Man’s best friend or favorite meal?

Photo: Flickr

While Tha Rae district in Sakon Nakhon province is well known for having the biggest Catholic community in Thailand, the district may perhaps be even better known for a darker history as the former heart of the dog meat trade in Southeast Asia. Although most residents of Tha Rae no longer eat dog meat and the tradition has died down due to the influence of Buddhism, some locals in Sakon Nakhon’s Tha Rae district still consume it. This raises the question: “Man’s best friend or favorite meal?” Isaan Record intern, Russell Chapman, goes to Sakon Nakhon to explore the issue.

By Russell Chapman

Photos by Russell Chapman and Ardchawit Inha

It’s a late afternoon in August 2017. I was walking down the foggy streets of Sapa, a scenic and mountainous town in northern Vietnam. It’s a beautiful place with lots of lively people. 

Sapa is a well-known tourist attraction with a lot to offer, including picturesque, pristine rice terraces, mountain treks up Fansipan Mountain (the highest in Indochina), and friendly Hmong and Mien locals, as well as other ethnic minorities.

Continuing my way down the streets of Sapa, tourists and locals alike filled the streets. I notice coffee shops, expensive-looking restaurants, local markets, an old church, and many other handicrafts made by locals for sale on the sides of the streets.

Eventually, I came across an open market. I was curious to learn more about what was for sale.

The market was selling a variety of fresh veggies and meats. I decided to stop and check out the place. As far as I knew, it was just your average market. I was soon proven wrong. Very wrong.

The first shock was the pungent stench: the smell of freshly butchered meats pierced my nose like a spear. Walking through the market stalls, I saw merchants selling  everything from fresh Chinese mustard greens to corn and chayotes on one side of the market. On the other side of the market, cuts of various types of meat were neatly laid out in an orderly fashion along the stalls.

As I approached the meat stalls, the warm stench of the meat seared the inside of my nose so much it was burning. I tried not to wince.

I turned around and scanned the market, looking for the exit, just as my eyes fell upon one meat stall. I squinted my eyes to look closer at the meat on the stall table. My horror was confirmed.

A dog’s skull, charred black skin, gruesomely grinned its teeth back at me as if its hollowed eyes were staring into my soul. 

I fixed my eyes on the exit and fled back to my hotel.

*******

“Ever since I was a child, I’d been eating dog meat no more than five times a year,” says Thuangsit Phongpit, a Tha Rae local and Facebook page admin of Sakon Nakhon City

Thuangsit Phongpit, in an interview with The Isaan Record. Photo: Archawit Inha

“Now it’s harder to find it [dog meat] with the campaigns and laws about animal abuse. For as long as I can remember, they would typically bake it with herbs. It was never a main dish or main food. It was something eaten during the winter or on very rainy days.” 

To Thailand, Isaan, and a vast majority of people in Sakon Nakhon, eating dog meat is considered a social taboo. But for some households in Tha Rae district, Sakon Nakhon province, it’s still a delicacy. 

So, is a dog man’s best friend? Or is dog man’s favorite dish?

Buddhism and changing local customs

Assistant Professor Sathit Pakmaluk from the Art and Cultural Institute of Language at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University explains that “Eating dog meat – or any animal meat – has been a normal phenomenon for people in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia.”  

Assistant Professor Dr. Sathit Pakmakluk of Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University.  Photo: Archawit Inha

Photo: Archawit Inha

“In the past, people in Isaan ate everything. There was no discrimination regarding what kind of meat a family would eat,” says Dr. Sathit. Due to changing social values, consuming dog meat in Sakon Nakhon has become nearly obsolete. 

Whether the meat that locals consumed was dog meat, pork, beef, or chicken, it wasn’t until Buddhism arrived in Southeast Asia that locals started changing their beliefs, which changed their values and diets.

There are ten types of meat that Buddhist teachings forbid. “The forbidden meats include human, dog, elephant, horse, tiger, leopard, yellow tiger, lion, snake, and bear. Therefore, these beliefs made Buddhists disgusted with the idea of eating dogs,” says Dr. Sathit.

Other than Buddhism’s influence, other factors, such as changing societal values, pushed people to eat (or not eat) dog meat. “The values of society have changed,” says Dr. Satit. Despite being far from cities, local societies have also been influenced by cities. “When the values in city societies change, the values of the locals also do.” 

Animals like dogs and cats have been raised as pets “to be friends or to keep us company,” says Dr. Sathit. They’re “domestic animals – pets – and live close to us. So close that some people call their dog ‘child’ and even sleep with them.”

Almost “100% of people think this way now,” says Dr. Sathit. This has caused local communities in Thailand to “hate and be disgusted with the idea of eating dogs,” and is now seen as something wrong.

This shows a shift in local perspectives on consuming dog meat. Dogs have moved to the “other category” that separates dogs from a source of meat. Or for some, at least.

Tha Rae’s Vietnamese roots and the dog meat trade

Many locals, including Thuangsit and Dr. Sathit, agree that eating dog meat in Tha Rae, and Sakon Nakhon is a tradition with roots in Vietnam. 

“The belief and culture surrounding consuming dog meat come from Vietnam. Vietnamese people who migrated to Thailand brought their culture with them,” says Thuangsit. “In Thailand, the meat was often called ‘baked dog.’ Mostly young men consumed it with hard liquor. Very few women ever ate it.”

The custom of eating dog meat can be linked to the cultural and spiritual practices of the Vietnamese. It’s believed that dogs have sacred power, and by eating dog meat or sacrificing dogs, families would be able to get rid of bad luck. Eating dog meat is also a  practice for special events such as the end of a lunar year. According to Israeli scholar Nir Avieili, it is also associated with Vietnamese masculinity and has roots in Confucianism.  

