If Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, then Cambodia is a nation of fishermen….. It’s a (admittedly disputed) fact that the Cambodian currency, the riel, is named after the d’trey riel, a small fish used to make everyone’s favourite protein source, prahok. From the world’s largest catfish, to the snakeheads – walking, air breathing nightmares now causing mayhem after being introduced to American waterways – Cambodians can’t get enough of fish, a staple foodstuff which comes cheaply, or for those with time and access to water, for free.
Freaky eyed fisherman Jeremy Wade was on the idiot box recently, touring the world as usual to hunt down third-hand accounts of people being mullered by some mystery aquatic ‘River Monster’. Those who are familiar with the format will know that the intrepid Jezza spends the best part of an hour gathering information from indigenous fisher folk, does a spot of angling to catch the wrong sort of fish and, within the closing minutes of the show and to much dramatic monologues and music, finally hooks his target.
Pretty much a standard piece of broadcasting, stuck between a show about catching big tuna fish (why do Americans always use the term toona fish?, It’s pretty obvious what a tuna is, although the Khmer language does the same), Alaskan crabbers and a bunch of hardened Alaskans (and at least one 440er it seems) panning for gold in the Yukon mountains. Today, however, Mr Wade and his production crew were in Cambodia, tracking down a beast from the deep which has been biting the bollocks off Cambodians.
Obviously the local angle piqued my interest, so I sat and watched the whole overly dramatic tosh with Mrs Pedro, who thought the strange barang off the telly might catch a naga, or something, given the tension and interviews with the castrated and blinded Khmer victims of this underwater leviathan.
I suffered with Jeremy as he fished out on the Mekong with all his fancy gear, snagging only submerged trees on the end of his rod and reel. The boat owner guide was pissing himself with laughter. ‘Why crazy barang no use net?’, his eyes seemed to say. I cringed as the host cast out lines on the brutal Khmer Rouge regime with each cast of his bait. I shouted at the box every time Jeremy feared for his life when his line got tangled with the possibility of a landmine or unexploded 10,000lb M-121 being on the end.
“I could lose an arm,” he said dramatically. “Or even worse . . .”
‘IT’S JUST ANOTHER LOG, JEREMY, YOU BIG POOF!’
Poor Jeremy even slummed it up in downtown Kandal ‘…where people earn around $2 a day, and may not welcome outsider.’ It turned out the residents there got him to put on a krama and jump into a rubbish strewn, rat infested stretch of backwater and help them get the nets in. That part was quite funny, as Jeremy waded way out of his comfort zone, the falsities of UXOs and river monsters being genuinely superseded by the realities of Weil’s disease and septicemia. The bit where, after the catch, they forced him to eat it, and ‘chol moy’ lukewarm cans of Klang, was sadly left on the floor of the editing room.
After fruitlessly fishing the Mekong, the show ended on the Tonle Sap lake, where viewers finally came face to face with the freshwater menace, not a giant snakehead, a naga, or even a merman, but a d’trey kambot, a species of puffer fish, which happens to have a nasty nip.
So endemic is this so called monster, Mrs P informed me, that kids catch them for fun and torture them to death, just to see them inflate. Children can be so cruel, and in the they provinces make their own fun, which goes to show even if a species evolves a deadly toxin that only Japanese people are crazy enough to risk eating, and is capable of biting off genitalia, any small entertainment value still means it’s toast.
In the real reel riel world, I have as much patience for angling as a leisure pursuit as a Ritalin addicted 10 year old, off his meds and in a highly stimulating environment. Unless the fish jump onto my best bait presentation, learned from a Bob Nudd video (no relation to you-know-who), I’m a fishing failure. I couldn’t even catch a trout in one of those pay-for-what-you-pull-out pools, where the fish are basically trained to leap out the water.
Me and Strange Dave got bored one day in Battambang, bought a telescopic rod and some tackle, a bag of mealworms as bait and got permission to fish in a small pond where huge fish could be seen basking on the surface. After hours of chain smoking and drinking warm cans we had nada, not even a nibble, when along came the Khmer crocodile lady and scooped up a respectably dinner sized specimen with her hands. With her fucking hands! This proved once more that a hungry Cambodian is a more than competent adversary to anything foolish enough to move and be edible.
After watching Jeremy Wade ponce about Cambodia, only to find something that looked good on the telly, but actually fairly mundane in the flesh (a bit like pornography) I decided to hunt down a d’trey kambot myself, and allow the kids torture it to death, should I succeed.
If a world renowned boggle-eyed marine-biologist with an ITV production budget behind him can do it, why can’t Pedro, in his 2nd best underpants, with a homemade gill net borrowed from an alcoholic neighbour? And given that the nearest hunting grounds are downstream from Kampong Speu market, poo-poos, not UXOs should hold the greatest concern.
Before jumping into the murky waters of the Steung Prek Thnaot, the Small Sugar Palm River, it seemed a good idea to study my quarry. In the 2015 episode ‘Mekong Mutilator’, according to Wikipedia, Jeremy deduced it was a Fang’s Puffer, pao cochinchinesis ‘….a species of freshwater puffer fish native to the basins of the Mekong and Chao Phraya Rivers. This species grows to a length of 7 centimetres (2.8 inches). It is known for its reputation to attack people by slicing off bits of flesh. Their tendency to take chunks of human flesh is similar to piranhas…..’
Righty ho. Mr Bong Lim, as usual, was well in his cups around breakfast time, and allowed me and the brother in law to take his trusty net, so down to the river we went to catch ourselves a puffer fish.
The technique was simple enough: walk out into the fast moving current with each of holding a bamboo pole, with the net tied and weighted between us. Then we would walk slowly back to the shallows, before closing the net and having a look at what we had trapped.
Our first haul brought up some leaves and twigs and a small, silvery fish, like a minnow, which was deemed good enough to eat and thrown in a bucket, where it floated belly up for a few minutes and died.
Our second paddle out produced another minnow and what I presume to be some sort of cichlid, like the ones my dad kept in an aquarium back in the 80’s, when tropical fish keeping was all the rage. Both got tossed in with the dead one, but the cichlid got a small moment of revenge when it shot up its back spinal fin and pricked me with a dozen hypodermics.
Nothing had even tickled my gonads yet, let alone taken a slice from the Millardino family jewels, so we went out once more, this time to a shallow part of the river, with nasty overhanging trees and even nastier oozing mud on the bottom. This time, to quote Borat was ‘Great success’, not one, but two deadly puffer fish were flapping helplessly in the net.
IN YOUR FACE, JEREMY WADE!
And that was that. The brother in law, bored of walking up and down the river, went diving for fresh water mussels, which required less effort for more reward while I studied the two fish, consulted Google images, and confirmed that, for once, my fishing expedition had come up roses. The red spot on the side confirmed these were the correct form of Tetraodontidae.
The bucket of small fry, molluscs and deadly river monsters were taken home. The former were cooked up, whereas the toxic little beasts, which according to TV have been terrorising Cambodians were tortured for a little bit in the name of science before being released back into the wild, unharmed.