Local livelihoods benefit from common river fish
Many people around the world enjoy eating fish and usuallyhave their favourites just like the people living by the reservoir of the Nam Ngum hydropower plant, who have their own way of catching and cooking a particularly delicious variety.
Fish netted from a boat is taken to the banks of the Nam Ngum reservoir where they will be dried.
The Nam Ngum reservoir is a well-known tourist site in Laos. Located in Vientiane province, which borders the capital, it often entices people to travel the over 70km to reach the reservoir where one can enjoy many water activities and especially the joysof eating the abundant number of fish found here.
I count myself among the people who have visited the basin many times with family and friends but this time I travelled overnight with colleagues to Thalath along the banks of the reservoir in Keo-oudom district, Vientiane province, to celebrate interational Women's Day.
My interest during this trip was in catching pa keo, a small herring-like fish known in English as a river sprat, learning from the fishermen who catch the fish from late evening until early morning before returning to the shore to sell their catch.
More interesting still were the dishes that featured this tiny but delicious fish and the number of ways that locals had learned how to cook it.
Laab, a traditional Lao dish made from minced meat and herbs, was a particularly delicious dish made from the pa keo that my group and I had the chance to eat for the first time as we had mostly eaten laab from the big fish found in the basin.
However, it doesn't only get included in lab. Local people also cook it in a deliciously sour soup; in khanaap pa keo , where the fish is cooked with other ingredients inside a banana leaf before being grilled; in pon pa keo , where the dried version of the fish is pounded with fish sauce, fried garlic, red onions and chillies using a mortar and pestle; and cheo pa keo , a sauce also made from the dried river sprat.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was learning to catch the fish with the help of a local guide, Mr Lay, who lives on the reservoir in Sengsavang village in Keo-oudom district and always sets out in his small boat with his nets every evening.
“Catching these common fish is my permanent job. I usually have to go out in the evening and I'm back by early morning. I drive my boat for an hour to my fishing spot where I leave lights in 10 places on the water,” Mr Lay explain s.
“In each place that I have a light I can collect fish twice a night. I can usually get 20 kg to 30 kg in all 10 places every night which I can then sell for 10,000 kip per kilogramme to local vendors who are waiting for me on the shore. But if it's windy or there are waves I sometimes cannot catch any fish and return home empty-handed.”
Mr Lay said some of his neighbours and nearby villagers were also fishermen like himself and that they often try to catch fish to dry along the banks of the reservoir or on an island. The dried fish sell well - for more than 50,000 kip per kilogramme in some cases.
The dried fish is also a common souvenir for customers looking to buy a gift or for something easy to cook when they return home. The production of dried river sprat from the reservoir can be commonly seen in the area or even purchased at markets in the provinces or in Vientiane.
“I have been catching this fish for over 20 years now. I usually netted 20 to 30 dozen in any given day over the past few years but recently I have only been able to catch 30 kg a day or slightly less. But I'm happy with my life as a fisherman because this job makes me excited about the challenge of how many kilogrammes I can catch each day,” Mr Lay says enthusiastically.
Thalath, or the Nam N gum reservoir, is in Vientiane province and is located about 80km from the capital. Drive on Road No. 13 North and turn right when reaching the Phonhong T-junction. You can also take Road No 10, crossing the Thangone Bridge and heading directly to the reservoir, which is appro ximately the same distance.
By Times Reporters
(Latest Update April 11, 2017)