Monday, 2 April 2012

The Good Salt

Driving south from Bangkok towards the royal resort town of Hua Hin on Highway 35, you travel through one of Thailand’s most unusual landscapes – the salt pans of Samut Sakhon. This flat, desolate coastal region – stripped of its natural mangrove vegetation for many years now - is where most of Thailand’s salt is produced, ‘farmed’ in large squares of brine.

I’ve never put much thought into where salt comes from (the sea, obviously, but how does it get to the plate?) or how it is produced, so stopping off to watch conical-hatted, sock-wearing workers hard at work on these salt fields is quite fascinating. Production takes a month over three stages; first, briny water is pumped from the nearby Gulf of Thailand into the flat paddy-like squares and left to evaporate in the tropical sun. As it dries, the crystallised salt is raked and rolled smoothed, fields glistening in the sun like ice rinks. Finally, the salt is piled into little pyramids, then collected by workers carrying bamboo poles balanced with wicker baskets, transporting the salt to be cleaned and bagged.

                                        (workers on the salt fields. Pic: Julie Miller)

Considering Thailand produces around 1.2 million tonnes of salt each year, this is labour-intensive work! But as well as the salt used in factories, on roads and in cooking, there is another potentially lucrative by-product of the industry, one that every woman (and some men) absolutely must have – salt spa products!

After watching the salt workers plying their trade in the afternoon sun, we had the pleasure of dropping by the Kanghuntong Sea Salt Spa, located right in the heart of the salt fields, to enjoy the fruits of their labour – sublime salt products used in the beauty industry.

The salt used in cosmetics and spa products is the finest quality, a grade called fleur de sel (meaning ‘flower of salt’ in French). This ‘young’ salt has been scraped from the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of the salt pan; due to its relative scarcity, it is more expensive than regular salt.

A family-run business, Kanghuntong produces its own spa products in a basement workshop, mixing the raw salt with herbs, spices and flowers to make beautifully scented scrubs and soaks. Salt is not only a natural relaxant, but it also removes dead skin cells and stimulates new growth, leaving the skin smooth and glowing. Products sold by the company include herbal skin care lotions, salt soaps, mineral salt scrubs and bath salts. They also sell floral-infused cooking salt, which really packs a punch to the cooking pot.

                            (raw materials used in spa products. Pic: Julie Miller)

To sample these lovely products, we settle back on the upper balcony of the Kanghuntong spa for an hour or so of indulgence, starting with a relaxing foot soak and massage. We then trial the mineral scrub with an invigorating arm and hand massage, followed by a divine exfoliating facial.

Kanghuntong Salt Spa may be a little hard for farang tourists to find – signage is only in Thai, and the staff do not speak English. If you have a Thai guide, however, it’s well worth the diversion, and a great way to support a local cottage industry.

                                        (iSpa products: Pic: Julie Miller)

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