Hidden in the heart of Bangkok’s sweltering cement soup-bowl of a city, sits a peaceful little lake rimmed with A-frame huts and silent swaying sawgrass. Set away from the madness of Bangkok’s traffic, Bungsamran Lake exists as if in a different world. Which is fitting, because the massive creatures that swim beneath it’s tranquil surface definitely look otherworldly.
The Discovery Network and National Geographic Channel had me hooked with tales of giant freshwater monsters that inhabit Southeast Asia’s rivers and lakes; monstrous stingrays, colossal Siamese carp and massive Mekong catfish. So when a buddy told me I could fish for them 45-minutes from my Bangkok condo, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl…a schoolgirl who loves to fish.
I’ve been fishing since I was a boy on the Canadian prairies. Catching 2-3lb pickerel and the occasional 12lb pike was fun, but it always seemed a little too easy. Reeling in a fish that weighs the same as an overstuffed wallet never felt like much of a challenge. But fishing for really big fish (tuna, sailfish, marlin, sturgeon) is physically hard work. It will leave you utterly exhausted and your body will ache for days, but with a an amazing feeling of acomplishment.
So early one Saturday morning 2 friends and I hopped into one of Bangkok’s billion taxis and headed out in search of this legendary lake. Navigating the city’s intricate maze of sois, past the ubiquitous early morning food stalls and produce stands, our driver finally found Bangkok’s hidden treasure. The omnipresent traffic sounds disappeared as we walked through the park gate as if we had walked into a soundproof room. We stood in the early morning Bangkok air, staring at the glasslike stillness of Bungsamran Lake, wondering what cruised beneath that silent surface.
Our guide took us out onto a pier and showed us how to make bait. A mixture of sawdust, fishfood and coconut milk, we made snowball sized bait-balls, loading the sticky concoction directly above the hook on the thick test line. He instructed us to cast a few times, and reel the line in quickly as the bait ball disintegrated when it hit the water. The effect, he explained, is similar to “chumming the water” when searching for sharks. We had arrived at 8am and within 4 casts, around 8:15, I already had something hooked.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.” I hoped that phrase didn’t apply to catfish as the first fighter took me 20, long, hard minutes to land. Weighing in at would end up being a meager 40lbs, the fight left me strained, drained, and dripping with sweat beneath Thailand’s brutal sun. It seemed like the perfect time to sit with a beer in the shade.
Joe and I sat, hiding from the suns rays, sipping on a cold one, watching Tim cast out in the lake. We laughed at his poor form, which brought looks and smiles from many other groups fishing nearby. Beer in the oppressive Bangkok heat is a wonderful way to waste a day. Cast after cast we watched him bring in nothing but a dripping hook. Frustrated after 30 minutes of nothing, he decided it was best to take a break. He launched a hopeful, baseball-sized concoction into the water, with one last cast.
It was obvious a fish had quickly taken his hook, but we continued to jibe him about his age, form, tan and anything else that came to mind. Our guide smiled a toothy grin at our constant berating, but you could tell he knew there was something special about Tim’s fish.
What I love about going to a baseball game is that nobody pays attention to what’s going on in the field until the moment something big happens. That is exactly what happened when Tim’s fish first broke the surface. A collective “Whoaaaaa….” could be heard from everyone fishing on Bungsamran Lake, followed by a brief period of awed silence when the big fish dove back into the murky lake water. Joe and I were instantly on our feet, confused about what we had just seen. We knew there were big fish here, but we didn’t actually expect to catch any.
The whitish brown flash of muscle that broke the surface was so obviously bigger than the pipsqueak I had just thrown back, that I immediately felt insecure and embarrassed for struggling to bring in my 40lb-er. We watched Tim work in the mid-morning heat, feverishly reeling in when the big cat rested, but it was clear that more line was going out that being reeled in. He cranked his rod up and down, arching it so severely I expected either the line, the rod or a muscle in Tim’s back to snap. He stalked up and down the pier, at our guide’s advice, trying for a better angle to help get at least some of the dwindling fishing line back in. He was working and sweating so hard, there was a point where I was somewhat worried about his health, and then I took another sip of beer.
Fifty, hard-fought minutes after he hooked his first Giant Mekong Catfish, I was there struggling to help him and our guide pull the immense trophy onto the pier for a quick photo. Estimated to be 140lbs, it was like dragging your drunken aunt out of a lake after she had too many coolers in the sun. Tim kneeled and gave a proud grin as I stared in envy, considering the enormity of his catch. We quickly let her gently back into the water and watched her slide into the dark depths of the lake.
Fishing in Southeast Asia, whether it’s on the azure seas that surround the region or the secretive lakes and rivers spread through its interior, is becoming increasing popular and for good reason. Hemmingway understood it’s the fight that made the fishing worthwhile, not just the fish itself. And those giants of Bungsamran Lake never come up without a fight. We caught 10 fish that day (all catch and release), but none came close to the size of Tim’s monster. Bangkok is an unbelievably wonderful city, with so much to see and do, I never would’ve expected the best day I had there would be the day I spent sitting in the sun, fishing with friends. Just like my days back on the Canadian prairies…with much, much bigger fish.
Scott Holmes is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer/ blogger living in Bangkok. He is also the Marketing and Content Manager, as well as Executive Editor, of www.SoutheastAsia.org.