Friday, January 18, 2013

Monks In The Mud - Fishing In Isaan

Monks Fishing By Hand Outside Tahsang Village

On my photography website I have a gallery entitled "Monks In The Mist", and another gallery entitled "Monks In The Morning"  Today, I ended up taking photographs that could be placed in a gallery entitled "Monks In The Mud".

We started the day with three main objects.  The first was to burn a CD of photographs for my client in Europe and send it to her.  The second objective was to go out to Kumphawapi and pay the monthly fees for our grandson to attend school.  The last objective for the day was for me to write a blog on fishing in Isaan.  I had recently posted a photograph on Facebook that one of my friends had expressed some interest in what was going on.  I had promised a blog related to the photograph soon.

Well, for many reasons, "soon" here in Isaan takes a while to become reality.  My main delay was getting caught up with editing and post processing the photos that I have taken in the past month.  I then started to clear up the backlog of blog entries that have been in my head for the past month.

First thing in the morning we got a call from Duang's mother asking why I was not coming out to the village to photograph the Monks doing something with the fish in the ditch outside of Tahsang Village.  Well, since we were then aware that something was going on, we incorporated a visit to Tahsang Village into our schedule.

I had seen a new holding pond being constructed outside of the Wat that is inside of Tahsang Village so I assumed there was going to be some kind of ritual or blessing to fill the ditch with water from the flood plain and stock it with some fish.  Well, I sure got that wrong. What was actually happening was the Monks from the Wat outside of the village along with some of the villagers were draining the ditch outside of that Wat and removing the fish.  They were removing the fish for the villagers to eat and to sell any surplus to help pay the electrical bill for the Wat.  The monthly bill for the Wat runs around 1,000 Baht ($33 USD) a month.

Tahsang Village Men Fishing By Hand
When we arrived at the ditch we discovered that the fishing had been going on for a while.  The ditch had been divided up into two sections.  The first and largest section had been drained to the point that rather than holding water, it contained about 18 to 24 inches of muck, a sort of earth pudding, and fish.  Several of the men were bent over knee deep in the muck searching for and grabbing fish with their hands.  When they did catch a fish, they washed it off in a bucket of water and either placed it in a collecting bucket or tossed it up on the embankment where people were cooking fish over the coals of a log fire.

Fish Being Cooked the "Old Fashioned Way"
I knew that they had been at it for awhile not by the number of fish that they had caught but by the number of beer bottles and Lao Lao (Isaan Moonshine type whiskey) up on the embankment where the fish were being cooked.  The people may have been working but that never seems to prevent them from enjoying themselves or making a party out of it.

The two young Monks of the Wat were also out in the muck grabbing fish with their hands.  The Monks did not kill the fish nor did they eat because it was past noon.  They only eat one meal a day and it must be completed by noon.  I suspect that they were doing it for the fun of it and camaraderie with the villagers. No matter their motivation, they were enjoying themselves as much as any one.

The Monks Working To Corner A Fish
A wide range of "fishing" attire was worn by the men.  Some of men wore pakamas (cotton cloth strip) wrapped around their waist and up through their crotch so that the looked like the main character from the 1937 film, "Sabu, The Elephant Boy".  One man was wearing only his western style athletic briefs.  Other men wore a sarong around their waist while others opted to wear cotton shorts or cutoff sweat pants.  The Monks were wearing something similar to Sabu The Elephant Boy undergarment only it was the same color as their Monk robes.   Well actually it was the same color as their robe before they entered into the ditch.  After everyone entered into the ditch, they were quickly covered with a grey creamy muck.  Their garment was also more intricately wrapped and twisted than the laymen.  The older Monk, perhaps 25 years old, had a belt type device around the top of his garment,  The device was not a simple belt but was comprised of tubes, cords, and perhaps a small chain.

Two Monks After Fish
I was invited to join them fishing but once again I was happy to remind them that it looked like work and I did not want the Police to come and take me to jail because I was working.  Having told them that they were happy to just have me take pictures of them.  I did not tell them that I did not have the heart or courage to go into the muck and actually try to grab something that I could not see with my bare hands. I did joke with them that I had brought a tuna fish sandwich to eat for lunch because I wasn't sure that they would be catching anything.

The Older Monk Takes A Rest From Fishing
They caught several small fish, ranging in size from 6 inches to perhaps 16 inches.  The smaller fish appeared to be Talapia and the larger fish I believe were Snakeheads,  They caught a few eel like creatures and some large snails.

Everyone had a great time laughing and joking as they fished.  The older Monk fell when he walked into a hole hidden under the muck - much to his amusement and everyone else.  The biggest laugh, so big that I almost fell down the embankment, was brought about by the youngest Monk.  He was squatted down in the muck when all of a sudden he started yelling and jumped up as a big splash could be seen exiting between his legs.  The largest fish of the day had swum between his legs and apparently brushed up against his inner thigh or someplace near there. I missed the shot but did see the fish.  Everyone was laughing hysterically including the Monk once he overcame his initial shock.  About 10 minutes later he captured what we believed was the offending fish.

The fish that were to be eaten were cooked the old fashioned way - they were thrown on to a bed of coals from the burning of a couple logs - no scaling, no gutting and no seasoning.  As the need for more coals became apparent the burning log was moved closer to the center of the fire.  Some of the fish were thrown on the coals alive and some people dispatched their fish before cooking them.  One man shoved a fresh twig down their throat to cook them over the coals.  A couple men placed the fish's head on an empty beer bottle laying on the ground and pounded the head forcefully with the bottom of another empty beer bottle. No matter how the fish were prepared, everyone seemed to really enjoy eating them.  I enjoyed eating and was thankful for my tuna sandwich.

One of My Buddies Displaying His Catch
Udonthani is the capital in Thailand of liver cancer incidence caused by a parasite that infects fresh water fish and snails.  The hospitals have signs posted informing the people of the danger of eating improperly prepared fish and snails.  The main contributor to infection is the consumption of unpasteurized fermented fish - a Lao Loum staple.  I am leery of eating local caught and prepared fish and snails.  I am not afraid of the fermented fish because just the smell of it makes me sick so I would never be eating it.

After the smaller section of the ditch had been drained and fished the village men went to the Wat where the women had prepared  all kinds of local dishes from the fish that had not been grilled.

Having had their fun for the day, the Monks returned to their quarters.

Having had our fun for another day, we returned to our home in Udonthani.

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