“Once nature is victimized, so are the people dependent upon it.”

From “The Mekong Currency,” by Liesbeth Sluiter

On a skiff in the shallows of the Thai side of the Mekong, where it forms a northern border with Laos, large groups from both banks, indistinguishable in the rough cloth of their peasant-fishermen clothing, are standing by as two men sacrifice a chicken, carefully directing the blood from its freshly slit throat into the river.

Lowering a net into the dolphin pool on the Cambodian side of the border

This extraordinary sight can be seen aboard fishing boats every April in an annual ritual offering to Chao Mae Paa Beuk, a female spirit who is believed to protect “paa beuk,” a species of giant Mekong catfish. Measuring between 2 and 3 meters in length and weighing anything up to 300 kg, the paa beuk is the world’s largest freshwater fish.

The richest fishing grounds for paa beuk are found on the northern Thai-Laotian stretch of the Mekong near Huay Xai. The fish are caught in April and May, when the river level is low and the fish are making their way to Lake Tali in Yunnan Province in China to spawn. This is when the ceremony between Laotian and Thai fishermen, who take it in turns to cast the large fishing nets required to catch these royal fish, takes place. The flesh of the paa beuk is much prized by gastronomes. A whole fish can fetch as much as $4,000-5,000 at the wet markets in Bangkok, which is where most of catch ends up. Because of the possibility of extinction, the number of fish taken from the river is limited to 50 or 60 a year. Measures to breed and restock the river have however met with some success, making the future for this extraordinary catfish, at least on the surface, look hopeful.

A ferryman operates a set of pulleys on one of the “Four Thousand Islands” of the Mekong.

Some thousand kilometers south of here along the very same border, rice paddies encroaching on the river are empty but for some isolated figures wading through ponds and ditches in search of mint, water-lily stems, the leaves of marguerites and lotus flowers, and natural additives destined to end up in herb soups, fermented fish dishes, the occasional buffalo stew and tamarind jam.

This area, centering on Khong Falls, the largest waterfall on the entire river and a generic term for two main cascades, Phapheng and Somphamit Falls, and several smaller barriers that collectively form a 13-km complex of cataracts, are known locally as the “Four Thousand Islands.” It’s a forgivable exaggeration that nonetheless gives an idea of the immensity of the Mekong here as it fans out into a complex tracery of channels that transform its tranquil and ocherous waters into churning maelstroms. A fisheries study in 1976 described this stretch of the Lower Mekong Basin as “. . . among the most biologically productive of all such systems on earth.” Although some 150 species, including catfish, climbing perch, nandid, threadfin, halfbeak and goby survive in these waters, tributary dams, logging, water pollution and changing global conditions have adversely affected fish habitats by causing shorter rainy seasons and a consequent reduction in groundwater.

A large, 8-hectare pool in the river, one bank of which lies at this point in Cambodia, the other in Laos, is home to an all-year round group of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Net fisherman fish for dolphins in the pool and sell their teeth, regarded as talismans against evil spirits, in local markets. A ban, likely unenforceable, on net fishing in the area has been mooted, but a far more devastating cause of concern for the survival of the dolphins is the practice of dynamite fishing. The culprits in this instance are Cambodian fishermen who began using explosives to stun large quantities of fish during the war, when dynamite was more readily available than fishing nets and traps.

Irrawaddy dolphins have not fared much better in other Asian waters. On the Mahakam River in Kalimantan, logs from forestry companies have displaced them, while on the Yangtze River in China, industrial sewerage and agro-chemical products have threatened to wipe out the creatures, something that has already happened on the Chao Praya River in Thailand.

Back on the Laotian side of the Mekong pool, depleted stocks have meant that residents, even fishermen, are now obliged to buy their fish from the Cambodians. If the situation worsens, the only remedy, according to locals, will be to dig ponds and start breeding fish, an absurd situation given the fecundity of these waters.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.