Dateline: May 18, 2016 – Ayuttayah, Thailand
Call me what you will, I don’t like camping. I feel that deliberately staying outdoors and sleeping in tents insults our forefathers, who fought to give us indoor plumbing and Hyatt hotels. Still, there are times when camping is required, and this would be one of those times. My amazing connection in the region, Jean-Francois Helias, had recommended an excellent river for Thai exotic species, but it would require several days of camping. Jean-Francois, who could sleep on a mechanical bull in the middle of a food riot, is amused by my reluctance to experience the great outdoors, but cobras and tigers worry me.
Jean-Francois had an excellent locale in mind for this visit – the Petburi River in western central Thailand. This is supposed to be a very scenic place laden with exotic fish … and tigers and cobras. It would require three nights under the stars, but looking at the photos of previous trips to the area, I had to chance it. Jean-Francois sent me out with an old friend – top guide Kik, who had fished the area and would take care of all the arrangements. But those of you who know me well know that I must really want to go fishing if I’m going to camp. Locations like this normally offer outstanding fishing … normally.
The day before the big jungle drive. Kik and I decided to fish the Chao Phraya river in Ayuttayah, about two hours north of Bangkok. He figured there were a couple of things there I had never caught, notably the swamp eel. Yes, that’s right – I did a four hour round trip for a swamp eel. If this surprises you, you must be a new reader – welcome! It’s an easy drive on big freeways, and there are 7-11s and McDonalds everywhere, which give me a comfortable feeling of civilization. We got out there mid-morning – it’s in the middle of a big city that’s quite a tourist destination. The place is loaded with temples, which I noticed vaguely as we headed for the ramp.
I have had boat ramps blocked many times, generally by inexperienced anglers who do not understand that there are other boats. These people are idiots and they deserve our sympathy. But I had never seen a boat ramp blocked by … an elephant. As a matter of fact, several elephants. I do not particularly trust elephants – one cornered me on a beach in Africa in 2006, and I can tell you that they’re a lot bigger than they look in zoos. Luckily, the only casualty that day was my underpants.
Elephants being taken down to the boat ramp. Yes, you can hear their footsteps from some distance away.
In this case, the pachyderms were not wild – they were residents of a nearby preserve, and they were being brought down to the water for water and food. Yes, they smell like an elephant, and bugs swarm off them when they enter the water, but they are still awesome. They are friendly, curious, and I could always hide behind Kik if something went wrong.
And they have their own built-in snorkel.
After that slight delay, we got on the water. The swamp eel came quickly – we dabbled worm baits in likely crevices, and the action was instant.
My swamp eel – the day was already a success.
In the same spot, but fishing out away from the rocks, I got a bite and a spirited little fight. Lifting the fish into the boat, I was thrilled to see a tiger botia, one of the largest loach species. I had seen these in books for years, and now I had one on my list.
The tiger botia loach. Not related to tigers.
The rest of the day passed pleasantly, with plenty of fish and one more new species – the borneen catfish.
There are plenty of nondescript catfish in the area, but this was one of the identifiable ones.
We also got featherbacks – I’ve gotten these before but they’re so cool that I always put up pictures when I get them.
With his French accent, Jean-Francois calls these “fizzerback.”
An elephant follows us up the ramp.
I was up three species and this was before the main trip had really started. Things were looking very good.
The next day, we set off early for the Petburi. Most of the drive is on big, modern freeways – meaning that there are 7-11s and McDonalds. (I made sure to load up on every possible fast food, as I would be existing on freeze-dried camping food for three days.) It was only the last 50 miles or so that were on a rural dirt road, but this seemed to take forever. I was, of course, very eager to go fishing.
It was a beautiful place, but a long, long road.
Somewhere in there, we lost cell signal, which is the new indicator of whether we’re truly in the boonies. (It was sobering to realize I would not be able to check baseball scores for three days.) I had to admit it was a beautiful place – increasingly steep hills, endless jungle, an occasional glimpse of some amazing bird. The road had a few rough stretches, but mostly, it was just long. After a couple of hours, we started seeing the river, and it was GORGEOUS. Small, clear, and loaded with fish that were big enough to see from the road.
We made a quick stop to fish a riffle and pool. I caught a few small barbs, but the highlight was the one that got away – some kind of huge barb hit a floating fruit bait but the hook pulled out.
Our first fishing stop of the day.
I was very psyched thinking about the next couple of days. We pulled into the camp – a platform on the back of a local villager’s hut – and I raced to get my stuff unpacked and my rigs ready. I stared balefully at the tarp-covered tent where I would sleep, or not, for the next three nights.
The platform might keep cobras away, but that’s an easy jump for a tiger.
There were puppies. I like puppies, but so do cobras and tigers.
Just when all seemed right in the world, the skies darkened, thunder roared, and it began pouring in that tropical way that it only can in the tropics. It did this for about four hours, and I sat forlornly under the tarp watching the river rise and cloud up. Hopefully, it would settle out just as quickly. As soon as the storm tailed off into a steady drizzle, which was about an hour before sunset, I went down to the river and fished some of the edges. Although the water was depressingly murky, I scraped up one new species, which goes by the catchy Latin name of Opsarius koratensis.
An Opsarius. Collect them all!
