Salak Yom: Thailand’s Trees of Gifts in ACM
Just prior to entering the galleries at the Asian Civilisations Museum is an area with a striking but rather peculiar installation of artificial trees. Salak Yom is a tradition that hails from northern Thailand, particularly celebrated by the Yong people of the Lamphun province.
As part of the special exhibition Enlightened Ways: The Many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand (30 November 2012 – 17 April 2013), this replica of the Salak Yom Festival was constructed on-site by villagers from the Lamphun province in Thailand.
Despite being touted as a special exhibition on the official website, it seems to be nothing more than a display with a modest overview of the festival. There are five installations that range between three to seven metres high. Also on display is a short documentary, which tracks the process of preparing the Salak Yom to the actual day in Thailand, and a DIY-area for visitors to hang their written wishes on a special “tree” in the exhibition.
It is a pity that the four spacious walls were not fully utilised, and instead only a small section on one wall had four text paragraphs attempting to describe the festival. I thought it might be more useful to put up more information in other mediums, including interviews (especially with the villagers who were on-site to construct the trees), photographs of the festival in Thailand as a cross-comparison to the installation, and a more detailed breakdown of the festival.
Judging from the photographs, the Salak Yom Festival is a colourful and vibrant festival, akin to a mass carnival. A villager in the documentary said that there are always speakers and loud music accompanying the festival. The exhibition, unfortunately comes across as a little dull, certainly a contrast from the lively atmosphere depicted in the documentary.
Salak Yom Festival
Salak Yom was originally a way of merit making for a young lady who is of at least 20 years old. The ceremony was a demonstration of her readiness for adulthood, and most importantly, marriage. It is a festival distinctive to the northern region of Thailand, especially among the region’s Yong people. However the festival’s popularity started to wane as it had become too costly for individual families to partake in.
Salak Yom evolved from its function in tradition to a community activity today, of merit making that involves the monasteries, the lay supporters, and people of the participating villagers. It is traditionally held at Wat Phrathat Haripunchai in Lamphun, which is renowned for its 46-metre-tall golden pagoda.
An excerpt from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre about Salak Yom which describes the transformation of the festival and certain features of the tradition that are slowly diminishing:
“However, with the transformation of the context and significance of the Salak Yorm festival in recent years, the Ham Kalong has begun to disappear. Following the revitalization of the Salak Yorm festival which began in 2003, some features of the ritual were highlighted (i.e. the colorful decorated towers), while other features (kalong) were neglected. Whereas the colorful towers are relatively easy to reproduce with the support and participation of the community, the kalong is far more complex, requiring special skills both the compose and sing the verse. Furthermore, whereas the Salak Yorm are visually stunning and thus can attract wide audiences, the kalong is a lengthy verse sung in the Northern Lanna language, making it difficult for many in the audience to comprehend. As such, in spite of recent support for the revitalization of Salak Yorm, the Kalong has continued to disappear.”
The kalong is a type of Lanna poem, which is a distinctive marker of the Yong identity and culture in Lamphun. Kalong singing or recital, a main component of the Salak Yom Festival that requires Lanna language literacy, is slowly losing its feature in the festival. I understand that the villagers who helped to construct the trees at the exhibition also performed a Kalong singing ritual for members of the public.
Types of Salak
Kuaykhipum: A small Salak. It is usually a bamboo basket containing food or daily essential products.
Kuaysamrab: Slightly larger than the Kuaykhipum.
Salak Chok: A Salak with a bamboo base and bamboo structure covered with hay strolls. It is usually decorated with currency notes, utensils, or paperwork.
Salak Yom: A Salak that is more than 13 metres high. It is decorated with an umbrella with hanging motifs on its edges at the top. Valuable items, such as jewellery are usually placed on the umbrella with wishes written on a paper. The monk who receives the Salak Yom will recite the wishes.
Information about Salak Yom: Trees of Gifts from Thailand
1 February 2013 – 28 April 2013
Gallery 2, Asian Civilisations Museum Empress Place
Special thanks to friends May, Kaew, and Phueng who helped to explain the festival and identify the Thai superstar.