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As I slackened the last of the line of the net out into the Mekong River, the boat captain cut across the canal making an eclipse. I sat back, and took a swig of my ice-cold beer Lao (the coveted staple of Laos) as the sun beat down mercilessly on my redden face, eagerly awaiting the bounty that this hardworking fisherman I had so rightfully earned.
I looked to the Lao fisherman.
Hey, do you want a Beer Lao?
The fisherman looked at me with puzzlement, shook his head, and turned his attention back to the net.
He says they don’t drink Beer Lao…at least not during the day while they fish. Only whiskey. Real men of the river only drink Tiger whiskey.
My first day and I was already outed as a phony. A fake. An imposter. For no real Laotian fisherman would ever drink Beer Lao over whiskey while on the hunt for the catch of the day. That was the giveaway. That – and the fact that I was white, didn’t speak Lao, was wearing a rice hat and cast net like a pre-teen girl. Equally disappointing was that my new colleague didn’t appear the least bit interested in having some man’s talk. Guess I should have brought the whisky.
But never mind that. This is a story about how the real Laotian – the people of Laos – fish. It is how they make their livelihoods, or at least, spend their leisure time and get a daily snack after a hard day at work to share with family or drinking buddies.
How did I get here you might ask? Well – it started with a Beer Lao.
Any person who has ventured in Laos and told you a tale or two about the wonders of the country has probably told you to try the Beer Lao. It will most likely be in the first sentence any person says that involves the country. All good stories about Laos begin with it, end with it, or the best ones, begin and end with it. This is the latter.
I cast my gaze into the distance, watching the river steadily flow from the bar perched atop the banks of Luang Prabang, a beautiful quaint town decor in French architecture left over from foreign conquest and harsh oppressive colonialism. The distinct French architecture and the café culture, remain the most significant vestiges of French influence after the communists took over, keeping the tourists coming back for more.
I was onto my second Beer Lao when I noticed a lone fisherman trolling the river, making long, swooping eclipse movements in his long tail boat.
I beckoned the barman over to enlighten me.
Do you know of any fisherman who do that?
Can you teach how to become a Laotian fisherman.
It was the fastest job interview I have had to date. There was no CV exchange. No asking of credentials. There wasn’t even a question of my prior experience. It was as breezy as getting a mortgage approved at Country Wide. All there was, was the mere assumption that I was a man’s man, one who could put in a day’s worth of hard work of manual labor under the scorching sun and follow directions diligently.
Poor, assuming bastards.
The Mekong River has some of the most freshwater fish in the world, so if I was to finally find my muse – my career ambition – I thought I would stack the deck in my favor for a change. No tempting the hot fields with my feeble, menopausal-esc heat endurance problems (I blame the temperate, easy livin’ of the West Coast I was raised on (see: parents)). I learned that lesson the hard way while working the rice fields back in Thailand, or when I brandished the sharp coya as a jimador in Mexico. West coast gringo and the non-beach sun outings don’t work well together. No, this time I was going to temp a job that I couldn’t possibly fail at. Something that brought all of my skills to the table: Leisure drinking in the sun and guy chatting about man stuff while the fish jumped into my boat. After all, who can’t catch fish in one of the most abundant fish dwelling rivers in the world?
I began with the iconic long tail boat seen everywhere in Southeast Asia. Hoping that trolling a long net down the Mekong while lay backing, sipping on Laos finest beer would be a great starting point for my future employment.
The fisherman looked at me sternly as he pointed at the net. Like a gentle, yet disapproving grandfather chastising his lazy grandson with the old man stare, he wasn’t impressed with my net placing skills, nor my discipline to forgo the drink and smoking til after work at been done – clearly he didn’t watch Mad Men.
He says you must move faster so that the trolling net goes out evenly.
