Going fishing - in Thailand

20 Feb 2004 by JR
Eight plump prawns stir fried with diced garlic; red chillies cut into strips about an inch long so they gave off heat but did not get caught in your teeth; a couple of handfuls of cashew nuts; sliced onions and carrots; and small squares of red
pepper for colour and texture.

It did help of course that my feet were in the warm sand, that the Thai chef who had just cooked this was no more than five metres away and to the right was a glorious beach leading on to one of the many small bays of the Andaman Sea, on southern Thailand's west coast. And bobbing about in the bay were half a dozen wooden Thai fishing boats which with their distinctive colours and high prow manage simultaneously to look romantic and slightly threatening.

Two days later in the late afternoon sun I was driving along the narrow wooden jetty in Old Lanta (truth to tell this was the most frightening part of my whole trip) to go out on one of these boats. Waiting for me at the end of the jetty were
Ann and Sak.

I would like to tell you a great deal about these two generous Thai fishermen but there was a severe language barrier. The manager of my hotel, Pimalai on Ko Lanta, had offered to send along someone as an interpreter but then added that the fishermen didn't speak Thai but rather a local dialect and so this would not be a great help.

Ann and Sak shared the Thai readiness to smile and giggle as well as the dark brown colouring that is the result of constant exposure to sun, wind and sea. Both also shared the Thais' extraordinary ability to crouch, an essential quality I
soon learnt for spending any time on one of these boats.

The boat itself looked slightly less romantic close up. It was about eleven metres long, painted in red, orange and blue, entirely made of wood quite a few years ago and fully exposed to the elements. It was powered by a 437 cc outboard engine
that was kept together with rope and, mysteriously, a couple of plastic cups which seemed to play a strategic role. Ann nimbly cranked the engine into life, plumes of black smoke emerged and we were off.

We headed south towards a series of large islands. Ann who did speak some English - somewhat broken by the fact that it was always prefaced by another fit of giggles - explained that they went fishing with nets when the waters were calmer. Today, we would stay closer in and be line fishing.

At this stage, I was still trying to get comfortable, to find a place for my broad thighs - it was only after an hour that I realised it was just as easy to stand, a position that offered even better views.

The scenery in every direction was stunning. To the right was the verdant Ko Lanta National Park. To the south were a series of small, uninhabited rocky islands which naturally guarded the entrance to the bay. And directly across was an island
whose distinguishing features - palm trees, sandy beach and wooden fishermens' houses - made it every photographer's dream.

By now I was entranced and would happily have settled for a pleasure trip but Ann and Sak had a living to make. No sooner had we passed another fishing boat than we dropped anchor and the noise of the motor was replaced by the gentle thumping of the sea on the sides of the boat.

The only piece of technology, obvious only when we returned to
the harbour,

was Sak's mobile phone. On board was just a bucket of bait, which was later to house the caught fish, three nylon lines and three sharp hooks. And their innate
professional experience.

This was needed. I was still trying to get comfortable in a stable boat by the time Sak had caught his first fish but then I struck lucky and caught a small shimmering
purple fish, three of which would have made a respectable dinner.

By this stage Sak had caught another couple but, worried by my lack of success, we moved on closer into the island and then round the headland and directly opposite a fishing village so breathtakingly beautiful that, were I thirty years younger, I would have settled there and opened a fish restaurant. I know I will
never make a fisherman. After two hours my catch had peaked at three.

Ann personally apologised, grinning, 'Very sorry, no fish today'. He then adopted a far more philosophical attitude, one which fortunately sends fishermen all over the
world out in their boats by adding, 'Much better tomorrow'.

The sunset was now spectacular and as I used my digital camera to capture what I could they asked me how much it cost. When I replied about 500 dollars, they once again fell about laughing.

Back on dry land they offered me the catch but I politely refused. I paid them for their time and the diesel and we parted with warm handshakes. I only hope that there will be enough fish in these waters to keep Ann and Sak, their
families and their community in a livelihood for many years to come - even if, as seems most likely, I never manage to open a fish restaurant nearby.


Ghhong Pad Med Ma Muang (Stir fried prawns with cashewnuts)
Recipe from Chef Apichai Somruu at Pimalai Resort (www.pimalai.com)

Serves four.

300 g peeled raw prawns split in half lengthwise,
2 tablespoons vegetable oil,
100 g toasted cashew nuts,
3-4 small Thai chillies, chopped
100 g onions, sliced
80 g red pepper, seeded and sliced,
80 g sliced carrot
80 g fresh straw or brown mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons Thai chilli yam paste

Garnish 4 spring onions, finely shredded.

1. Heat a wok until it is very hot and then add the oil. When
the oil is very hot, quickly add the prawns and stir fry for
30 seconds. Remove the prawns with a slotted spoon and set
aside.

2. Then add the cashew nuts, chilies, onion, carrots, pepper
and mushrooms and stir fry the mixture for another 5 minutes.
Then return the prawns to the wok.

3. Finally add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar and chilli
yam paste and stir fry for 2 minutes. Garnish the dish with
the spring onions and serve at once.

Some favourite Thai restaurants outside Thailand

There are now so many Thai restaurants in the UK (one website
lists a mere 657!) that it is difficult to keep a tab on all
of them but one strong reason for me to contemplate moving
from north London to south of the river would be to live
closer to the string of Thai shops and restaurants which
cluster round the Thai temple in Putney.

My two favourites are the long standing Talad Thai, SW15 (020-
8789-8084) which combines a Thai supermarket, a Thai cooking
school and a rather cramped restaurant under one roof as well
as, a Battersea reader recently informed me, an extremely
useful take-away service. There is also the more recent
Amaranth Too, SW18 (020-8871 3466) which offers the same but
in two separate locations and prepares plenty of excellent,
frozen Thai food for parties.

Other favourites include David Thompson's cooking at Nahm in
The Halkin, SW1, (020-7333 1234) despite the rather cold room;
Blue Elephant, SW6, (020-7385 6595); Patara which has three
branches across London and others from Geneva to Taipei; Thai
on the River, SW10 (020-7351 1151) and the aptly named
Thailand, SE14, (020-8691 4040). Chiang Mai in Oxford (01865-
202233) and Thai Edge in Leeds (0113-243 6333) are as much
fun.

Thai food lovers in New York should head for Wild Ginger (212-
367 7200), Holy Basil (212-460 4627) and the seemingly ageless
Vong (212-486 9592); in Madrid for the Thai Gardens
(34.91.577.8884) and in Geneva for Thai Phuket (41.22.734
4100).


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