One of the most interesting things you can do in Isaarn if you’re teaching there is go fishing. Nor do I mean the type of fishing where you go and sit on an insect-infested riverbank and wait for some muddy-tasting carp to come and mouth your bit of bread dough – oh no, fishing in the boonies is far more exciting than that. Scattered all over the place are numerous ‘hoowhy’ (reservoirs) and ‘keu-un’ (lakes) which are not only very quiet and picturesque places to unwind after the tribulations of the classroom, they also offer some of the most intriguing piscatorial pursuits it’s possible to imagine.
Before you’re going to be able to get into it, though, you’re going to have to go and get yourself some gear. Don’t imagine, however, that the cost of this is going to be prohibitive to your enjoyment; while as one of my students said ‘Thai fishermen like to buy the expensive big brand names because they can demonstrate their skill’ (demonstrate the susceptibility of yet another ego-oriented male culture to the wiles of capitalism, if you ask me), and while the owners of the fishing shops in particular are going to encourage you to part with your hard earned baht in exchange for the complete matching ‘his and hers’ set of rod, reel, and garishly adorned gloves, hat, vest, tent and shoes, it is of course the fisherman and not the equipment that maketh the moment. Even that cheap Chinese stuff you buy at the market at Kong Chiam would, to people a hundred years ago, be a marvel of modern technology, and, if you just take care not to get any sand in it, will do a magnificent job in catching you some decent fish; believe me, you can get an outfit that’s going to last you for years brand new for no more than five hundred baht. A small ‘egg-beater’ reel (as we call them in Australia) can be obtained for about two hundred and fifty baht, and a rod to go with it will cost you the same. Rod-wise, get something stiff, and for line something around 15 lbs; some of the fish you’re going to latch onto in Isaarn are enormous, and this type of equipment is also convenient for pulling your lure out of the trees.
Personally, I prefer to use a close-faced reel and a pistol grip rod, which once again for a pretty fancy looking set-up comes to around five hundred baht (and you just know that someone in China’s life totally sucks when you can make such a score); such an outfit allows you to cast the lightest of lures with great accuracy into the gaps in the lilly pads and under the trees.
Furthermore, you’re going to have to get yourself some lures. Like I say, while once you get keen bait fishing can be a lot of fun in Isaarn as well, the real excitement for especially beginners is found on the move; you can get some wickedly healthy exercise and traverse a lot of very interesting environment, while simultaneously entertaining yourself enormously (not to mention getting something yummy to eat) by purchasing yourself a few simple plastic frogs. They’re the go; you want the type you can buy at any tackle shop that have either twin upturned hooks and a few streamers hanging off their bum, or that in front of them are decorated with a propeller. Grab a couple of both, and make sure you get big ones because it pays to be optimistic (upturned hooks are essential so that you don’t get stuck in the aquatic vegetation – nothing can be more vexing); the cheapest ones go for around twenty baht, and the top of the range for about one hundred and fifty.
As for what else you’re going to need, none of it is specific to fishing; one of the best things about Isaarn is the warm weather, so you don’t have to worry about all that stuff like waders and fancy vests. Don’t bother with accessorising, in other words, you’re going fishing, not to a fashion parade; get a broad brimmed hat, so your face and neck don’t get burned off, a t-shirt, a pair of jeans or army pants or something, some socks and some sneakers. You can wear shorts fishing if you’re keen, I’ve done it heaps of times myself; the downside of that, though, is that if you make your way through the lotus beds, you’re going to get scratched beyond recognition. The leaf stems of lotus lillies are covered in amazingly stiff bristles; if they didn’t evolve to be like that specifically to dissuade animals like the ubiquitous Isaarn ‘kway’ (water buffalo, careful how you say that) from trampling them to death, they’re certainly fearsome enough to do so, and you’ll find that unprotected passage through the lotus patch can be a horror expedition.
And then, of course, there are ‘bling’. I’m sure you know the bling; the first sign of its presence, if your senses have been heightened by fear to a point sufficient to make you conscious of it, is a gentle caress on whatever part of your body you’ve left uncovered (it could be the genital region if you opt for the shorts). What feels like the softest and most pleasurable touch imaginable, however, is a far cry from anything that is going to take you to nirvana; what you’re really feeling is a hand-span long black and orange aquatic leech, the most horrific thing you can imagine, zooming in for a feed. If I opt for the shorts, I just don’t look at my legs until I’m finished fishing (by which time they’ve generally dropped off, leaving merely the bleeding wounds) – mate, if I feel anything caressing my genitals, I’m out of there and, irrespective of the presence of an audience, it’s off with the drawers. Jeans tucked into socks and fastened tightly around the bottom of a t-shirt do, however, keep them off you. The trick is too, of course, to keep out of the shallows around the edge of water bodies that are less accessible to the fish; I think the fish must eat them, and so here tends to be their haunt.
