Anya and I got talking to Ulrich one night over a glass of Thai whisky.
He was on his own and invited us over to his table.
The whisky went by the name of ‘Hong Thong’. We drank it with water.
We were surprised to see whisky on an island where most people were Moslems. To be sure, the Islam on Ko Sukorn was the most relaxed version of that religion I had seen. Many of the women did not wear head scarves. Still, alcohol was frowned upon by most religions – but especially by Islam.
We assumed that Ulrich had brought the whisky with him from the mainland.
He hadn’t. He’d gone around to all the shops (well, there weren’t that many of them) and asked at each one if they had drink – and he’d finally hit the jackpot, so to speak.
‘They keep it down the back, you have to ask for it.’
Ulrich liked his whisky alright.
Ulrich told us he was Swiss and had come to Ko Sukorn to go fishing.
That was different.
For a while, he’d been content to stand on the beach under a palm tree and cast a line out into the sea.
Now he had a different idea.
Perhaps that’s why he was looking for a bit of company that night.
He had arranged for a local fisherman to take him out to a distant island. He didn’t know which one they were going to. Six of them were visible from the nearby beach. They were scattered across the aqua blue horizon, each of them a different in size and shape. Some of them were comparatively close, others far distant. It was a beautiful sight, especially in the mornings and evenings. But travelling out there in a small boat might be a different matter.
Ulrich was excited about the prospect of going out with a local fisherman. He had never done anything like this before. But he was nervous too.
For a while, we talked about the traditional boats used by Thai fishermen known as a ‘long tail’. Anya and I were used to travelling in them. I’d made a bit of a study of them and had taken a lot of photos of them.
The long tail was a long, narrow wooden boat with an automobile size engine at the back – uncovered. The engine was mounted on a swivel. There was a long handle extending in front and a long metal stem extending from the rear with a propeller at the end of it. This arrangement meant that the propeller could be easily raised and lowered or turned to the right or left – which meant that in the hands of an experienced person, the boat was very manoeuvrable. It could be motored through shallow water e.g. over sand bars and reefs – as well as deep water. It could be turned quickly and this, together with the power of a large engine, meant that the boat could be gunned through waves or could move across calm water at speed. It was a boat which was ideal for traversing Thai coastal waters as well as rivers.
For Ulrich, going out to sea in such a seemingly flimsy craft was a bit scary.
‘Don’t forget’ he said, ‘I’m from Switzerland. Mountains don’t bother me but the ocean, that’s uh, different, it’s unknown. I don’t even know how to swim.’
He left us early in the evening: just after 10am.
He was due to get up the next morning at first light and ride his rented Honda motor bike – a 120cc – to the pier just outside the village, where he’d arranged to meet up with the local fisherman in his long tail.
Ulrich joked as he rose from his chair:
‘I am paying this guy to take me to a good place to catch fish. Maybe I don’t catch anything…a sardine!’
Before he left us, I asked him for directions to the shop where he’d bought the Hong Thong.
I didn’t feel right drinking his whisky and not returning the favour.
On the following day, after our morning ocean swim and breakfast, we walked into the village and had lunch at our favourite stall. In the afternoon, I went to the shop which had the whisky. It was all rather surreptitious. I was led down to the back of the store and a bottle was taken out of a closed cardboard box and slipped into a plastic bag. I paid for it and put in my day pack.
Then we began the walk back to the guest house. It was hot, in the mid-30’s. We stopped at a small shop at the outskirts of the village. The roof protruded out a way, offering a precious area of shade. In the shaded area was a cement bench seat and table. We sat there and drank a can of cold lemonade and watched the passers-by.
Anya was intrigued by that business of being taken down to the back of the shop to buy the Hong Thong.
‘Everyone, including the local imam, must know that whisky is being sold. It can’t be only tourists who are buying it. This little ritual of secrecy is necessary to keep up appearances; it allows everyone to pretend that it’s not happening…’
I said: ‘who knows, maybe there’s plenty of true believers who like a tipple…’
Whilst we were talking, we saw a western tourist come around the corner of the road on a motor bike.
It was Ulrich.
He saw us and pulled over.
He had a big smile on his face.
It didn’t take long to work out why.
He had two fish slung over his shoulder.
One of them was huge.
There was laugher all round.
‘Kind of a big sardine Ulrich.’
‘Ya! Big sardine!’
After a bout of animated conversation, Ulrich said:
You like fish?’
‘You eat a lot tonight I can tell you!’
In the meantime, several locals gathered around and admired the big fish.
I took some shots with my compact digital camera.
Then he drove off.
I had a feeling that the bottle of Hong Thong I had in my rucksack was going to be empty by the end of the night.
The fish was barbecued.
It was more than enough to feed Ulrich, Anya and I – plus 3 other people who were staying at the guest house. There was plenty to go around. I went back for seconds – and thirds.
The fish was delicious. I had never eaten so much fish in one sitting before.
Then we started on the Hong Thong and Ulrich told the story of how he caught the fish.
