Made the trip to the Land of Smiles, viz., the Kingdom of Thailand, more specifically to Bungsamran fishing park in Bangkok, for two days of fishing for the famous Mekong Giant Catfish. It was a fantastic trip, click through for the full story.
This time I was travelling with my fishing buddy Tommy and we would be using the guide services of Mr. Eddie Mounce and his company Fish Thailand. There are plenty of guides online but Eddie’s proven track record, no-nonsense pricing scheme and very obvious knowledge of fishery matters made me choose his company before all others. We arrived in Bangkok in the late afternoon of Thursday, I rang Eddie to confirm the next day’s fishing, and then Tommy and I headed out to eat “boat” noodles, a famous Thai dish, with meat and seasoned heavily with a curious mixture of spices; a perfect eye-opener after a six-hour flight from Tokyo with numerous kanchuhai sunk on the way. Our hotel was well placed and everything we wanted from restaurants, street food stalls to 7-Eleven were within easy walking distance. Suitably refreshed, we stopped at one of the more reputable houses for a foot massage. Seemingly every other business on the road was a massage parlour yet the great majority were little more than disorderly houses; although I have little interest in such places it is hardly my place to pass judgement on those who do. Those of a delicate nature may find the numerous pasty-white pot-bellied spindly-limbed elderly Caucasian men buying young and not so young prostitutes a distraction, yet in and amongst the various red-light establishments are a number of very good restaurants and ‘regular’ massage places. The massage “spa” we discovered was new, well-furnished and quite beyond reproach, and above all, in the rather chaotic neighbourhood, quiet. Such a precious commodity! The delicately featured masseuse had quite powerful hands and I was transported in silent relaxation – only interrupted by the popping and cracking of my various joints – as she set to work, without the least hint of a “special menu” or “extras”.
The next morning Eddie himself came to our hotel to pick us up at the most civilised hour of 8am and we headed off into the notorious Bangkok traffic to Bungsamran fishing park. We spoke at length about a variety of subjects and it was obvious Eddie is a very passionate and knowledgeable ichthyologist and angler. After about 45 minutes or so we arrived at Bungsamran. It is quite odd to come across the place, seemingly in the middle of a residential part of the city, and compared to the Japanese pay-and-play fishing ponds I have been to, it is an amazing place, not just in its immense scale. It has its own restaurant and bar, shop for drinks and sundries, big tackle shop, gift shop, well-kept showers and Western-style toilets (the jakes at some Japanese fishing ponds would embarrass even the most seasoned traveller), and even a barbershop! The crowning glory must be the on-site massage room, which seemed eccentric at first but once we spent a day fishing at the lake, is eminently reasonable.
Anyway, we headed off to our “bungalow” which has a deck that opens out on the lake. Eddie introduced us to our fishing guide Alley, a highly comic personality – exaggerated perhaps by him carrying a songbird in a cage when we first met – much given to little quirks like deadpan jokes or bursting out into song. However, over the next two days it was clear he was a most dilligent angling guide and took his work, getting us onto fish, very seriously. Eddie showed us the tackle and how it would be fished, and explained what we should expect over the day’s fishing. In some respects it resembles the fishing park methods for herabuna here in Japan: a powder-mash bait under a float with a hook to snag the fish when they inhale the cloud of dissolved bait, but obviously everything on a much grander scale, and the rods have large fixed spool reels and casting a good distance into the lake was required, something Alley did with great accuracy each time. Before we knew it, we had our first fish on and Eddie tied a fighting belt about me as I felt the power of the Mekong catfish for the first time. They are very strong fish, and fight to the last; if like me you are used to offshore sea-fishing, very often large fish will be played out as they near the surface and are often suffering from decompression, but just as you think the Mekong catfish is in your hands at the surface she will dive and make another enormous run, stretching your line, reel and arms to the limit.
Anyway, after finally landing, photographing and releasing the fish, and me desperately trying to command my trembling hands and wheezing from a lack of breath, Tommy caught his first catfish. It was pretty much non-stop action from then on.
Despite a couple of line breaks and a snag on the bungalow supports below, the fish put up a great show, drag-burning runs and their knack, when you think the fish is done and ready to be netted at your feet, of powering away into the deep and starting off another long arm-wrenching play. Whether the fish do not resent the angle and are indifferent to being pricked (we caught several fish with several hooks and even floats attached to them) or the lake is simply stocked with a super-abundance of fighting-trim fish, is a mystery but it makes for a long, very exciting day of constant fishing action. Before arriving in Thailand Eddie warned me by e-mail that it would be physically testing fishing, and that most anglers do not last the full day, but you would not credit it until you have landed a half-dozen or so of these ever so game fish, and you feel like you have been in a fight.
