Dateline: January 18, 2015 – Salween River, Myanmar
“Damn it!” I yelled out into the Burmese morning. “Who the hell peed in my shoes?”
The answer would surprise me.
How was it that I ended up in Eastern Myanmar (or is it Burma?) with a pair of horribly violated low hikers? I suppose it is politically correct of me to call it Myanmar, but “Myanmar Shave” just doesn’t have the right ring to it.
It started, as it often does, with a business trip. I needed to be in Singapore and then Thailand for a few days in January, so naturally, I started hunting for some fishing options. Anything in this area is going to involve a call to Jean-Francois Helias, regional fishing genius and possessor of the most fearsome eyebrows in the business. (Details HERE.)
Jean Francois Helias, fishing master and sartorial daredevil. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Francois immediately suggested Burma. I counter-suggested that this would require a complex visa and had the risk of being carried off by local thugs, but Francois assured me that he knew an unrestricted border crossing where we could get me into the country. He did not mention getting me out, which worried me, but he also proved he had taken a number of clients there without mishap, as long as hangovers don’t count as a mishap.
Francois explained that this was not going to be the ideal time of year – the water would be relatively cool and fish would be harder to come by. Still, I was in the area, and there are only so many chances to add a new country for me – with 83 on the list, options where Americans are allowed to travel start to thin out. And I am NOT going to Iraq. I heard a rumor that there were fish of mass destruction there, but this turned out to be completely untrue.
We set the details. I would fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where Francois’ top guide, Kik, would pick me up and drive me the rest of the way, estimated at four hours. (Francois would not be able to attend this particular adventure, as his eyebrows were committed elsewhere, but Kik is a super guide.) I arrived on the appointed morning, and Kik and a buddy were there to get me. We piled into a pickup truck full of camping gear – did I mention we would be camping? – and headed for the border. The drive turned out to be a bit more than four hours, but not Sexy Rexian more. (Explanation HERE)
The scenery was sublime, as it always seems to be in Thailand.
Passing through farmland as we head for the mountains in western Thailand.
We wound our way through miles of farmland, then more miles of foothills, then onto a narrow mountain road for perhaps the last hour.
We drive along a small tributary of the Salween.
I was very rather eager to get fishing by the time we stopped in a small village on banks of the Salween. I realized that the mountains across the river were Myanmar.
The wooded hills on the upper right are Myanmar.
Four locals came out to greet us – our boat crew. They were a friendly bunch, and loaded everything into a long, covered boat typical of the region. I was ready to fish and figured I had about two hours before sunset. This is when I found out that we needed to drive the boat two more hours up the river to our first spot. I am perhaps not the most patient human ever, and this did not sit well.
The boat. We had seven guys and fours days of supplies on this.
The ride was, I admit, beautiful – this is truly wild country. The Myanmar side of the river is not controlled because there are no roads from here to the rest of Burma and it is a semi-autonomous Karen tribal region. Steep, forested mountains come up from both sides, and here and there, tiny villages are cut into the top of the riverbank.
We had a bit of sunshine as we headed out.
One of the villages. The people were very friendly.
It was just getting dark when we pulled up on a sandbar and set up camp. The crew found a muddy bank and dug up worms – our main bait for the trip.
The bait gathering operation.
I set up two rods and began fishing, and fairly quickly, I figured out that things were not wide open. Even in this cool time of year, the temperatures only dip into the 50s at night. This might seem temperate, but for fish used to 80 degree evenings in the summer, it had shut things down. I did see some small fish in the shallows, and I was determined to get them. After a few hours of presenting micro-rigs on the shoreline, I had gotten two new species – small to be sure, but new.
The blackfin sisorid catfish.
In a 24 font, the name would be longer than the fish.
The Salween Baril. The ID on this one took three scientists and some drinking.
Mind you, these were caught from Thai soil. We would venture to Myanmar tomorrow.
