Saturday, December 25, 2004

Christmas lunch on Thailand's Lake Bueng Boraphet

by Saigon Charlie

Sunday on Lake Bueng Boraphet

Captain Y relaxing on Lake Bueng BoraphetThe day after Christmas turned out to be a Sunday as well as a full moon. Full moons usually make me a little crazy anyway, with Sundays sometimes becoming a bit depressing, so to shake off some of the Sunday/Christmas holiday blues, my best friend Captain Y surprised me with a road trip by handing me the keys to his Audi and telling me to get in the car and drive!

Captain "Y" on Lake Bueng Boraphet

After grabbing a couple of Singhas from the refrigerator, we headed north out of Sapphaya and were soon tooling down the highway north to places unknown (at least for me...).

As I like nothing better than driving, sailing or flying, this was an easy assignment and we were moments later cruising towards Chai Nat. After reaching Chai Nat, we turned north and headed towards Nakon Sawan. Passing through the town which the Lonely Planet guide book has found to be so boring that it has been deleted, we soon turned right off the main road onto a road marked with a sign indicating “Bueng Boraphet”. Not knowing what this was, I was soon pleasantly surprised to notice a large lake appearing which as it turned out was to be the destination for this particular journey of ours.

A few minutes later Captain Y had me turning into a government complex of some sort which turned out to be a Thai fisheries research station. As the gate was open and no one was there to tell me I couldn’t enter, I kept driving and after proceeding slowly over some rather large speed bumps, turned along a road which was paralleling this huge lake.

Parking the car in front of a massive statue of a crocodile, we headed towards the floating docks making a quick stop to buy a six pack of Singha Beer. Still not quite sure what was going on but knowing it was serious and long enough to warrant 6 Singhas, I just went with the flow so to speak and followed Y down the docks towards several long-tail powered pontoon boats. It became apparent that we were heading out onto the lake and after negotiating a rate of 400 baht an hour for the boat and driver, we boarded our fine vessel and headed north along the shore.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the lake before this moment, Captain Y gave me a short history of his experience of the lake telling me he first noticed it while flying over it everyday from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani and later visiting it while driving down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

As it turns out the lake is the largest fresh water lake in Thailand and at times has been referred to as Thailand’s northern sea, having an area stated to be 212 square kilometers. Today the signage refers to it as a swamp as it is very shallow, with numerous areas where the land juts out of the shallow waters. Dredging is ongoing and it seems man made islands are being produced from the efforts to keep some depth in the lake.

The highlight of the trip was taking the boat through an area densely populated with floating water lilies and plants. As we made our way slowly through the area along a path previously cut by other boats at earlier times, birds were swooping around us, seeming to taunt us to catch them. In reality they were diving at the numerous insects being forced to go airborne as our vessel approached. It was almost a bit surreal to slowly pass through this water forest, surrounded by hundreds of swooping and diving birds and then to suddenly come upon large moving objects straight in front of us.

Captain Y pointed them out first with neither one of us able to immediately ascertain what it was we were looking at. My first thought as I laughed to myself was I was seeing the Lock Ness Sea Monster as one large object seemed to leap out of the water. Knowing this wasn’t Scotland however, I continued to watch the object or objects and after moving farther forward towards it, was finally able to recognize it as a water buffalo. That was a relief as I just wasn't prepared to handle any sea monsters on this particular early Sunday day after Christmas morning...

As it turned out, it was not only a single water buffalo, but a rather large herd of them, all slowly moving through the lilies, jumping from area to area, keeping just parts of their head and horns above the water as they munched on the lake’s delicacies.

Water buffalo eating in the waters of Lake Bueng Boraphet.Even after the discovery we had come upon a large herd of water buffalos many hundreds of meters from the closest shore, we discovered yet another smaller herd a bit farther away. As we were a long way from the shore line, it was extremely interesting to watch these creatures move their huge bulk gracefully through the lake’s waters as they fed themselves on a beautiful and crisp (...for Thailand) December day.

Continuing north and then turning back south towards the docks we had left from, we saw many more birds and lone fishermen and their skiffs hauling out their fishing traps from the shallow waters. I was quite fascinating to watch them and their traditional gear slowly but meticulously moving through the shallow weeds of the large lake, occasionally pulling a lone fish from a solitary trap. On one boat, a fisherman could be seen sleeping and basking in the noon-day sun, obviously enjoying the fringe benefits of his profession and the fruits of his labor.

After about an hour on the lake we moved past an island with a large tower and a building that was constructed rather uniquely with slanting roofs. Once again as we passed the structure and its dock, we went alongside the island and viewed hundreds of water fowl of various sizes, shapes and colors resting in the large trees overhanging the lake’s waters.

As we passed the southern flank of the observation island, we noticed off in the far distance several trains moving both north and south alongside the shoreline, most probably heading to Chiang Mai and Bangkok. One appeared to be a more modern express train while yet another appeared to be a slower, shabbier one with old and rusted coaches.

After watching the trains for a bit and passing past the island and its birds, we made a beeline back to the shore’s docks and after about an hour and 15 minutes were gently pulled alongside the dock. Paying the boat driver, we headed up to where some open air restaurants were located and chose the first one we came across. As it turned out, this was a brilliant decision and an absolute culinary delight.

The restaurant we chose was just another Thai restaurant amongst the many thousands that grace the lands within the Kingdom but without exception, this woman who was the cook had mastered a style of Thai cooking that was second to none anywhere in the world! I truly mean that…

We started off with a large lake fish that had been prepared to perfection, followed by some pork and chicken as well as a spicy salad. Placed next to these dishes were truthfully some of the best sauces that I have ever tasted anywhere in the world, one of which I have never experienced even after many years in Thailand.

Charlie and a feast fit for a king!

After devouring these plates of food we couldn’t stop there, but instead had to order yet another type of fish and yet another type of salad. The only thing that could describe the two “farangs” sitting at that table on that lake on that Sunday afternoon was “fat, dump and very, very happy!”

Unfortunately, it was time to head back to the “ranch” as we call it in America and with Captain Y taking the wheel for the return trip; we headed south, ending yet another fantastic journey of exploration off Thailand’s beaten path…

Merry Christmas
and a
Happy New Year!!!

"Bueng Boraphet is the largest fresh water swamp in Thailand. It has an area of around 212 square kilometers. It covers parts of Amphoe Mueang, Amphoe Tha Tako and Amphoe Chum Saeng. In the past, Bueng Boraphet was called the "Northern Sea" or Chom Bueng as there was an abundance of aquatic animals and species of plants here. Rare animals include white-eyed river-martin and Siamese Tiger Fish. During November to March a large number of waterfowls migrate here. Some parts of the swamp have been declared the Bueng Boraphet non-hunting area under the care of the Wildlife Conservation Division. Bueng Boraphet is also a fish breeding ground where the Department of Fisheries has set up the Bueng Boraphet Fishery Development Station.

A fisherman on the lake.

Traditional fish traps.

The trains along the lake.