All this time, Eddie and Alley were most dilligent in making sure we landed our fish, netting them and coaching us to make sure the fish didn’t snag on the deck supports below us. They also made sure we got plenty of photographs and that the fish were unhooked safely and released with care. We were landing fish after fish and it was hard work!
Come lunchtime we were treated to the Bungsamran restaurant’s interpretation of pad thai, which was excellent; right down to the little extra sachets of ground chillies and sugar, for the diner to use at his discretion.
I being a chilli-fiend poured most of the little red bag on my noodles, which almost made me lose my senses due to the chilli-burn; luckily some ice-cold bottled Chang beer was at hand. After wolfing down our repast and finishing off the beers, we returned to the serious business of fishing.
With lunchtime, it seemed even the fish stopped for a break and the frantic fishing of the morning was over. However, Eddie warned us that as the afternoon progressed, the same sized fish would put up an even greater fight, or in his words, ‘Start to wake up’. The next fish I caught did exactly that, and after a sinew-stretching fight I was surprised to see the fish no bigger than those we had caught in the morning.
More rod-bending arm-wrenching action.
Another cat in the bag.
I can’t think of any fishing with as much action as this. However, bearing in mind we were booked in for the next day also, we wrapped up the first day at about 4pm. I had booked us in to a seafood restaurant that night and we did not want to be caught in the afternoon rush hour and miss our spot.
We made it back to Sukhumvit in good time, in fact with enough time to have another hour-long foot massage, and then hopped on the great Bangkok metro to the restaurant. Seemingly everywhere you walk in Bangkok there are stalls selling food on the pavement, and with one’s senses being assaulted with all manner of delicious aromas and smokes, it was a great effort to resist the temptation to buy “just a couple” of grilled northern sausages or a giant dish of fried rice or roasted chicken before we arrived at the seafood restaurant.
Whilst the restaurant was unashamedly touristy – customers being bussed in in coaches, with every other table middle-aged Japanese – we too were tourists with about four words of Thai between us so it was without shame we ordered the restaurant’s signature dishes, crab curry and stir-fried morning glory, and also some fried rice and a nice dish of grouper, deep-fried whole and smothered in holy basil leaves and a sauce of garlic and shallots in fish-sauce. Sadly there was no room for grilled freshwater prawns (the two ladies at the table next to us consumed an immense plate of them and they looked very good) or a giant tom yum soup that is served in a bubbling metal heated pot; there is always next time.
The fried grouper:
We finished proceedings with a yo-ho-ho bottle of rum – despite calling itself whiskey, it really is rum – and made our way back to the hotel, for an early night in preparation for another day of crazy fishing at Bungsamran.
The following morning Eddie came to pick us up from the hotel and being Saturday, without the weekday rush-hour traffic we made it to the lake in about half the time it did the previous day. We ambled about the facilities and I stumbled across a mini-angler; that is, an angler trying to catch some of the multitude of tiny tilapia young in a drainage ditch alongside the lake with a stick of bamboo and a mini float rig. Being a devoted tanago fisher, I rejoiced in finding a kindred soul here in Thailand, and how I regretted not bringing my own tanago fishing gear with me! I furtively watched him for a bit – he seemed a little embarassed, perhaps at not catching anything with an audience present – and then my second good omen for the day came along, as I encountered a very friendy well-groomed cat at the lake reception, in fact the first cat I had seen since arriving in Bangkok. However, she seemed most preoccupied with trying to get at the Pringles and packed lunch on the tabletop so after a short communion I headed off to the fishing bungalow.
After some consultation with Eddie we decided to fish the lake floor for Siamese Giant carp and the bigger-sized Mekong catfish which would be physically less demanding and slower-paced. Mercifully it was cloudy and much cooler than the previous day, and we took advantage of our bungalow to relax and lay about. I got two good takes which proved to be both Striped catfish, not carp unfortunately, but it was nice to catch another species.
Since we didn’t catch any carp or large Mekong catfish after lunch we decided to revert to float fishing and try our luck. Lunch was excellent again, and after polishing off a couple of Chang beers and some energy drinks Alley switched the rigs on our rods and cast into the centre of the lake.
Well we had two rods between us, one with a left-handed reel and the other right; Tommy and I had agreed beforehand to catch only the fish on the reel of our preference (I the left and he, the right) so when Alley made the first cast of the day on float rig using the right-handed reel and immediately got a take, it was by rights Tommy’s fish. The fish proved to be a beast with long powerful runs seemingly to the other side of the lake; it took two men to play her and to make sure the fish didn’t snag herself on the neighbouring bungalow struts.