Then it was time to get some sleep. This would involve camping. I hate camping. Call me soft, call me what you will, but there is something about sleeping outside with savage wild animals that insults our forefathers, who fought for our right to sleep at the Hyatt. I don’t sleep well when I know there is hostile wildlife out there, and all I have between me and serious issues is a thin layer of nylon. (Which also sounds like college.) The insects were especially horrible – there were big sand spiders the size of a 50 cent piece came out at night specifically to frighten me. And there was something walking around in the bushes that made a lot of noise and was therefore clearly out for human blood.
Figuring I would be safe in the tent, I set out to not leave until morning. So I stocked it with a full bottle of water, an empty gatorade bottle for calls from nature, and enough benadryl to knock out an elephant. I took my shoes off and left them by the entrance of the tent. Zipping up the door, I tried to make myself comfortable in the surprising chill, and drifted off to sleep despite the whoops of the boat crew, who had broken out a couple of bottles of questionable “Happy Animal Brand” whiskey and were having the time of their lives. (The only reason I didn’t freeze is that I had a sweatshirt with me that Marta had insisted I take.)
Somewhere in the predawn hours, I was awakened by nature’s call, and I cleverly used the Gatorade bottle. Thinking it would be bad to leave it in the tent, I unzipped the flap just a touch, reached the bottle outside, and poured it out. I slept intermittently while the boat crew carried on well into the night.
When I got up around 6:45, I moved to the doorway, unzipped the flap, and stretched my legs outside. I shook my left shoe to check for spiders. It was safe. I picked up my right shoe, and … oh heck. It was full of water. But how had it rained without me hearing it, and only in my right shoe? Then the smell hit me. It wasn’t water. Some idiot had peed in my shoe.
I was already yelling at no one in particular when it hit me – I was the idiot. My late-night bathroom improvisation had ended in disaster, and I wore my Tevas for the next two days while the shoes dried out. 1000fish readers! Learn from my bitter experience – never pour pee in your own shoes.
Our first task that smelly dawn was to officially catch a fish in Burma. This meant getting in the boat, going to the other side of the river, getting out of the boat so I was standing in Myanmar, and then catching something.
Standing in Myanmar. If I had done this in 1988, I would have been standing in Burma.
This sounded relatively uncomplicated, even with the difficult water conditions, and it turned out fine. In the course of an hour, I pulled up several small fish, including two new species – a loach and a catfish. That’s country #84 if you’re playing along at home.
The striped loach meets the approval of the team.
A moment in the media limelight for a stunningly obscure species.
I called this one the Burma Catfish, because I can’t pronounce Eutropiichthys burmannicus.
That afternoon, we parked the boat on a muddy bank and hiked up a mountain stream.
The stream where it meets the Salween. We hiked back about two miles, and per usual, I had a surprise encounter with wildlife.
It was amazing to me how quickly we went from a muddy, broad river to a crystal-clear creek that looked every bit the trout stream except for the stray elephant that scared the bejeezus out of me.
The stream was gorgeous. I hadn’t expected to be sight-fishing small water like this, but after some re-rigging to a light jig, I passed a pleasant afternoon scouting out small pools and casting behind boulders and logs. I got a bunch of wild Thai and Strachey’s mahseer – fantastic fighters on light tackle – and a few cyprinids that looked suspiciously like rainbow trout but were not.
A small Strachey’s mahseer. I have gotten these up to six pounds in Laos.
The faux trout. I never did figure out what this species is.
I even got a spiny eel – these are listed as one species across the region, but are likely actually several different ones. It would take a lot of work for an ichthyologist to sort them out, but I think there is a Nobel prize just waiting for someone. Dr. Carvalho? Martini? Anyone?
As we got into mid-afternoon, we hiked back, got into the boat, and fished the Myanmar side of the main river for a couple of hours. My big catch for that stop was a pig catfish – a close relative of a catfish I had gotten in Laos (details HERE) and oddly, the largest fish of the trip.
The Hemibagrus genus has been kind to me.
We closed the day fishing the bank near our campsite. I got a couple more pig catfish – great fun on very light tackle – and a barb that was a new species if not spectacularly large.
Doesn’t everyone travel halfway around the world to catch fish this size?
