Saman: She's the Only One
Khun Saman learned to fish when she was a kid. "My dad took me out on the river," says Saman. She grew up around Chiang Khan in beautiful Loei province in northern Thailand. "We were a family of 16 kids," she says. Fish from the Mekong were a critical source of protein for the large family.
She didn't know then that she would become the only woman fisher-person in her community.
Khun Saman is also called "Man" by her friends. ("Khun" is an honorific and is the Thai equivalent of Mrs., Ms or Mr.) She's 55 now, and has been fishing for years. While her dad showed her some basics, she mainly taught herself. "I used to watch men do the fishing," she says. "And I thought, if men can do it, I can do it too."
She even goes out for hours at night when the vast Mekong is dark, the lights are few and the current is strong.
"I love adventure and I'm never afraid!" she says. "Some men even see me as inspiration and ask me to teach them to fish."
Her colleagues admire her for more reasons. Saman is also somewhat of an inventor. She shows me the "bokelop" on her boat - it's a long pole attached to a rudder that she can use to steer the boat by herself.
"When my husband and I used to fish together, we'd argue about the steering. So, I adapted this pole to make it easy for one person to steer." She named it the "bokelop" - and it's now ubiquitous to fishing boasts in Chiang Khan.
I read about Khun Saman in an online newspaper article posted on Facebook. She was profiled as the only fisher-woman in the whole area. The article described community concerns about government plans to divert some of the Mekong waters inland.
"The river is very important for so many reasons," she tells me. "I raised my family near the river. It's essential for fishing and for watering our gardens. After all, without fish and plants to eat, what would we do?"
Khun Saman offers to take me out on her boat to show me how to fish.
She describes the process.
Step 1: Throw out the net.
Step 2: Pull it back in.
Step 3: Pick out the fish!
Then she laughs and laughs. It's not quite that simple.
First, there's the issue of the net length.
It's 350 metres long. That's right - one third of a kilometre long - or more than three football fields. Every day when she fishes, she must prepare the net by pulling it hand over hand out of its bag. This takes at least twenty minutes. She's very careful. A replacement would cost about US $85.
With the net ready to go, off she goes too, motoring up the river. This boat belongs to Saman - she bought it for 7500 Thai baht, or about US$ 215. "When I first told people I wanted to buy my own boat, no one believed me," Saman tells me.
This is the fifth boat she's owned. She says she'd love a bigger boat that would cost about US$ 300 because she could carry tourists in it. Her area of Loei is becoming a Thai destination.
Saman has made a living fishing for many years. But she's done other work. She describes a time she and her husband needed to earn more for their young family of two daughters.
"A long time ago, we tried to find another job as we didn't have enough money to build a house. I was told to work in construction. On the job we made only 200 Baht (about $6) per person per day. I didn't like it, and we wanted to leave.
But, if we left, they wouldn't pay us what was already owed, and we would have to pay back the money for transport. We had no choice. We stayed for three months.
While we worked, I fished every day so that we wouldn't have to spend any money on food. And that way, we saved all of our money. We left with 30,000 Baht (about $900) and earned enough to build a house."
Saman trawls the enormous net behind her in the river for a short time - the sun is getting higher in the sky and it's very hot - not the best time to catch fish. Generally, Saman says it's easier to catch in the dry season when the river is lower.
"But it's not as good as it used to be," she says. Like many who use the Mekong for their livelihoods, Saman says there just aren't as many fish as before. A few years ago, she had a record catch of 19 kilograms. That doesn't happen anymore. "We used to regularly bring in 8-10 kilograms of fish each time. Now, we bring in 3-4." This reduction has a big bearing on income - people who fish generally keep enough for the family to eat, and sell the rest in the market. A bigger haul means more income.
"The river is unpredictable," Saman says. As the dams upriver are opened and closed without warning the river's depth can change quickly. This has an impact on fishing, but also on the garden she plants on the riverside in the drier part of the year, which can get flooded if the waters rise suddenly.
It's not too surprising to find no fish today - we weren't out very long. When Saman fishes all night, she goes out at 1 am and comes home at sunrise. That's when she will catch more.
Saman says she doesn't want much. She's satisfied to live "por pieng", a kind of middle path approach to living within your means. It's a concept developed by Thailand's beloved and now deceased King Bhumibol and seems to be especially embraced by the country's rural poor.
She does, however, really want the Mekong river to be healthy. She works with the local fishermen's association to raise issues that concern her. And despite never having gone to school, Saman has learned how to do some book-keeping. She's not only the one woman in the association, but she's also the treasurer.
At 55, Saman remains a busy woman and has no intention of stopping. "I will work until I can't any more." This is a common approach to life I hear from older women everywhere on the Mekong.
She's on her journey mainly alone these days too. The husband she married when she was 16 died five years ago of liver complications. "I'm ok," she says. "I'm strong."
She's had her own health scares as well. When she was 41, she went to hospital and was suspected of having cervical cancer. She didn't like hospital. "I stayed for just one week," she laughs as she tells me. "I kind of ran away from the hospital and I never went back."
Saman believes health is a state of mind.
"I love to stay active and try many things. If I don't like something, I'll stop. And if I like it, I'll do more."
"If I do the right things," she says, "I'll be ok."
"I'm very happy."
Gratitude: Of course, I'm very grateful to Khun Saman for spending time talking with me and bringing me out on the Mekong. I'd like to thank Adam Hunt at Internews/ Mekong Partnership for the Environment for putting me in touch with people who could introduce me to Khun Saman. Thanks to the Chiang Khan fisherman's association for welcoming me to their meeting.
With thanks also to Meow, who is a wonderful translator and guide based in Chiang Khan. Look her up at BeMyGuest@ChiangkhanGuesthouse on Facebook if you want to learn more about Chiang Khan.