By the time a savory fish reaches a plate under your nose in Bangkok, it has traveled on a journey from the sea through nets, buckets, trays, ice boxes and the hands of fishermen, wholesalers, transporters and market vendors. If 300 baht seems like a lot to pay for a white snapper, consider all the effort that went into bringing that succulent creature from the sea to your table.
Some of the seafood in Bangkok’s restaurants comes from a fishing village at the far south end of Khao Takiab (Chopsticks Mountain) beach near the resort of Hua Hin (about two hours south of Bangkok). Many fishermen will sleep during the mid-day heat and then venture out to sea on wooden boats at sundown.
With only radios on board, they brave sea-sickness, storms, boredom and loneliness to fight for their share of a declining number of fish from the Gulf of Thailand.
As they putter into port at dawn, their work is far from finished. With their wives and kids, they haul in nets, separate fish, negotiate with buyers and spend hours fixing or replacing gear.
Though their income is relatively low, they enjoy a colorful and healthy life close to nature, following the rhythmic lifestyle of their ancestors. A simple fishing boat can be a work of art. Orange paint helps to make the boats visible in the bright sun or dark storms, and garlands and ribbons are used to bring good luck and ward off evil sea spirits. An awning helps create shade from the blinding sun, which harms the sight of many fishermen.Untangling nets and removing fish also requires a delicate touch and an eye for detail. Even a small hole in a net can allow dozens of fish to get away. Handling crabs is a dangerous job, requiring gloves, dexterity and concentration, even though their claws are tied up with rubber bands, and their bodies have been boiled from blue to red.Ngapi fish paste, which these women are selling, is a popular specialty in the Khao Takiab area. Since many fishermen can't afford to eat the fish they catch, they often eat a cheap meal of spicy ngapi with cabbage, cucumbers and rice, or young green mangos, which are plentiful in the village.
In the shadow of deluxe condos and hotels, many fishing families still live in sun-beaten wooden houses or flimsy open-air shacks with thatch roofs and mats for walls. Most fishermen earn only enough to get by, and not enough to accumulate savings, property or funds for higher education. The fishing village, filled with colorful boats, lies at the end of Khao Takiab beach south of Hua Hin town.
While an influx of tourists from Bangkok, England and Scandinavia means a larger pool of fish buyers, tourism has increased the price of fish such as plaa jalamet, or pomfret, to three or four times the levels of a decade ago, making them unaffordable for most villagers.After hauling in nets all night and morning, many fishermen have the physique of professional athletes.Shellfish such as hoi lai are best consumed fresh out of the sea after being soaked in water on a tray to drain the dirt out of the shells. Since shellfish can easily spoil in the heat, many Bangkokians prefer to go directly to Khao Takiab village to eat them. Dried seafood is a popular snack in Thailand. Various styles are on sale at a stand in the fishing village. The dried fish make great gifts for travelers, and often end up in luggage on planes bound for Europe. A woman sprinkes ice over her seafood for sale in the Khao Takiab market. The scraping sound of ice-making machines rings throughout the village day or night. Fish have to be immediately packed on ice, with their bodies straight and not contorted, in order to survive the journey to the plate of a diner in Bangkok.A woman in a colorful shirt sells dried squid, shrimp, sardines and stingray at a morning market in the village. Weeks of work drying the seafood on trellises in the sun go into each bag. At 110 baht per bag, this is the cheapest way for the area's poor to consume protein and calcium. Many fishermen say they themselves are caught in an economic net of too many fishing trawlers competing for a dwindling supply of fish. Due to the high cost of a new boat, many fishermen will use leaky old crafts for months until they can no longer float. The leftover wood is still useful around the house, and the fishermen keep them for nostalgia and luck. The boats, often named after loved ones, are like members of the family, with a spiritual power. Fishermen believe that the famous giant Buddha at the foot of Khao Takiab is holding back the tide to protect them from storms of the sea and of the heart.