Anyway, once you’ve got all your stuff together, there’s only one thing between you and all the fun; you have to find a spot. There are a couple of approaches you can take here; the first is to head to one of the larger and more well known keu-un you can see on the map. A good example of such a keu-un is Lake Sirinton, which would have to be one of the most beautiful places in the world; there are very few places in Lake Sirinton you can throw your line where you’re not going to catch fish. I’m not going to spill all my beans here, because part and parcel of getting into fishing, or an intrinsic part of what makes it so much fun, is adventuring around to find the good spot; one clue I can provide though is that around Pattaya Noi, which is pretty much the first place you come to when you drive to Sirinton, is an excellent place to get started. Particularly in the wet season; if you go and chuck your plastic frog off the rocks by the side of the road just before you get to where all the raft restaurants are when the water is right up to the edge of the road, you better be ready to hang on. Which reminds me; if you haven’t tried fishing before, make sure you set the drag on your reel properly – on an eggbeater it’s the dial on the front of the line spool, and you want it set so that when you pull your lure, rather than breaking line will grudgingly unwind off the spool (the idea is that big fish will, rather than being able to bust you off and escape, become fatigued having to drag line off the reel). Mess with it, and you’ll soon see what I mean. Oh, and don’t forget either to, if you do go to Sirinton, go and give some bananas to the monkeys; just past the spillway, there’s a sign saying ‘Tourist Attraction: Natural Spring’, and if you drive in there and blow your horn a cool tribe of monkeys will emerge that you can feed.
For my own part, though, all the fun is to be had in the hoowhys. The land in Ubon and Sisaket, my favourite haunts, was once an ancient seafloor, and in many places as soon as you get off the main roads you’re in essence driving along a beach-track; all that white sand and the gum trees that have taken over the countryside around there, as an Australian, remind me of all the most wonderful times I’ve had in my life. I keep expecting, in fact, to pop out onto a beach any second! At any rate, if you get onto your motorbike and charge out into the bush, you can ask the farmers where the hoowhys are; the more remote it is, and the bigger it is, the more fish you’re going to catch. The best ones are the hoowhys that have sections that are thick with lotus and/or choked with grass and reeds; herein there be frogs, and you of course are trying to tempt the fish into biting on an imitation of this type of tucker. This is where it becomes insanely fun; march to the edge of the water, chuck your frog into the gaps in the lilies or just drag it across the top of the grass and weeds (which won’t be a problem if you have a lure of the type I described earlier), and you can actually watch the water boiling as fish compete for a feed. It is, as I say, really exciting; the fish will burst out from all over the place in big explosions of water to get their teeth into your lure.
And what sort of fish are there to catch? That’s part of the fun, too; if you come from another country, and you’re not familiar with the species to be found in Thailand, it’s interesting to launch your frog into the unknown and see what you come up with. Expect to catch the following; you’ll get blah sood (Asian Perch), or in the regional dialect, blah gasoob, you’ll get blah chon (what the Americans call ‘snakehead’, and the Koreans ‘gamulchi’), and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get the big brother of blah chon, blah chadoh, which grows as big as your leg. Personally, I don’t fish for anything except the latter two species myself, having tired of the prevalence of the former; it is blah chon in particular that I like to catch, as they are incredibly smart, and it gives me a great sense of achievement to capture one. I see them peeping at me from under the lilly pads, laughing to themselves I’m sure at my audacity in thinking they can be outsmarted; they can be though, and so violent is their strike when you trick them into biting that it just about gives me a heart attack every time (it is, I mean, a fantastic adrenalin rush). And, of course, they are delicious – if you’re going to engage in the cruelty of fishing, you have a black heart indeed if you’re not even going to take a couple home for a feed.
Perhaps the last thing I should mention here being that earlier, I made it sound like Isaarn fishermen like to mindlessly dress up in the accoutrements of consumerism, or buy themselves all the brand gear and parade about like popinjays; as is the case in Australia (and Korea – you want to check out FTV here) there are plenty of people who confuse appearance (the possession of wealth?) with ability, but in actuality if I left you thinking this about the people around Ubon/Sisaket you would be harbouring an impression that for the most part lies a long way from the truth. I feel a real affinity with these people because I come from the countryside in Australia, and because as at home there are a lot of people in these parts who enjoy outdoor sports like fishing; as is the case in my own neck of the woods (as I mentioned in my previous article, the Far North Coast of New South Wales), as you make your way about the Ubon/Sisaket region you’re going to find a lot of really down to earth people who seriously enjoy their angling. It seems to me that the people of Isaarn, perhaps better than anyone, know showing off for what it is; I can guarantee that there will be times when, as you emerge from tangled thickets at the crack of dawn in some remote place that you’ve soldiered to to get away from the hoi polloi, it will be to do so only to find some bedraggled but grinning village legend with his frog already out there on the water.
And the real sign of their good character, of course, is that, rather than having a temper tantrum, they invariably move over and invite you to come and stand beside them.