salt factory. The children went with him. “Pangram! Where are you?” Toeng went searching for his cousin around the factory. “Ha! You look like a Burmese girl putting gypsum salt on your face like that.” Toeng teased her.
In the evening that day, everyone gathered around a meal on the boat near the bank of a mangrove forest. “The mangrove crabs in papaya salad taste so good.” Pong said while blowing his mouth to heal the tangible taste of chilies in the salad. “If you want to visit my salt farms again, come in October. On the first Friday of October, sea salt farmers will hold a traditional ceremony to mark the beginning of sea salt processing season,” said Grandpa Pott. “Hoorey! Then we can witness the very first process of sea salt farming.” Pangram thought she would definitely come back.
Lay-out of a typical salt farm salt storage shed evaporation ponds gypsumepsom salt Wooden hand tools to harvest sea salt large wooden frame rake long wooden pole with a metal board attached to the end shovel long-handle roller do you know what thing sea salt farmers fear the most?” “The rain, off course. Salt farmers cannot “Brother Toeng, harvest salt in the rainy season. Rain also dissolves salt piles that are waiting to be carried into the salt shed.”