Worth its salt
The mountain province of Nan is redolent with nature parks, ancient temples and a village community that feeds off wells supplied by seawater rich in brine
For centuries now residents of Ban Bo Luang, a village in Bo Klue District of Nan Province in northern Thailand, have been producing salt from brine collected from two wells deep in mountains that tower 1,900 metres above sea level.
They still do it the old way by boiling brine for three to four hours until it crystalises and then let it dry by putting the crystals in bamboo baskets hung over a huge boiling pan one-metre in diameter.
Salt thus produced is as good as pasteurised and fit for consumption. It also finds application in spas.
Soonthorn Kheunmuang, 60, is a farmer who has been in the business more than 20 years.
"I boil brine every day except during the three months of the Buddhist Lent period which is the rainy season," he said. He adds iodine to the salt he produces before packaging it into three-kilogramme bags that he sells at his shed for 15 baht a bag.
Although some years brine in the wells of his village is less than other years, the supply never dries up.
"I have regular customers in town. They come here and load salt on to their pick-up trucks. I also have visitors occasionally who are interested in my work, but they don't usually buy from me," he said.
Bo Klue means salt well. It was once a subterranean terrain before the tectonic plates of earth collided lifting up the crust and trapping seawater that contained large salt reserves. One well there is as deep as 30 metres.
Brine is boiled in big pans on earthen furnaces using wood as fuel. There are around 20 salt-producing families at Ban Bo Luang, all of them have free access to brine which they collect in large jars in front of the sheds where they produce their salt.
Early accounts of the discovery of salt in Nan can be traced to a hunter who accidentally hit upon the reserves chasing wild animals that roamed the land. By observing their feeding habits, he was able to discern a pattern in their movement and behaviour which he shared with others.
Later, when the first ruler of Nan, Chao Luang Phu Kha, became aware of the reserves he sent his aide Chao Bo Luang to survey the area. Reporting back, the aide confirmed the existence of salt reserves. Chao Luang Phu Kha then decided to develop the area into a village community. People living in Chiang Saen were urged to migrate and settle in Ban Bo Luang, where the two wells that we see today were dug.
The discovery of salt, an important find for highland people, soon spread to Chiang Mai. In 1450, King Tilokaraj of Chiang Mai seized Nan to lay hands on its salt wells.
Today, residents of Bo Klue hold a three-day ceremony every February to pay respects to Chao Bo Luang whom they regard as their guardian spirit and back it up with a generous offerings of pork and buffalo meat.
Apart from Bo Klue, many visitors heading to Nan must stop to admire the endangered "Chompoo Phu Kha" tree (Bretschneidera sinensis) in Doi Phu Kha National Park.
From Nan town you reach the park's entrance before you hit Bo Klue. Park visitors usually stay overnight and the following morning drive some eight kilometres to see sunrise and later stop by the shrine of Chao Luang Phu Kha to admire the Chompoo Phu Kha tree.
From mid-February to March the tree is in full bloom. This rare species is also found in Yunnan, China, but in Thailand it is only seen in Nan. To see its pink flowers, there are two options: the first is at the shrine, around five kilometres from the park's entrance. That is where the tree was first spotted in 1989, but it was already dead from old age. However, there is a younger one at the shrine which was laden with flowers and new shoots when we visited the place last month.
The second site is more strenuous, a 1.2-kilometre walk along a natural trail for which you need a guide, available at the park information centre, where you can also borrow binoculars to watch birds and the beautiful mountain scenery.
The park covers 1,680 square kilometres and sits at an altitude of 1,980 metres above sea level. Walking along the trail, you will not only enjoy the sight of pink flowers, but also the primitive giant mountain fishtail palm (Caryota kiriwongensis) or "Tao Rang Yak" in Thai, banana trees, herbs and other flowers.
To propagate the endangered tree, the park has planted seedlings near its headquarters. Twenty years from now you will be able to admire its pink flowers without having to venture into the forest.
Another attraction in the province is Si Nan National Park that covers an area of 934 square kilometres straddling Na Noi, Wiang Sa and Na Muen districts. It has rugged mountain ranges that run north-south with the tallest peak rising 1,234 metres.
Si Nan is where you will get a panoramic view of Nan River. Early in the morning thick mist blankets the river that snakes through a dense forest.
The park also has natural trails, but the more popular places for visitors are nearby attractions such as the of cliffs Pha Chu and Pha Hua Singha, the latter the shape of a lion's head, and Doi Samoe Dao where the sky is usually clear offering excellent view of the stars at night.
Other places of interest are Sao Din Na Noi and Kok Sua in Na Meun District where soil erosion has left its mark by creating bizarre sand formations on the otherwise barren landscape. Fossils of shells, weapons, bracelets and other implements from the stone age were also found there.
"Yaa Nalika" is a weed native to Nan. Its movement is like that of a clock. If you pluck and dip it in water it moves in a clock-wise direction and vice versa when it is drying up. Another attraction is a tree called "Digdium" in the northern dialect. Its botanical name is Gardenia turgida and belongs to the Rubiaceae family. It will sway with the touch of your hand.
Apart from the natural attractions, Nan has a rich heritage that dates back to King Mengrai, the Lanna monarch who annexed the province in 13th century.
Lanna art, inspired by the teachings of Lord Buddha is a blend of his philosophy and Sukhothai art.
Take for example Wat Phumin whose square-shaped viharn has a high ceiling, small windows and four statues of Lord Buddha. Built in 1596 by King Jethabud Bhromin, the walls are splashed with murals - episodes from the Khatta Kumara - one of the incarnations of Lord Buddha and the way of life of the local people.
There are a lot of temples in Nan town, the oldest being Wat Phra That Chae Haeng built in 1355, Wat Phra That Chang Kham built in 1406 is famous for its Sukhothai style pagoda with 24 elephants arrayed around its base.
A local resident told us every village has its own temple and history. If you love touring temples and absorbing all the works of art on display, you will need at least a day.
Nan National Museum, opposite Wat Phra That Chang Kham, is a must see. Inside its walls you will gain a good grasp of Nan's culture, history and heritage. It has a rare black elephant tusk - more than 300 years old - said to be a present from the ruler of Chiang Tung to his counterpart in Nan. It weighs 18 kilogrammes and is 97 centimetres long.
The museum also exhibits the lifestyles of ethnic minorities: the Htin, Hmong, Khamu, Mlabri, Mien and Thai Lue. Also displayed are rare Buddha images from Lanna period carved mostly from wood. In some cases you only see the feet as the images were hacked and stolen, the work of vandals looking for quick bucks.
That in a nutshell is Nan, full of several other natural and temple attractions besides those mentioned here that combined to shape its history and cultural heritage.
Nan is 668 kilometres north of Bangkok. Buses depart daily at regular intervals from Mor Chit Bus Terminal. It takes about 10 hours to get there.
If you are driving there, take Phahon Yothin Road (Highway No.1) to Nakhon Sawan and move on to No. 117 which will lead you to Phitsanulok, Uttaradit and Den Chai in Phrae. There, switch to No.11 before taking the No. 101 to Nan town.
You can also fly to Nan on PB Air (02-216-0220_5). It takes an hour by air. The airport is two kilometres from the town. From there, you can take the `songthaew' for a ride around town.
To move around the province, go to the Tungjitnusorn market, where public transport is available.
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