The scenery was wild and unspoiled, and it was easy to see why people want to come here, even if they (gasp) aren’t fishing.
Looking back at camp. I dreaded sunset because it would mean I needed to sleep in a tent.
Looking up the river, Thailand on right, Myanmar on the left.
I had dinner with the group as the sun set. I’m not sure what it is they had boiled up over the fire, but it was not pleasing to the western nose. I happily consumed another REI freeze-dried macaroni and cheese and called it a night.
Some wild pigs on the bank. These would figure prominently in an event later that evening.
I slept marginally better that second night, until 3:06am, when I was startled awake by snuffling noises and a nudge to my head. I reflexively threw a punch through the tent, figuring that the boat crew had downed an extra bottle of Old Overcoat whiskey. Instead of Thai swears, I heard an alarmed squeal and the sound of an upset wild pig racing off into the forest. What in the hell was I doing someplace where wild pigs would try to enter my tent? But I remembered that worse things with worse animals had happened in college, and drifted back to sleep, smiling at the memory of my old roommate Frank Lopez’s disastrous evening in September of 1982. I haven’t talked to Frank in years, but I’m still not comfortable giving all the details of that one.
In the morning, I was up very early and walked up the river, appreciating the scenery.
The Salween at dawn, day three. The great outdoors was getting a bit old by this stage.
For most of the morning, we hiked another creek – even smaller than the first, but absolutely stuffed with small mahseer and an exotic cyprinid named “danios.”
Brown’s Danio. Not the strongest fighter, but a new species nonetheless.
On the way up and down the creek, which was mercifully elephant-free, I caught dozens of fish and encountered birds I would never see anywhere else. Marta is much more of a birdwatcher than I am, and I couldn’t help but think of how much she would enjoy this place, minus the long trip and the camping and pigs and the spiders.
Even water this small was stuffed with fish.
While we were walking along the creek, I had a pig flashback and decided that I was not dealing with another night in the wilderness. Kik explained that as long as we got on the road around 5pm, that we could get to Chiang Mai and I could stay in a hotel there and catch my flight the next day for Bangkok. I had added Burma and seven species, so we decided to head out.
Emerging from the jungle, I saw one last spot to try – a small junction where the creek spilled into the main river. I was only half paying attention and casting a very light rig when the float disappeared and I was unceremoniously broken off. That got my attention, and I immediately tied up a heavier rig and began flipping a worm around to see if I could catch the culprit. Moments later, I got a beautiful little catfish – a new species but clearly not what had broken me off.
Fishbase.org doesn’t list a common name for this, so I’ll call it a Salween catfish. I figure that’s catchier than Glyptothorax dorsalis.
The guys understood and supported my bizarre fishing needs.
I kept casting even though the guys were getting ready to leave, and I got one more strike. It was a relatively larger fish, still not all that big, but a stunning new species.
Hint – they fish for them in northern India.
I had caught a goonch. Perhaps the smallest goonch in the history of goonches, but a goonch nonetheless – a catfish species that grows to massive sizes in the north of India and was and is the target of adventure-seeking British gentleman anglers, like well-known writer Keith Elliott, who likely can’t believe I even published my picture.
Keith Elliott with a proper goonch. He’s the good-looking one directly behind the dorsal fin.
We landed and said goodbye to the crew. They had been a good bunch, even if they never fully understood why I got worked up over some very tiny fish.
The group before we left the Salween. Kik is on my right.
The drive back to Chiang Mai seemed to go a bit faster than the drive out – at least I knew where we were going. It was a surreal feeling to walk into the lobby of the Shangri-La, perhaps the finest hotel in northern Thailand, wearing fishing garb, having not washed for three days, and carrying in my bag a pair of low hikers that held a terrible secret. There were clean sheets, room service food, and hot showers – about as far from a tent as one can get. There were no spiders or wild pigs, and no one poured pee in my shoes. It was paradise.
I also knew that there were two or three more spots like this in Thailand, and that, camping and spiders or not, I would be back. I drifted off to sleep, content with a new country and nine species, but faintly wondering if I should just throw out the shoes.