Here Alley proved indispensable, for all his quirks, as he gave Tommy all the necessary instructions whilst fighting the fish and lent a hand when needed; after a play of about 20 minutes, with the co-operation of the anglers either side of us to avoid fouling lines, Eddie netted the creature, Tommy took a well-earned break and I laughed out loud on seeing the size of the fish. She was a beast all right: bigger than anything either of us had taken or seen yet.
With the fish’s welfare always in mind, Eddie wrapped a wet towel around her tail peduncle, Alley thoroughly wetted the deck and then between three of us, with a heave-ho plucked the beast from the lake. What a catch! The fish was as big as a person.
After the necessary photos, and handshakes all-round, with Tommy fit to collapse in a heap, the fish was released, traumatised perhaps, but well enough to swim away into the lake after a little coaxing. We both caught a number of catfish later in the day, but none of them came anything close in size to this one, a fish to remember!
Alley seemed quite satisfied with the big catch and grew increasingly eccentric, such as his lugubrious chant of “Eddie camera, Alley net” whenever he was needed to net a catfish, and eventually brought in his songbird to keep us company. I have no idea was species it was, but it had a pretty, delicate plumage and seemed to recognise Alley and his instructions; between them there was quite a melody of bird-song, both avian and human. From Eddie I gathered there is quite a culture in rural Thailand for songbird “competitions” and that Alley was training this particular specimen, whose name was Dul.
Anyway, the fish kept biting throughout the afternoon and perhaps boosted by Tommy’s immense catch, or maybe just the cooler weather, we carried on fishing till about 5pm. After the tension, exertion and exhilaration of the big catfish, it was now all just very good fun. We had a couple more Chang beers in celebration of the good fish, and pondered on the next pressing issue, which was what to have for dinner.
During the late afternoon I had a fish break my hook, which is the first time I have ever seen that happening – hooks bent backwards innumerable times, but to have such a hook-end snap off, the fish must have been a monster! The ones that get away always are, of course.
Like all good things, the day’s fishing had to come to an end eventually. The last fish I caught put up quite a fight and was one of the most memorable: especially as she continued to fight long after being landed, with only Eddie’s lightning reflexes preventing her trying to take to the skies and coming to grief:
Having safely restrained, photographed and released the fish, our fantastic fishing came to a reluctant end. I bought a Bungsamran T-shirt and immediately put it on, as my own blue Tilley shirt was soaked through and through with fish slime. Despite searching for them, I was unable to spy the lucky fishing cat, or the lucky mini-tilapia angler, so we made our thanks and farewells to Eddie and Alley and we got in our taxi back to Sukhumvit. If any reader is contemplating a fishing trip to Bungsamran or Bangkok, I highly recommend the services of Fishing Thailand without the slightest reserve.
Anyway, after two days of amazing fishing, we had to choose our last meal in Bangkok before flying out the next day. I felt this decision was best made whilst having a foot massage, so after a shower and a change of clothes in the hotel we headed off down Soi 23 to our now usual place and were as ever, met with smiles and excellent service. Afterwards we walked down a side-street and into a restaurant I had remembered from the previous day, and soon we were settling down to nice ice-cold Singha beer and an enormous menu, from which I chose a number of dishes.
The tom yum was very nice, spicy and sour and with all the necessaries, as was the fried rice with naem sausage, but for me the crowning glory was a fiery green curry made from river fish-balls, quartered little Thai aubergines and thickened with egg yolk; a masterpiece of the kind that makes you contemplate kidnapping the chef and obliging him to make the dish for you at your whim.
The journey home was uneventful. The only slight complaint I can think of, during an overall absolutely amazing trip, was the disorganisation of passport control at Suvarnabhumi airport. It took us an hour and 45 minutes to get through on our way in, and an hour and a half on our way out, standing all the way. Not the best way to end or start a long international flight by any means; for the poor guys in front of us who had flown in from Cambodia, immigration would have taken longer than their flight! In particular, despite plenty of manpower there was nobody directing or controlling the movements of travellers so visitors with unique ideas on queuing, such as Gulf Arabs and Chinese, turned it into a massive free-for-all, which inevitably makes everything take thrice as long as it should.
One slight compensation is the great range of duty free shops (although the restaurants are best avoided) in the departures lounge and I was amazed to find Tiger balm on sale in its various formulations. I bought a box of balm-infused patches as I knew I would be needing them; already I could feel my right elbow beginning to sieze after all its fishing exertions.
The flight to Haneda passed without incident and so here I am, nursing my sore limbs in the cold of Tokyo winter and thinking fondly of Thailand and the catfish of Bungsamran. I do hope I can go again soon.