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The Thai Berng community of Khok Salung

Culture and tradition drive sustainable development and conservation 

There is not much that is conventional about the Thai Berng community of Khok Salung, in Lop Buri’s Phattana Nikhom district. Yet the people of Khok Salung have been so successful in preserving their cultural identity and traditions that the community is regarded as a kind of ‘social laboratory’.

Its strong and sustainable development and its embrace of modern knowledge and lifestyles, without losing its distinctive culture and wisdom, stands it apart from many other small communities in the Thai countryside.

The people believe their community’s name, Khok Salung, derives from Khok Thalung, meaning ‘smelting hill’. They point to a pond north of the Thai Berng community where iron slag can be found.

Evidence also suggests that the community was once located along an important trade route between Ayutthaya and the ancient city of Srithep, to the north. 

Cultural tourism is a strong aspect of Khok Salung’s community spirit, and the head of its cultural tourism group, Prateep Onsalung, points out that Thai Berng does not refer to an ethnic group, but rather a group with a distinct cultural identity. He says members of this Thai Berng group can be found in Buri Ram, Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Chaiyaphum and Phetchabun, as well as in Lop Buri. 

“We are the biggest Thai Berng community though,” he is quick to add.

Thai Berng culture is defined mainly by its language and its costumes. The Thai Berng language has a distinctive accent, with some unique words. Locals usually end their sentences with berng. When they use a negative sentence, they end it with dok. If they have some doubts, their sentence concludes with wei. When they say goodbye, their final word is der. When Thai Berng people talk about lightning, they do not use fah lab, like most Thais. Instead they refer to it as fah khayaeb. Such unique words led university academics to help locals compile a dictionary for the Thai Berng language, as it is spoken in Khok Salung. 

Elderly locals – those aged over 80 years – still wear traditional costume. Women wear a sarong tied around their waist, a loose vest with a detailed neckline, and a hand-woven pha khao ma hanging from one shoulder across their body. Men wear a sarong of fine silk and a pha khao ma

The Thai Berng of Khok Salung also have distinctive family names. The surnames of all local people include the word salung

Their local wisdom is also reflected in their cuisine. Local dishes are simple and rely on seasonal ingredients. The diet consists mainly of soup and chilli paste. They eat hardly any fried or deep-fried foods, and when planning a trip, will pack chilli with salt.

The community also has unique local games, songs, crafts and toys.

Conservation Efforts

A little more than 20 years ago, the Pasak Jolasid Dam project took away more than 20,000 rai of land from the people of Khok Salung, and they were paid generous compensation. Many local families built new houses with modern facilities. 

Recognizing their home town’s fast-changing landscape, Prateep and some like-minded locals invited villagers to a forum, to discuss the importance of their cultural capital and the options that were open to the community. 

“Fortunately, we chose to build our future on the basis of our cultural capital,” Prateep says, “For this reason, many conservation and development projects have followed.” 

The people of Khok Salung were given more than Bt1 million by the Thailand Government’s Social Investment Fund, which was established in 1998 to mitigate the erosion of social values arising from the “boom years” of the country’s economy, followed by the disastrous Asian financial crisis in 1997. The funds received by the Khok Salung community were to support its development of a fabric-weaving network, to set up a local museum, and to develop community leaders. 

“Our museum has recreated traditional Thai Berng houses and features activities where people can come in and do something together,” Prateep says. “We also focus on developing human resources because people are our key driving force. Only people can use tools and local wisdom for the community’s benefit.”

The ultimate goal is to generate a mutual happiness that is rooted in local culture. 

Prateep places a strong emphasis on people and process development, while adopting new tools and modern knowledge. For example, his work process includes dialogues that foster mutual understanding, and ‘after-action reviews’.

Khok Salung’s conservation efforts have also taken a forward-looking approach. While retaining their cultural roots, local people welcome new knowledge, with which to do better. They have learnt from experts how to develop local products. Among other things, local fabrics that are woven according to tradition are being used for contemporary attire. 

Tourism as a tool 

Prateep says he has used tourism to strengthen his community. In his view, tourism is a means to generate income for his community while the people reveal and conserve their cultural identity. 

“When there are jobs back home, young members of our community will come back to their families with new knowledge and skills that can be used to conserve valuable local wisdom and culture,” he explains. 

Next steps

The Thai Berng Community of Khok Salung is preparing to register itself as a legal entity, or a social enterprise, to pave the way for further development and sustainable cultural conservation. 

Nowadays, the community not only has its own museum, but has prepared courses so that its people may pursue their common goals.

“We educate our kids about our culture. We prepare next-generation leaders and we even have a tourism-design course to ensure that our visitors will be happy,” Prateep says.

When asked about community leaders, he emphasizes that they must have leadership skills, excel in systems thinking, and be adept at networking. 

“We cannot work on our own. We need support and collaboration. That’s why networking is important,” he says.

NAVANURAK Story Creator Challenge 2020 

One of the Thai Berng community’s most important partners is the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC). Under this partnership, the community’s information is brought to the online world via NECTEC’s NAVANURAK platform.

“Thanks to NAVANURAK, we can properly maintain our data and become better known among outsiders,” Prateep says. 

Recently, NECTEC organized the NAVANURAK Story Creator Challenge 2020, which requires that students must spend a few days at Khok Salung to gather information before presenting impressive stories on Thai Berng community through digital media.

“This challenge gives opportunities to both our community and the students,” Prateep says, “It is possible that some of them will go back to their home towns and use our example to develop them on the basis of their local culture.” 

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