Plaa Buek the Giant
Catfish of the Mae Khong
THE PERIOD OF TIME just after Songkran brings in a special fishing season in Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province. This is the period when people go to the Mae Khong River, which is at low ebb, and fish for the giant catfish called Plaa Buek, literally 'big fish', or Pangaslanodon gigas Chevy. Giant indeed, as adult fish can weigh up to 300 kg. and attain a length of two-and-a-half to three meters. The giant fish live only in the Mae Khong River, feeding on aquatic plants and algae on the river bottom.
Despite their prominent size, little concrete knowledge has been gained about the fish. The supposition is that they are swimming up the Mae Khong during April and May to spawn in Lake Dali in southwestern China. Nothing, however, is known for certain.
Freed from the constraints of agricultural labor by the searing weather of the height of the hot season, the men of Chiang Khong have traditionally used these two months to fish for the giant catfish. An old Thai and Lao belief states that whoever eats the meat of these fish will have a long and prosperous life so people are willing to pay as much as 500 baht per kg. for plaa buek meat. With prices like that, the capture of just one of these mammoth fish can handsomely augment an indigent farmer's income.
A great deal of ceremony is attendant on plaa buek fishing. The fish are considered sacred, and prayers and offerings are necessary to ask permission of the Spirit of the Waters and those watching over the plaa buek to capture these giant fish. At the beginning of the fishing season, villagers arrange an offering table with food and drink, incense, candles, and flowers. The fishermen stand respectfully with flowers, candles and incense in their hands and offer a wai to invite the spirits to descend and partake in the essence of the offerings. Rituals are also observed for the blessing of boats and other fishing equipment. Boatmen pick up a handful of rice to determine the proper sacrifice to offer. An even number of grains indicates the spirit wishes a pig to be sacrificed and an odd number of grains shows that a chicken is desired. When the fishermen are successful, it is necessary to sacrifice the indicated animal and offer the spirit of the boat a meal of curry, sticky rice, and home-distilled rice whiskey. Naturally, the spirits enjoy only the essence of the offering so it is incumbent on the human participants to consume the offering meal once the spirits have had their portion.
Other ceremonies are held at the close of the fishing season to thank the spirits for the prosperity a successful season has brought.
With the meat of these fish so valuable, the plaa buek fishery was severely abused in the past. Catches declined from large numbers forty or fifty years ago to only fifty or sixty fish per season in recent years, and fears were expressed the giant fish were headed for extinction. A breeding program was begun the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture to try and restore the population of plaa buek in the Mae Khong river to something like its former levels.
An annual event in Chiang Khong has been organized to restore the old customs of the plaa buek fishing season. The ceremonies still occur and the festival features a beauty contest, boat races between Lao and Thai fishermen, and of course plenty of good Thai food. Visitors to Chiang Rai in April and May should avail themselves of the opportunity to visit Chiang Khong and maybe even sample a dish containing the meat of this fabled fish.c