Tha Rae has strong Vietnamese ties, with many Vietnamese immigrants migrating to Tha Rae district as early as the late 1800s during the French colonial period.

Tha Rae was founded by a French Catholic missionary, Xavier Guego, who settled here after evacuating Thai and Vietnamese immigrant families across the Nong Han Lake. At first, there were ten immigrant Christian Vietnamese households and ten local Isaan people. 

An estimated 10,000 Catholic Vietnamese immigrants eventually settled in Tha Rae in 1884. Tha Rae is now the largest and most prominent Catholic community in all of Thailand. It is well-known for its Christmas Star festival and a massive cathedral in the shape of a boat, signifying Xavier Guego’s quest across Nong Han Lake. 

St. Michael’s Cathedral in Tha Rae district, Sakon Nakorn province. Photo: Russell Chapman

You can see evidence of Sakon Nakhon’s Vietnamese immigrant community today, including restaurants offering Vietnamese drip coffee to banh cuon (Vietnamese rice rolls). The architecture of older buildings in the city also takes a Vietnamese French colonial style.

Even the former president of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, once lived in Tha Rae, residing at the “Stone Building.” Ho Chi Minh once asked the owner, Mr. Noo Sriwongkul, to become their adopted son. Mr. Noo agreed, and they lived together in the curious Stone Building for a time.

The Stone Building in Tha Rae. Photo: Russell Chapman

The sign next to the Stone Building explaining the curious events that happened here and the important people who visited it. Photo: Russell Chapman

In the case of Tha Rae, dog meat became very popular with the influx of Vietnamese immigrants over time. Much later, Tha Rae also became very well known as the hub of the dog meat trade from the 1970s through the 1980s. The dog meat trade brought in high profits. 

It was only relatively recently that eating dog meat became popular. “The dog meat trade business starting booming around 1972-1973,” says Dr. Sathit. The trade continued well into the 1980s. The Vietnamese people in Tha Rae and Sakon Nakhon were investors. After dogs in the area were “running low, they would go across all of Isaan and into Laos and Vietnam,” says Dr. Sathit. 

From the 1970s to the 1980s, “rot ma laek ku or “dog-for-bucket-exchange trucks” were a common sight all over Isaan. People exchanged buckets for their dogs. Most people would trade in “‘bad dogs’ – dogs that bit people or were vicious – for water buckets,” says Dr. Sathit.

The dogs were taken to Tha Rae – and beyond. The district become the “transportation hub of the international dog trade,” says Thuangsit. The dogs would be shipped everywhere – both locally in Sakon Nakhon and internationally to Laos and Vietnam. Vietnam was the biggest buyer. The international dog meat trade was “an international multi-million-baht business.” 

The international dog meat trade started “with the consumption of dog meat, [which] created the business,” says Thuangsit. “Many people got involved because it made good money.” Over time, campaigns to end consuming dog meat came about, and the only people who still eat it “are a select few.”

With the many missing dogs and local awareness of the dog trade, people all over Thailand associated the province with dog meat. 

Locals in Sakon Nakhon were stigmatized and seen as sinners by the rest of Thailand due to the international dog meat trade, even if, in reality, not very many actually eat dog meat. 

So… do people in Sakon Nakhon still eat dog meat?

For most, no. “It is too expensive and hard to find!” says Dr. Sathit half-jokingly. “Dog meat is even more expensive than chicken, pork, or beef, and is called ‘neua sawan’ or ‘heavenly meat.’”

In the past, it was a household-to-household affair. Today, it’s the same. “Some households will eat dog meat. Some won’t,” Dr. Sathit says. It’s up to personal taste. Similar to the howling from the rot ma laek ku that drove through the allies of Sakon Nakhon, some will perhaps always see dogs as pets, while others see them as food.

Considering only relatively few residents still consume dog meat in Sakon Nakhon, maybe the tradition or preference for dog meat will always be here. 

“I wager that for the rest of Sakon Nakhon, it’s no more than 20 to 30 percent that still does [eat dog meat],” says Thuangsit Phongpit, “even if they don’t want to admit it.” 

*******

From Sapa, I traveled farther into Lao Cai province, Vietnam. I arrive in Bac Ha, a predominantly Hmong town known for its beautiful mountain scenery with a rich history. 

The curving mountain passes close to Bac Ha. Photo: Russell Chapman.

While in Bac Ha, I travel to many places, including Hoang A Tuong Palace, the residence of an affluent family during French colonial rule with mountainous views and picturesque landscapes.

Hoang A Tuong Palace in Bac Ha, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam, is similar to the French colonial  architecture of buildings in Sakon Nakhon. Photo: Russell Chapman

As I walked through Bac Ha’s lively market, I was stopped by the sight of a dog tied up with a rope. I’m reminded again of the dog meat I’d seen at the market. I wonder what this poor dog’s fate will be.

Bac Ha Market in Bac Ha, Vietnam. On Sundays, dogs are occasionally sold for meat. Photo: Russell Chapman

Photo: Russell Chapman

On my way to get phở (rice noodle soup) with my friend, I noticed a small restaurant with a sign advertising “thịt chó” (“dog meat”). It was a small restaurant. About six men sat in a circle drinking alcohol while consuming lumps of dark-looking meat. 

At the pho restaurant, I asked my friend, “Was that… dog meat?” while knowing, with a sinking heart, the answer was “Yes.” 

I was beside myself. The feeling of nausea overtook me. I couldn’t finish my noodles. 

*******

For some, a dog will always be man’s best friend. For others, a favorite dish.

Russell Chapman is an MA student from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is interning with The Isaan Record.