With the annual Songkran Celebrations (Thai New Year) now complete, attention now switches to the small village of Baan Haad Krai in Amphur Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province, where a very special age old tradition is about to begin.
It is between mid-April and the end of May each year, when the powerful Mae Khong River (Mekong River) is at its lowest ebb that both local & foreign fishermen descend upon this remote part of Northern Thailand to try and catch the fabled Pla Buek which literally means “big fish” in Thai.
Little is known about the habits of Pangaslanodon gigas Chevy or Giant Catfish as they are better known, they can only be found in the Mae Khong River, and they feed on a mixture of algae & aquatic plants on the river bottom & it is widely believed that they travel up the river to spawn in Lake Dali in south-western China.
The adult giant catfish can reach a size of up to 3metres (10 feet) long & a weight of 300kgs (675lbs) and only as recently as 10 years ago was in grave danger of extinction due to over-fishing & widespread abuse of this wonder of nature.
It was at this time that Thai biologists from the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture established a study & breeding programme to help replace all the fish being lost annually. This programme has helped replenish stocks to the tune of 20,000 per year for the last 8 years, without which the giant catfish of the Mae Khong River would have become extinct !.
The problems for this fish originate from old Thai and Lao beliefs that whoever eats the meat of these fish will have both a long and prosperous life, this belief has lead to giant catfish meat being sold for up to 500 Thai baht per kilogram (2.25lbs), with prices like that it is not surprising that Local Agricultural Workers who toil for ten months a year on the land in near boiling temperatures take timeout during the hot season to try and land one of these monster fish that would considerably enhance their otherwise meagre existences.
Despite being “hunted” to near extinction the giant catfish is ACUALLY revered as being sacred, and as such commands considerable ceremony both before the season commences & at its conclusion.
Typically before any fishing takes place prayers and offerings are necessary to ask permission of the Spirit of the Waters and the Spirit of the Fish to help capture these giant fish.
Rituals are also observed for the blessing of boats and other fishing equipment this ritual is in the form of a sacrifice, the boat owners will pick up a handful of rice, carefully counting each grain, if the number of grains of rice is even the spirits prefers the sacrifice of a pig if the number of grains of rice is odd the spirits prefers a sacrifice of a chicken.
When a fishing boat is successful, and a catch is achieved, the spirits are offered a large meal of either chicken or pork (whichever has been selected by the grains of rice process),sticky rice and home-made rice whiskey.
The end of the fishing season also signifies further ceremonies to thank the spirits for the prosperity a successful season has brought.
The giant catfish fishing season in Chiang Khong has been further enhanced over the last few years by the creation of a festival featuring a beauty contest, boat races between Lao and Thai fishermen, and of course plenty of excellent Thai food !.
Visitors to Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai during this period are highly recommended to take this opportunity to visit the festival at Chiang Khong and sample for themselves the great fun, traditions and of course the delicious meat of the Pla Buek or Giant Catfish of the Mae Khong River.
How to get to There: Baan Haad Krai in Amphur Chiang Khong is 1-1.5hrs drive north of Chiang Rai, next to the river by the Laos border, there are also regular buses from the Arcade in Chiang Rai.