Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Back to the Salt Mines

A woman scrapes salt out of a pain of boiling water in Boten, Laos

My main reason in going to Laos was to work on stories about the highways the Lao government is building to accommodate traffic to and from China. While we were driving up to the border I noticed what looked like small workshops a few hundred meters from the road in the middle of a construction site and decided they would be worth investigating on my way south after seeing the border area. 

The workshops turned out to be salt distilling operations. There were six or seven wooden buildings in the construction site, all belching black smoke into the air. Inside, people were hard at work boiling briny water and scraping the salt left in the pans into piles for eventual sale. 

What I didn't know then was that Boten, the Lao town on the Chinese border, is rather famous in this area for its salt. Control of the salt works was one of the French objectives in the colonization of Laos. The salt works had been around for centuries and Chinese traders regularly sent caravans to the works to buy salt for import into China. The salt works have been active in Boten for centuries. 

The phrase "back to the salt mines" refers to the back breaking work that is required to mine salt. The salt works in Boten are not mines, but the labor is no less back breaking. Shallow pans are filled with briny water and the water is boiled until only salt remains. The pans are heated by charcoal fires. The salt is collected and bagged and then sold. Life in the workshops is hot, humid and smoky. This is the way it's been done in Boten for centuries.

But the Boten salt works may be coming to an end, a victim of Laos' burgeoning trade with China. The Chinese are using Laos as a conduit to Thailand (and Thailand as a conduit to the world). Chinese exports, destined for the US, Europe and other global markets, are trucked through Laos to Thailand where they're put on trains and hauled to Thailand's deep water ports. All of this means the Lao/China border is not the sleepy remote village it once was. (I will be writing a blog entry about the surreal scene at the Lao/China border in the next few weeks.)

The Lao government is building out the border crossing as quickly as it can. Right now, parking around the border is on gravel lots and the whole area is under a constant cloud of dust. The salt works sit right in the middle of what is scheduled to be the new parking lot and construction is ongoing. When the lots are done, the salt works will have to move and may close. It would mean the end to a centuries' old tradition.

The are more photos from northern Laos in my archive and available from ZUMA Press
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