I hastened my pace, ferociously letting the net out as the boat sputtered along. Then it was the waiting game. I lay back again, pondering what kind of bounty we were about to bring in. Would it be a few big, photo-worthy catches that many a fisherman aspires to have at the end of the day, or a plentiful net full of smaller game? I soon found out as we spun around and picked up the net from the starting buoy. I grabbed the net, hand over hand, tugging back as orderly as possibly (see: Christmas light bundling) into the boat. Each pull I eagerly awaited to see something simmering in the net. But each pull I felt the painful tinge of disappointment.
The last of the net hit the bottom of the boat and I looked down at the belly of the empty boat, then up at the fisherman. He stared back emotionless.
My gracious interpreter chimed in.
Perhaps it is best we go throw the net for now Mr. Turner.
Yes, I thought. Perhaps trolling on the long tail wasn’t my game. But since I was such a high achieving sportsman in my day (see: picked last in gym), throwing the net the Laotian way was clearly where my success would come from.
We began knee deep in a sand bar in the middle of the Mekong. My trusted interpreter Jao brought out his nets and called over another fisherman to help instruct.
So you see Mr. Turner. This is the real Laotian fishing. You must stretch net along the arm, bundle it up, and then release with power all at once. You must explode open.
Got it Jao, but shall we offer our friend here a Beer Lao? The long tail boatman only liked whisky, but perhaps offering our friend here one will bring us luck and garner us some positive workplace karma at the same time.
As Jao spoke with the other local net-throwing fishermen, I sipped another Beer Lao, as I stared off along the riverbanks of Luang Prabang. Laos is truly a beautiful country. Restaurants and local villages are perched along the riverside, with boats of all shapes and sizes docked beneath them. The mountains surround the valley and the lush green above the riverbanks is endless and contrasts with the murky brown Mekong.
Jao returned in silent defeat.
He too says they only drink Tiger whiskey during the day.
Down, but not out, I trusted the river gods would provide more luck with the net.
The fishing net is one of the most iconic symbols of the people of Laos. Every family in the villages there has one. You can see them all over Luang Prabang being mended. You see old men after work on the riverbanks casting them out to catch some quick food to bring home. And you see children during the day casting along the smaller rivers. It is akin to kids playing baseball or a pick up game of football (soccer) in the street.
Jao quickly showed me the proper technique: Wrap the net along your shoulder and down the length of your arm, bundle the rest in your hand, then wind up as if curling a disc and launch with all your might. Hopefully upon full extension you form a circle, as the edges of the net are chains that weigh the net down.
I formed a great assortment of shapes and sizes with my unique tossing technique, from the beloved kidney bean to the every popular tangled ball of yarn anchor toss.
What can I say? – Pro.
Jao’s term for my tossing prowess loosely translated to hopeless white man.
Once the net lands. You simply walk to it, find the very center, grab it from the top and walk backwards – reeling in your catch. Or in my case, wood, rocks and broken sandals.
Two hours and 3 Beer Laos later, I had nabbed a total of 14 mini fish and a sandal. Jayo 57 fish. The fisherman with his child of 4 year of age: 219.
My hope was beginning to dim. An entire day on the river had not even yielded a portion of fish to fill my American belly. My attempts to befriend the Laotian men of the river with my bribes of Beer Lao had backfired. And I was beginning to get flashbacks of high school gym class.
But then out of nowhere – I spotted it in the distance down the river. One last chance at redemption. It arrived in a form that I knew all too well – the lone man in the fishing hat casting with a proper fishing pole (sort of), lounging back, basking in the sun. It was fate. A date with destiny – I could feel it. Like the search for your one true love – you must never give up, but you know when it arrives at your doorstep. As we approached the man who lay in his boat, hat dipped below his brow, I whispered tentatively to my trusted friend Jao.
Jao bellowed the Laotian words across the river; the man turned his head, smiled toothlessly, and casually lifted in the air his Beer Lao in cheers:
Yes, of course I drink Beer Lao, would you like to join me?
I had found my people.