The Giant Catfish
of the Mae Khong River
Around the middle of April, about the time of the traditional Thai new Year's celebration of Songgran, the two Bhodi trees in Baan Haad Krai's main wat begin tc lose their leaves. It is the hot season and the water-level of the nearby Mae Khong river is at its lowest. By the end of May, however, the rains will have returned, the two Bhodi trees will be green with new leaves, and the Mae Khong will be on the rise.
From the middle of April to the end of May, Baan Haad Krai in Amphur Chiang Khong (Chiangrai province) is the site of an ancient event. As their forefathers did before them, the men of Baan Haad Krai leave their felds and go to the banks of the Mae Khong. Armed with large nets, the men play the waters of the river in long wooden boats, seeking to catch one of the world's largest freshwater fish.
These men, most of whom work 10 months of every year working their felds. spend most of April and May trying to net the giant catfish native only to the longest river in Asia, the Mae Khong. These giant fsh are called Pla Buek (pangasianodon gigas chevy).
An adult Pla Buek can weigh as much as 300 kilograms and measure up to 3 meters in length. They feed exclusively on the aquatic plants and algaes found in the Mae Khong. Except for the fact that they spawn in April and May, little is known about their habits. There is speculation that these giant fish travel up the Mae Khong to spawn in southern China's Tali lake, but this is only speculation.
What is not just speculation is the fact that not too many years ago the Pla Buek were in danger of becoming extinct. It has only been in the last ten years that Thai Biologists became concerned about the survival of this huge catfsh. The fishery has been seriously abused, and concerned scientists have been artificially breeding Pla Buek.
Artificial breeding is accomplished by first giving hormone injections to a male and a female Pla Buek, after the hormone injections have been administered sperm taken from the male is mixed with eggs taken from the female (8-10 kilos of eggs per female are an average yield). Once the fry (young fish) reach a size enabling them to fend for themselves, they are then released into the wild. Every year for the last seven approxirmately 20, 000 of these artificially bred Pla Buek have been put into either the Mae Khong or one of many resevoirs of Thailand.
These fish are much sought after, for not only is the fish reputedly wonderful to eat, it is believed that people who eat Pla Buek will enjoy long healthy and prosperous lives. For these two reasons, people are willing to pay as much as 500 Baht per Kilo for the the ffesh of the Pla Buek.
These fish are also viewed as being sacred and, before the fihing can begin rituals must be performed. In former times, the rituals and celebrations would last more than three weeks: Brahmin would be called upon to insure the correct sacfices were offered to the Spirit of Water and the Spirit of the Fish, and to bless the boats, nets and fshermen. these rituals were accompanied by days and nights of food and drink music and dancing.
Today the fishing season is still marked by sacrifices and celebrations these happening at the beginning and end of the season. In Baan Haad Krai, fshermen perform ritual sacrifice for their boats. Boat owners pick up a handful of rice, if the number of grains of rice is even the spirit of the boat prefers the sacrifice of a pig if the number of grains of rice is odd the spirit of the boat prefers a sacrifice of a chicken. If a catch is made, the spirits are offered a large meal of chicken or pork sticky rice and home-made rice whiskey.
Celebrations at Baan Haad Krai include beauty contests and boat races between Laotian and Thai boatmen; visitors are welcome, and it's not only a fun time, one may get to see, up close and real, one of the giant catfsh of the Mae Khong the Pla Buek.