I gave up as it got dark, as the tigers and cobras would be stirring. I joined Kik back up at the tents and ate one of my freeze-dried camping meals – chili and macaroni is a favorite. This is when I had to face sleeping in a tent in the middle of a jungle that never quite cools off at night. Kik had gotten me a first class tent and an air mattress, but the temperature and humidity hovered over 90. I could open the vents on the tent, but I certainly wasn’t sleeping outside with the insects – and cobras and tigers. This meant that inside of the tent got rather sweaty and I felt exactly like the inside of a steamed dumpling. No matter how much benadryl I took, I never really dozed off that well, so I was wiped out by the next morning. Luckily, I brought lots of Red Bull.
I was still half asleep when we met our guides – very nice local guys with the typical Thai homemade narrow wooden boats, powered with outboards that feature a very long prop shaft.
The standard Thai fishing boat.
Nothing wakes a person up like a solid dose of terror, and that was next. The Petburi is a narrow mountain river with a steep grade, and that means lots of rapids. As we motored up to the first set of impassable, roaring whitewater, I presumed that we were out of river and would stop there. But no. They sped up, motors roaring so loudly that I couldn’t hear myself scream.
Yes, they drove a boat up this with no warning.
One guy sat in the front – the “goalie” – and used a pole to deflect rocks and direct the motorman, who kept the throttle floored as I held on in sphincter-knotting terror.
Click HERE for the video. It’s a bit long, but skip around and you’ll find the rapids scenes. Listen carefully and you’ll hear me screaming like a nine year-old girl covered in bees.
Kik explained it would have been even more dangerous with lower water. So I was a bit grateful for the rain, right until we started fishing. The water, which had come up about 2 feet, was muddy and cold, and this didn’t bode well. But I set to it, and after a few moments, I got some small bites. These went on for some time before I finally hooked a fish, and then the problem was obvious.
These were freshwater puffers – one of the same species I had caught a few years ago in Laos. (See “Shangri Laos” for details.) They are sneaky and have very sharp teeth, and although I tried baits large and small, this seemed to be the only thing that would bite. I would cast out a big bait for a catfish or jungle perch, then pass the time with small hooks catching puffers. I would then reel in the bigger rig to see that it had been cleared off by puffers. This went on for hours. Every so often, I would catch a small barb, but recognize it as something I had gotten at Srinakarin.
A local barb. These were a welcome relief from the puffers, but I had gotten this species before.
Then we would move up another few rapids, leaving my throat sore from screaming and other parts sore from clenching. Kik cast lures endlessly, but the water was blown out. They figured it would clear in a few days, but in a few days I would be back in San Francisco.
Then we caught more puffers.
I did manage to get a zig-zag eel.
But mostly it was puffers. I caught 83 of them in total.
It certainly was a beautiful place. But you all know how much this matters to me if the fishing isn’t great.
Toward the end of the day, it hit me that we were going to have to go back down all the rapids that we had ascended.
Steve gets emotionally prepared to do the rapids in reverse.
More screaming. More clenching. But these guys were good – they hardly ever even hit a rock, let alone spill water on me. (Which made the stains much more difficult to explain.) We returned to camp at dusk, and I ate my REI freeze-dried camping food quietly, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day.
I thought I would be wiped out enough to sleep well, but once the sounds of the nighttime jungle started, I was wide awake. More benadryl, more sweaty tossing and turning, and a really bad dream that Jaime showed up and caught a Caesar grunt. A long and sticky night blended into morning. I told myself that the fishing just had to get better. The guys ran us downstream this time – more rapids but I was too exhausted to scream or clench. We set up shop on a rocky ledge, and the Fish Gods threw me a curveball. The very first fish I caught was a new species – the blackstriped barb.
This filled me with hope, but the Fish Gods often mistake hope for hubris, and the puffers came back with a vengeance.
Apparently they don’t mind cold, muddy water.
It was approaching noon and I had caught nothing but puffers for three hours. If the fishing had been up to its potential, I would have braved anything, but as things were, the idea of another night in the sweatbox was not appealing. I decided that I would catch 10 more fish, and if they were all puffers, that I would bail out and head back to Bangkok.
Ten minutes later …
Kik agreed with me, and we hit the road in the early afternoon. The trip was uneventful until I threw my fishing clothes into the tub at the Hyatt.
My clothing soaks in the tub. This strongly resembles a soup my ex-wife used to make, although she didn’t use as many socks.
Of course, Kik and I weren’t going to give up so easily, so we decided to go back to Ayuttayah the next day. The drive seemed quick and familiar, and even allowing for some extra sleep, we were still on the water by late morning. Of course, there was an elephant at the boat ramp.
Their eyes are amazing.
There were plenty of fish biting, and by lunch, I had gotten two new species – the yellowbelly barb and a catfish with no English name.
The yellowbelly barb – nice fighters on light tackle.
Pangasius macronema – a smaller relative of the Giant Mekong Catfish.
We spent the rest of the afternoon catching a variety of barbs and catfish – Ayuttayah is a great species location – and I closed up the day with a final new species, the duskyfin Glassfish.
Kik and friend celebrate my final new species of the trip.
Even though the jungle trip hadn’t gone quite as planned, we had still bagged eight species, and these were eight that I wasn’t going to get anywhere else. I had to write off my two nights in the jungle to experience – if I’m ever going to reach 2000 species, this won’t be my last camping trip. Jean-Francois has already suggested another jungle location for next year, and while I am hopeful that Hyatt will open a location there in the next few months, chances are I’ll be back under the stars soon.
PS – Bangkok international airport has added some fine dining …
Oh yes they did.