1. On a hilltop I sit hugging my knees, watching the Mekong as it courses below, dividing the Golden Triangle into its three countries: Burma, Laos, and Thailand. From its homeland far, far away, where it begins as a trickle in the Himalayas, to where it empties into the South China Sea, the Mekong spans almost five thousand kilometers, making it the tenth longest river in the world. Over that length it changes and alters course innumerable times, but one thing it never does is go back the way it came.
The Chinese call it the Lahn Xang, or the “swiftly-coursing” river. But in China’s southernmost reaches, where the river actually flows, the Tai Lüe people—true river children—call it the Lanchang. It shares this name with the kingdom that was founded on its eastern bank, that of “a hundred thousand elephants” (and which has grown, more or less, into modern Laos).
Lahn Xang and Lanchang…how could they sound so similar, and yet mean such different things, I’ve always wondered.
As for those of us in the neighboring land of Lanna (of the “hundred thousand rice paddies”) on the Mekong’s western bank, land of the Tai Yuan—my people have always called it the Mae Kawng, the River Kawng. It must have been the city folk, the Bangkokians from down south (whoever they are), who misheard Mae Kawng as Mae Kong, from whence English Mekong.
But no matter what, no matter the particular river or its name, a river’s nature is munificence. Its duty is to flow, to dispense fertility on the land, to either bank of the valleys it carves, transforming little hamlets into the seats of kings. And so in Thai, the names of all rivers are preceded by the word “mae,” for rivers are “mothers,” all pouring their love among their children.
2. Chiang Kawng is an old frontier town downriver from the Triangle itself, following the curve of the Mekong, that’s always had an allure for me. In my youth, I went rather often as my aunt had a daughter in love with a soldier stationed in Huay Xai, across the river on the Lao side—what the locals call “Lai Na,” or the Bank Across.
When she snuck over to see him, my cousin would take me just in case to, as we say, “prevent dog bite,” because my aunt disapproved of it. Her husband had passed away not long before, and already my cousin was loving across borders—free love, and with a foreigner besides.
The upshot was I had the good luck of visiting Laos often, and got rewards for keeping my mouth shut. One my grandmother back home really looked forward to: packs of dried kai, a type of deep green freshwater plant that grows amid the rocks in that stretch of river. But what I loved more than this, and what sealed my lips better than any old folk’s algae could, was the Lucky brand cigarettes you couldn’t get in Thailand—a packet of which my cousin would slap into my palm each time we went to win me over. (She was a heavy smoker herself, and it had to be this brand and this brand only. Whenever she visited, her lover would have an entire case waiting for her.)
Something else I looked forward to was the farewell dinners we’d have beside the river on our final evenings. The spicy herbal tom yum with chunks of fresh fish was an entrée I dreamed of every time I crossed the water to the Bank Across. Fish in the Mekong are more delicious than anywhere else: the waters here are deep and rush past rocks and rapids, making the fish strong, their flesh firm—especially the black shark minnow, the silvery wallago, and, supreme among them, the giant Mekong River catfish.
3. Every year when the peacock tail trees bloom, the fishermen of Had Khrai, a fishing community in Chiang Khawng, perform a lavish buong sruong ceremony: to the spirits of wood and water they offer a sacrifice of cooked foods, trayfuls of fruit and vegetables, and bottles of local liquor before setting their traps in the Mekong, waiting for the giant catfish to run. The time from just before Songkran, the solar new year in April, to the middle of May, is what the catfish long for each year, and the fishermen know this. It’s then that, even from as far south as the great Tonle Sap lake of Kampuchea, the fish begin dreaming of their birthplace, of their homeland in Lake Tali of Yunnan, and start their long migration north in order to spawn.
These giant catfish are the lords of the Mekong. The people of southern Laos call them pla huek, which means the large, the massive, fish. We Thais, their close cousins, call them the same way, except that their –h has become our –b: pla buek, but meaning the same: the giant fish. The Khmer people of Kampuchea call them, in accordance with their ancient beliefs, the tre-rao-al, the fish of the gods, and some groups of the Mekong valley utter a more fearful name yet: the phantom fish, and will not capture, much less eat, one.
As for the English-speaking world, of course it is the giant Mekong River catfish, holder of the Guinness World Record for the largest catfish species. The specimens that the fishermen of Had Khrai once caught could measure 2.5 meters in length, weigh 180 kilograms. I myself have never seen a live one, much less a fish of such proportions. Whenever I try to imagine it, I see only an old photograph of my favorite author, Mr. Hemmingway, posing dashingly beside a 250-kilogram marlin he caught off the coast of Havana (but that, of course, was a deep sea creature).
4. Once I visited the Painted Rocks in Ubol Ratchani in Thailand’s northeastern plateau, separated today from Laos by the Mekong River. There, painted into the ancient pages of stone, are images believed to be over 3,000 years old: of enormous Mekong catfish beside tiny figures of humans and other animals: of elephants, oxen, dogs and turtles.
