Dateline: October 23, 2013 – Nam Ngum, Laos
My first fishing trip to Laos did not leave me with the expectation that there would be a second fishing trip to Laos, or even the expectation that I would be allowed to re-enter the country. That fateful excursion in February of 2006 was poorly planned and badly executed, and while I did end up adding Laos as a country, I did so in a fashion that was, to put it lightly, tasteless. (And may mean that I will burn in hell.) I not only fished in a sacred pond, I also ruined my tour guide’s suit.
When I found out I would be in Thailand for business in October, I of course called my old friend Jean-Francois Helias, the French but otherwise wonderful Thailand-based guide who has found me so many exotic species. (Click here for examples.) When he suggested Laos and extolled its virtues as a species haven, I explained that I would rather put out my eyes with a fork.
Where does he find those outfits?
But Francois pursued the idea with a passion. In the past few years, he explained, he had spent weeks in Laos, scoping out the top spots and finding species that I have only seen in sweaty late-night dreams. I was finally convinced, and I could only hope I didn’t run into any of the many people I offended in 2006.
The logistics are not simple. We flew from Bangkok to Udon Thani, then drove from there to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. No matter how many times I asked “Are we there yet?” we didn’t get there any faster.
We had a spacious van and a Laotian driver – Boonmee – who was knowledgeable, polite, and safety-oriented. (All at the same time!) Once I had exchanged a couple of hundred US dollars for something like 1.5 million in local currency, we were off to Nam Ngum reservoir.
Transiting in Laos is not easy. The main roads are paved enough but narrow, and as we got further from Vientiane, conditions worsened until we reached the national rural standard of packed dirt with potholes that could hide a water buffalo and often did. Boonmee was a skillful driver, but 20 miles an hour was about tops, and there was no possibility of sleeping due to potholes, water buffaloes, and late-breaking detours through yards and sidewalks. As we got out in to the country, the scenery started getting beautiful – I guess I hadn’t noticed this in 2006, because I was too busy trying to figure out how to buy my tour guide a new suit. With an eye toward the statute of limitations, I am not going to publicly explain what happened, but feel free to contact me privately. I had no idea he was going to take a shortcut through a rice paddy.
Nam Ngum dam. Built by the French.
I approached the reservoir with great trepidation, as this was the exact place I had started in 2006, and I had not seen a single fish there.
A group of monks by the riverside. It may have been their pond where I caught my fish in 2006. I should still feel bad about this.
The lake. Our lodge was quite a bit more modern than these dwellings.
I wandered down to the dock and looked around skeptically, but then – two or three types of small fish appeared. Good enough for me, and out came the #24 hooks and bread. Moments later, I had my first Laotian species – the redtail barb.
It’s always nice to catch something with defining features.
A local fisherman returns from a day on the water. The hut on the left had a sign on it – “Vacation Rental.”
Other fish followed – catfish, barbs, and featherbacks. The guys from the lodge took great care of me – making sure I had bait, cold Coca-Colas, and even dinner down on the dock. Every time I caught something good, Francois would yell down “Well done, my man!” It was a pleasant evening until about nine, when it rained torrentially and I retreated to my bungalow.
The filamented catfish – my second species of the day.
The owner of the lakeside lodge spoke perfect French. He was born in Laos but lived and worked in southern France for 17 years before retiring and coming back to his homeland. Francois was pleased to be with someone who could speak his native tongue. They spoke well into the evening, and after a few Beerlaos, Francois began to sing. These were old French songs, from deep in his heart, songs of love and war, which always end in heartbreak, surrender, and collaboration. Something brought a tear to my eye, whether it was the raw emotion of the moment or how far Francois had wandered off key.
My boat driver, who looks scary but was a nice guy. That’s the lodge in the background – very nice accommodations and they had plenty of hot water for my freeze-dried camping food. Some of you may think experiencing local cuisine is part of visiting a country, but I am willing to sacrifice this to avoid local microbes.
The next day we fished the reservoir and some local ponds and streams. The lake, a disaster eight years ago, produced a variety of interesting creatures, none as fascinating as the freshwater puffers. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and I never would have found out if it weren’t for the ridiculously tiny hooks I brought.
The spotted freshwater puffer. This was unexpected.
The lineside barb. I only saw one of these in all my hours on the lake, but I caught it.
The longnose freshwater puffer. Now this is just cool.
We then headed off to explore some local ponds and rivers. We wandered around country roads in a 4×4, and one by one, knocked off a few more species.
Rhomboid barb. One particular pond was jammed with these.
Siamese glassfish. Oddly, I didn’t catch this in Thailand.
Looking up the river toward the dam. The floating huts on the right were loaded with fish.
My final species of the day – a bonylip barb.
As I sat down to a dinner of freeze-dried “chicken surprise” (the surprise comes in the morning,) it hit me that I had gotten six new species in one day, and we hadn’t even hit the best spot yet. I was beginning to like Laos.
The group from the Nam Ngum lodge. Great place – contact Jean-Francois if you want to arrange a trip -firstname.lastname@example.org
The next couple of days were scheduled for Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a two and a half hour drive from Nam Ngum, but this only covers perhaps 50 road miles. Francois was very excited about this location – a nature preserve that only allowed catch and release fishing. Laos is a poor country, and most public fishing is picked over very thoroughly for food. In 2006, I saw people using dynamite to catch dinner in a local river.
On the long drive, I learned another evil effect of the humid climate – “trench tush.” Also known as “tropical butt itch,” this is when the hot and sticky conditions create an unfavorable underwear climate and you can figure out the rest. This is when you pitch the Preparation H and grab the oven cleaner.
I’m guessing that the first feedback on this post will be someone saying “TMI, Steve.”
The drive went through some amazing hills and jungles, but the town of Vang Vieng was sublime. This is true upcountry Laos – mountains shooting up out of the jungle, white water rivers, kind people. Vang Vieng is a base for a lot of trekking, so the hotels and restaurants were quite nice, even if they were crowded with annoyingly fit European 20-somethings. I was so confident in the accommodations that I even took a break from my freeze-dried camping food and risked some fried rice with chicken. This is my idea of being adventurous with food.
Looking out my hotel balcony in Vang Vieng. There were no fish in this part of the river. Believe me, I tried.
As soon as we arrived, we headed to the market to get bait. We found earthworms and two sizes of grub, all apparently intended for human consumption – the grub vendor even tried to give me recipes. Francois and Boonmee then headed up to scout the preserve and check in with their local contacts. Things looked perfect. The weather was perfect, the water level was perfect, and we were heading to a spot crowded with exotic species.
What could go wrong?