Baan Bor Luang, a tiny village in the far eastern part of Nan province, is about as remote as it gets in today's Thailand. But for hundreds of years it was an important stop on the route of caravan traders in northern Southeast Asia for one reason: salt.
The village (also known as Ban Bor Kleua: Salt Well Village) is home to wells that emit salty water, an immensely valuable commodity in the days when the mineral was only available from the sea -- more than 600km from Nan as the crow flies.
The tradition of salt gathering in Baan Bor Luang continues to this day, although the salt is used for local consumption or sold to tourists. As I've blogged previously, a handful of aged gatherers still collect the salt in the traditional way. They also still cling to the belief that a spirit oversees their wells, providing them with salt year after year. To appease the thep, or angels, who serve the spirit, once a year they hold a ceremony. The ceremony is known as Buang Suang Jao Luang Bor (บวงสรวงเจ้าหลวงบ่อ), and is said to date back at least 800 years.
The ceremony spans three days, and to avoid disturbing the spirits during this important period, the village's main street is closed:
On the morning of the first day, a black dog is sacrificed for the thep. Why black? "It's the thep's favourite kind of dog to eat," I was told by a villager. Every other year a pig is also sacrificed, and on every third year, a buffalo.
I happened to be in Baan Bor Luang on a pig year. Early in the morning of the first day of the ceremony, a dog and a pig were killed with spear-like knives that are said to date back several hundred years.
The animals were broken down:
and used in two dishes. The pork skin and entrails were boiled:
and combined with raw blood and meat in a northern-style laap.
The dog meat was stewed with lots of herbs and spices ("To cover up the strong smell of dog meat," I was told):
in a thick curry called kaeng khua maa (แกงคั่วหมา):
I didn't get a chance to try to the laap, but the dog curry was actually pretty good: assertively spicy and herbal, with lots of the dried spice flavour that is also present in northern-style laap.
The bulk of theses dishes, as well as the head and feet of the pig, were given as offerings to the thep (shown at the top of this post). The food that was left over was eaten by the older salt gatherers, then later, by the villagers.
Afterward, at a shrine dedicated to the spirit:
a spirit medium channelled the thep, and while in this state, and between bouts of drinking, smoking and napping, was given offerings (Fanta and other brands of pop seemed to be popular choices) and asked for advice:
Afterwards, the medium placed a small bunch of flowers behind each person's ear:
reminding me of scenes depicted in the 150 year-old murals at Wat Phumin, about 140km away:
While the spirit channelling was going on, a group of local students had arrived and were asking questions about the ceremony. One particularly precocious girl asked a man why he was beating a drum during the trance. "It's tradition," he said, matter-of-factly.
"But why beat a drum?" she asked again, pursuing some detail.
"You have to understand," said the man, beginning to express his frustration. "It's tradition," he repeated, without any additional explanation.
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