As the sun begins to set over Suthep mountain a strange group of men emerge to congregate around the city moats of Chiang Mai; the Tree Top Spear Fishermen.
Growing up in the 1970s watching repeats of The Twilight Zone I have always associated this time when day melts into night with mystery and magic; a brief gap where it’s neither one thing nor another, where it’s betwixt and between. Ambiguity of every kind is more pronounced in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. It’s as though Thailand is forever plunged into a magical twilight zone where there really is a third sex, where tomorrow could mean next week, next week could mean next year and to have the most is also to have the least.
This ambiguous time of day, or is it night, the whole of Chiang Mai is at it’s most active. The heat of the day has gone but the light of the day still lingering. Parks and odd bits of waste land are packed with thousands of games of Tak Kraw, joggers and other assorted fitness fanatics. Food vendors swarm the streets, markets buzz into life and a million fairy lights begin to twinkle outside thousands of bars as hundreds of bar girls put on their lip stick. There is a dizzy aroma of incense and fried chicken as the traffic cops fight a loosing battle to maintain order over an entire city on the move.
During this magical time, unnoticed by the day time people and the night time people, a small group of twilight people come out. Their work can only take place between the end of day and the beginning of night, between the time the sun sets, and as they say in Ireland, “the time when the green goes out of the grass”.
Fishermen the world over from Bangkok to Balham will know that during this time fish are at their most active and what’s more, the reflections from the surface of the water suddenly vanish. It’s as though a stage magician has suddenly whisked away the silk curtain exposing a dark watery world beneath.
As the traffic whirls around the moats, all within becomes still and transparent. This is what the fishermen have been waiting for all day. The reflective veil has lifted exposing large old catfish dozing just beneath the surface.
As the fishermen congregate around the moats they lash murderous looking spear guns and harpoons to their backs. Most of these are standard under water spear guns used for marine fish hunting, but some are wonderful home made contraptions made out of bits of iron rod resembling huge cross bows, the needle sharp tip of the spear protected by a bit of dirty polystyrene. Each gun is attached to its spear by a coiled length of strong nylon cord. To the uninitiated eye it’s all quite an arresting sight that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy battle scene from Lord of the Rings.
It’s what happens next that is really unusual. Instead of the fishermen slipping undetected into the water, as would be normal in spear gun fishing, they climb up into the huge old trees that overhang the water. They climb as high as they can so they have an excellent view down into the clear dark water. From these tree top eyries they sit motionless with spear gun at the ready focusing intently on the water, cutting an arresting silhouette against the darkening skies above.
Then suddenly, the still evening air is filled with movement … zooooom. The trigger is pulled and a flash of silver darts through the air at incredible speed with incredible power slicing into the water towards a poor unsuspecting catfish. All is action. Down on the ground the fishermen’s young accomplice dashes out from beneath the tree to retrieve the spear and the harpooned fish. The fish is despatched quickly and hidden in an old plastic bag and the nylon cord wound in and the spear re set ready for the next victim.
I have explained this story to several guests that have come to stay with us here in Chiang Mai. I can see them looking at me rather uncertainly wondering if it’s the heat or the Thai whisky that has got to me. I don’t mind if you don’t believe me either, but all I do ask is that if you find yourself in Chiang Mai walking along by the cool waters of the moat at the end of the day, even if you feel over come with heat, don’t, and I repeat don’t be tempted for an evening dip, especially under the big old overhanging trees.