They give voice to the prehistoric inhabitants of the Mekong River valley, who settled the area with crops, who fished and hunted in its rivers and forests, but in intimate balance with the environment around them. Of this relationship, echoes can still be heard in the tales and beliefs that have been handed down since.
For instance, the people of Kampuchea’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, and in the vicinity of Kampong Cham, believe the pla buek is the fish of the gods, or that it comes from the spirit world, because in size and monstrous appearance it surpasses all other fish: the bulging eyes, set far apart on its broad, flat head; the gaping mouth; the whiskers like a dragon’s. Whoever catches one must release it at once before disaster strikes. Even today in Kampong Cham, whenever a pla buek gets caught in the hourglass-shaped traps, fishermen will drip scented oil on the fish before letting it go, like one might anoint the hands of one’s elders as a sign of respect, or drizzle holy water over a sacred image in the belief it will bring good fortune. These beliefs and local practices are a shrewd way of preserving these kings of the Mekong River, one might say.
Likewise, in the Thai province of Nongkhai, which borders the Lao capital-province of Vientiane, the fishermen have laid for themselves a set of rules: that the giant catfish may only be hunted between the thirteenth night of the waxing moon and the full moon, a space of only some two or three days. Furthermore, whoever catches the fish must divide its flesh among his neighbors so that as many people as possible can partake of it. It’s a rule that instills an appreciation for what one eats, as well as encourages charity by its very form. How wise were the people of the past—the fish are huge and, in their rush to spawn, so many swim upriver that they fill the nets and traps of their own accord. If everyone stormed into the water to capture them, they couldn’t possibly be all consumed, the leftovers would go to waste, and the river would be drained of fish.
These deeply-held values are present the entire length of the Mekong River, among the Thais, the Khmers, and the Lao, from the Painted Rocks of the lower Northeast to the shores of Had Khrai in Chiang Kawng. They all observe certain conditions, rules, codes of conduct. In one year there is only a single hunting season, before which permission must be asked of the gods, the genii of the earth and sky, the spirits of the hills and mountains, and most of all the lords of the river, who hold the fishes’ spawning grounds in their sway.
5. In 1989, after 14 years of isolation, socialist Laos opened its borders to tourism after seeing Chiang Kawng grow increasingly prosperous as a market town.
By the power of the great Mekong catfish, both banks of the river began ringing with the combined activity of Thai and Lao fishermen, and the money pouring in started drawing attention. By 1996, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in cooperation with Chiang Khawng municipality, was preparing a lavish buong sruong to attract visitors to the start of the fishing season. Even Prince Akihito of Japan attended the opening ceremonies, to watch the fisherman row out from Had Khrai to set their traps of woven bamboo in the brown water.
This rite officially opened the fish-hunt to the mass market.
Three years before this, the countries of the upper Mekong—China, Burma, Thailand, and Laos—agreed among themselves that trade should be increased along the river and organized a joint committee to survey its length. The conclusion? That it was necessary to blow up a number of islets and rapids along the river’s course, including Lost Spirit Rocks (which the people of Had Khrai had long believed to be the catfish’s nursery) if they wanted to be able to transport 300-500 ton barges. China pledged an investment of two million yuan.
In 2003, the sound of explosives began to rumble over the Mekong River. Towards the end of the same year, the Thai government approved a new trade deal with China to increase cooperation between the latter and the ASEAN free trade zone. It reduced duties on fish and vegetable imports to 0%.
6. In 2007, amid news that farmers in Chiang Kawng and nearby towns were hanging themselves to escape debt, while many others were stripping their fruit trees to protest the free trade policies and the arrival of commercial barges from China, my cousin, the one whose free love had reached across borders, died of lung cancer. (I wasn’t surprised, but did muse to myself that she wasn’t as Lucky as the cigarettes she loved to smoke.)
After that, there was no sign of anyone catching the great river catfish anywhere. Even along the shores of Had Khrai, where the fishing boom had begun, a quiet fell, and, what’s more, the waters in the middle Mekong were the lowest anyone had ever seen.
7. Translator’s Note: In 2016, Chiang Kawng announced that it was overhauling its historic riverfront with a massive landscaping project in order to create a manicured public park with walking trails, commercial space, and entertainment venues. An illuminated statue is planned as its centerpiece: an enormous image of the giant catfish.
Translator Bio: “Noh” Anothai’s translations range from classical Siamese poetry to contemporary Thai fiction. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature, Track for International Writers, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Author Bio: Born in Thailand’s Far North, Pibulsak Lakonpol (b. 1950) is well-known for his short stories, novels, essays, and poems, as well as his paintings. His first novel appeared in 1973. Lakonpol founded Su Fan (“Dreamward”), Thailand’s first literary journal devoted to poetry, ten years later, as well as established the Dontri Kawi Sanjorn Chonabot project, which brings writers and musicians to rural areas to promote the appreciation and practice of composing songs and poetry. He has written for a number of Thai periodicals, served as the president of the Writers Association of Thailand, and sat on the judging committees for several book prizes, including the SEAWrite (Southeast Asian Writers) Award.