He was a levelled headed man – a typical Swiss – yet as he told his tale, there was an unmistakable air of almost child-like excitement:
‘Abdul took the long tail out to one of those islands you can see on the horizon. I don’t know which one. When you’re standing here, it looks close but when you go there on a long tail, it’s a long way. There was no canopy. There was no protection from the wind or the spray. Or the sun. I got wet on the way there and I was so cold. Out on the ocean, there were these big waves rising and falling. The boat was so small. I got a bad feeling in my stomach. When we got nearer to the island, I saw these huge walls of rock rising out of the water. It looked like an iceberg. A big iceberg of rock. It was incredible. The fisherman motored in close to the wall. The water was perfectly clear. Clear as a mountain stream only it was deep. It was like the boat was like something floating in the air. Then we went over a reef, a big reef. The water became shallower. You could see all these plants under water, like an underwater forest, and schools of fish swimming between them. Then a big wave head towards us. It rose up and I was certain we would capsize. But Abdul …he knew what to do. He went straight into the wave. We rose up and up and then down. Then another one. I was shitting myself. I wanted to go back to the shore. Then we came to deeper water, but the swell was still big, only we didn’t go up and down as bad. He told me to cast a line and I did, but all the time, I was worried I might fall out of the boat. I could see fish swimming under the boat. Then I caught a couple of small ones. He helped me get them on board.
I got hot in that boat. The sun really burned. Abdul motored around the island. I cast out a line and then I knew I’d got something big. The rod was almost pulled out of my hand. I paid out the line. It just went and went. He motored the boat in the direction the fish was swimming and I began reeling in. It was a struggle between me and the fish. Like the kind of stuff I’d read about, you know, in boy’s adventure books. I’d never fought a fish before. Not in Switzerland. Ok, kind of fight when you pull in a trout. This was different. I knew this fish was much bigger than a trout. Much stronger.
Abdul started singing. It was a song to bring good luck he said. A song to ask Allah to help me catch the fish.
I began reeling the fish in closer towards the boat. After about half an hour I had him. We landed him on board. I wouldn’t have got him on board if it hadn’t been for Abdul. I had no experience with this. He knew exactly what to do.
I was very happy. I never caught a fish like this.
On the second glass of Hong Thong – and by this time, we were the only ones in the restaurant – Ulrich became philosophical:
‘Fishing here is …how do you say? Opens your eyes.
In Europe, you’d never be allowed to get into a small open boat and go out to an island on your own. There would be all sorts of regulations and laws that would make it impossible to do that. The boat must have fire extinguisher, roof to protect you from the sun or the rain, life jackets, two-way radio, insurance …..you know what’s it like. Too many laws and regulations, you can’t anything these days, there’s no freedom…’
I don’t know whether it was me or Anya who interjected with: ‘Yeah, but there’s a reason for all the rules and regulations, Ulrich’.
What Ulrich was saying about too many rules and regulations and no freedom sounded uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of thing billionaire businessmen said. They thought it was an outrage that they should pay tax or be subject to environmental legislation. Freedom meant: the freedom to make mega-profits, without interference from national governments, unions, or environmental agencies. It meant profit before all else.
But Ulrich was coming from a different direction.
He poured another whisky – for us as well as himself. The bottle of Hong Thong was emptied.
‘In Switzerland, you know, you can’t even catch a fish without a licence.’
‘Fishing licence. It’s not easy to get.’
He digressed, telling us how he had become interested in fishing and how he had got his fishing licence.
His best friend suggested that the two of them obtain a fishing licence and on the weekends, go fishing together in distant, wild streams in the mountains.
To do that though, they needed a fishing licence. There was more involved than filling in a form and paying a fee. They had to attend a series of lectures covering such topics as the species of fish and their ecological environment, areas where it was permitted to fish and those that weren’t, legal sizes for catches, how to use a rod and reel, basic survival measures if one was caught by bad weather.
He chuckled: ‘You wouldn’t believe how much was in that course. Shit, we had busy jobs and were having to study for the fish licence as well.’
Afterwards they had to do a test – and if they passed, then they had to apply for a licence and pay for it. If they failed, they had to wait for another 6 months before they could do the test again. If you went fishing illegally and were caught, you had to pay a large fine and were banned from fishing. Caught a second time, it was gaol.
‘In my country there are rules. You must respect them otherwise you are in big trouble. You accept it, grow up with it. But there’s too many fucking rules. There is a reason for them, I understand that. But we’ve come too far in Europe. We’ve reached the point when you can’t do anything without breaking a law. Your life becomes regulated for all the right reasons. There’s lot of right reasons. No end of them. You reach a point when you think….what can I do?’
‘It was a crazy trip in the long tail boat today, I was scared, I’m this over protected man, grown up in a country where risk and danger have been outlawed. I can’t even go and catch a fucking fish without a licence. The fisherman here, he sings to catch a fish, sings to ward of evil spirits, sings to ward off ghosts….yeah, they believe in all sorts of stuff, never mind that label of Islam. You see crazy stuff all the time here, three, four, five people on a motor bike, no helmets. There’s no rules here and if there are, everyone ignores them. I won’t defend that. But it’s how they live. They don’t look unhappy to me. They look a lot happier than a lot Swiss people I know. I’ve been up to Scandinavia you know. Took my fishing rod up there. You read these surveys that say that these Scandinavians are happy. All these statistics are fed into a computer. Out comes the answer. Tell you something. Walk around and see all these grim faces. No one laughing. No smiles. Faces like masks. If they’re happy, then I don’t wish it on anyone….
I’ll never forget that trip in the long tail today. I’ll do it again.’
‘Next time, I’ll show the local fisherman my fishing licence. See what he says!’