Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Isaan Fishing Derby

Just about every time that we go off in the pickup truck, other than shopping trips, I haul my backpack of camera gear along with us. I have found the highways and byways of Isaan to be extremely interesting and fascinating. Bringing the camera gear affords me the opportunity to document and share the various aspects of life here in Isaan. Today we were going out to Duang's daughter's place to take her, her husband, and their 6 week old son out to Duang's mother's place in Tahsang village. Later in the day Duang and I were going to the next village to watch Duang's brother perform. We had been invited the previous night by the village headman. Just as is advisable in any country to ensure good relations with those in power, we agreed to attend despite Duang's concerns for possible violence. Mahlam Lao shows have a reputation for bringing out the worst in people. Actually is not the shows themselves but the heavy amount of drinking associated with the shows by the spectators.

We got a late start because we had to purchase some items for Duang's mother. It was late morning as we approached Duang's daughter's village. Just outside her village alongside the road is a Wat with a fairly large pond or maybe a very big mud hole. The water is about 15 feet to 20 feet below the elevation of Wat and is about 300 yards in diameter. Ponds similar to this dot the Isaan countryside. They are used to impound runoff water during the rainy season. During the remainder of the year many of them are used to raise fish, prawns, or ducks as well as providing water for crops.

Today was a special day and a great day to have a camera with you. The pond and the rim around the pond was filled with people. The people were fishing. Duang asked if I wanted to take some photographs and said we could turn around if I did. There was need to ask again as I made the u-turn to return to the Wat.

The Wat was raising money to help support the Monks as well as maintain the buildings. To raise the money, the people were being charged 100 baht each to fish in the pond. When a person paid their 100 baht to a layperson they received a paper crown with a ink stamp on the raised portion of the crown. Duang inquired and determined that 100,000 baht had been raised (1,00 people). We arrived around 11:00 A.M and the oppressive heat and sun was already taking it toll on the fishermen. Many were packing up and leaving in their farm trucks.

During the year the pond is home to many fish perhaps even a breeding population. Fishing is not allowed and feeding the fish is a favorite pastime of the local people. In Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River the waterfront Wats are sanctuaries for the local fish population. Fishing is not allowed along the river in front of the Wats. People along the bank as well as people in long tail tourist boats feed bread to the fish - thousands and thousands of fish. It is amazing how many fish and how large they are. It is always a good laugh to see some tourists get wet from the fish floundering around in a feeding frenzy.

Today there was no feeding frenzy by the fish in the pond but there was definitely a fishing frenzy by the people. People were fishing along the banks of the pond. People were fishing from narrow steel dugout style boats. People were fishing from rafts made out of rubber inner tubes and pieces of bamboo. Some people were standing in the shallow water fishing. Some people even appeared to be standing on the water fishing!

Standing on the water? No, this turned out to not be some kind of miracle or super religious experience. The people had modified motorcycle wheels to create platforms to stand on while fishing. Short pieces of metal pipe with steel plates on one end had been welded to the wheel. Pieces of bamboo about 4 feet were inserted into the steel cups and the assembly was then inverted, with the bamboo thrust into the muddy bottom to create a place for the fisherman to stand in the shallow water.

There was not a single fishing pole in sight or a hand line. The people fished by either of two methods. The first method, I had photographed several times before in Isaan. This method is what I call the "dip net" method. According to Duang it is called "Sa Doong" - ironic in that the name of the village is "Sa Doong" - but things are often ironic and unexplainable here. It is part of the charm and allure of Isaan. The Sa Doong is a 20 foot by 20 foot fine monofilament net suspended from a long bamboo pole. Bamboo poles are also used to hold the net in a square shape. The fisherman stands in the water and dips the net into the muddy water. After a short period of time, the fisherman rears back from the waist, and using their back muscles lifts the large net out of the water.

The other method of fishing is using a hand thrown monofilament net. This is called "hair". This is the same type of net that I saw being crocheted in Tahsang Village late last month. Hand nets were being thrown all over the pond. They were thrown from boats and rafts as well as by some people standing in the water. Throwing the net is more effective most of the time from the platforms in the water. The additional elevation acquired by standing on the platform helps spread the net out over the water. For some people though, the process of standing on a small diameter platform on flimsy bamboo legs in the water while heaving a large diameter net with all their might ended up spreading their body over the water as well as their net. Whenever someone catapulted themselves over the water ending up with a big splash there would be an outburst of hoots and hollers from the other fishermen and their families on the elevated banks of the pond. There was plenty of hoots and hollers during the hour that we were there.

It appeared to be a fairly successful day for the fishermen. They were happy to show off their catch. Some fish were pretty large - 10 to 15 pounds.

Exhausted and thirsty we left to continue on our original agenda.

After visiting Duang's mother for awhile, we went to the next village. Duang advised me not to bring my camera which was very good advice. We were there for about an hour and there were four fist fights to go along with scores of falling down drunk people. We gladly left - safe and sound.

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