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As the sun begins to set over the Suthep Mountain and the light begins to fade from the city, a strange group of men and boys emerge to congregate around the city moats of Chiang Mai. These shadowy figures are known as The Tree Top Spear Fishermen.
Having grown up watching repeats of The Twilight Zone on TV I have always associated the time when day melts into night with mystery and magic; a brief gap where it’s neither one thing nor another, where it’s betwixt and between, a little ambiguous glich in the relentless march of time.
Ambiguity of every kind is more pronounced in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. It’s as though Thailand is forever plunged into a magical twilight zone where there really is a third sex, where tomorrow could mean next week, next week could mean next year and to have the least is merely a means to achieve the most.
During this ambiguous time of day, or is it night, the whole of Chiang Mai is at its most active. The heat of the day has gone, but the light of the day still lingers which allows thousands of games of Tak Kraw (a type of acrobatic football tennis) to be played in parks and any odd bit of waste land. Food vendors swarm the streets, markets buzz into life and a million fairy lights begin to twinkle outside thousands of bars as hundreds of bar girls put on their make up and lipstick. There is a dizzy aroma of incense and fried chicken as the traffic cops fight a losing battle to maintain order over an entire city on the move.
During this magical time, unnoticed by the day time people and the night time people, a small group of twilight people emerge. Their work can only take place between the end of the day and the beginning of night, between the time the sun sets, and, as they say in Ireland, “the time when the green goes out of the grass.”
Fishermen the world over from Bangkok to Boston will know that during this time fish are at their most active and what’s more, the reflections from the surface of the water suddenly vanish. It’s as though a stage magician has suddenly whisked away a silk curtain, exposing a dark watery world beneath.
As the traffic whirls around the city, the moats become still and transparent. This is what the fishermen have been waiting for all day. The reflective veil has lifted exposing the large old catfish dozing just beneath the surface.
As the fishermen congregate around the moats they lash murderous looking spear guns and harpoons to their backs. Some of these are standard under water spear guns used for sea fish hunting, but most are wonderful home made contraptions made out of bits of iron, old bungee elastic, scrap wood and tough nylon string and look like murderous home made cross bows, which is actually what they are. The needle sharp tip of the spear is usually protected by a bit of old dirty polystyrene and attached to the cross bow by a coiled length of strong nylon cord.
It’s an alarming sight to see one of these home made weapons casually thrown over someone’s shoulder as they saunter past Thapai Gate with all the tourists. It’s a bit like bumping into someone at the supermarket who’s carrying a shotgun. It makes your heart skip a beat. It looks like someone has stolen a prop from Lord of the Rings or Mad Max.
It’s what happens next that is really unusual though. Instead of the fishermen slipping undetected into the water, as would be normal in spear gun fishing, they climb up into the huge old Flame Trees that overhang the water. They climb as high as they can so they have an excellent view down into the clear dark water. From these tree top eyries, the twilight fishermen sit motionless with spear gun at the ready focusing intently on the water, cutting a rather arresting silhouette against the darkening skies above.
Then suddenly, the still evening air is filled with movement… zsooooom. The trigger is pulled and a flash of silver darts through the air at incredible speed with incredible power and slices into the water towards a poor unsuspecting catfish. All is action. Down on the ground the fishermen’s young accomplice, usually his son, dashes out from beneath the tree to retrieve the spear and the harpooned fish. The fish is dispatched quickly and hidden in an old plastic bag and the nylon cord rewound and the spear reset ready for the next victim.
I have explained this story to several Life Coaching Holiday guests and people on the Couples Therapy Retreat. I can see them looking at me rather uncertainly, wondering if it’s the heat or the Thai whisky that has got to me. I don’t mind if you don’t believe me either, but all I do ask is that if you find yourself in Chiang Mai walking along by the cool waters of the moat at the end of a hot day, even if you feel overcome with heat and the traffic, don’t, and I repeat don’t, be tempted by the thought of a quiet evening dip in the still waters, especially under the big old overhanging Flame Trees.
This article was first published in Travel and Leisure magazine and caused something of a stir. It was called The Twilight Tree Top Spear Fishermen of Chiang Mai. You can read the original here along with other articles about Thailand and Chang Mai http://blog.travelandleisureasia.com/destination/2010/08/18/the-twilight-tree-top-spear-fishermen-of-chiang-mai/
Many people wrote to tell me they didn’t believe it. They argued that the light refraction through the water would mean that targets would always be somewhere other than where they appear on the surface. I don’t profess to know the inner secrets of the twilight spear fishermen, and how they overcome the problem of light refraction, but I can assure you that they are very real. The story is quite true.
If you are visiting Chiang Mai the best place to witness the rare and reclusive twilight tree top spear fishermen is around the west moat, especially near the north western corner near Ram Hospital. If you get shot by mistake at least you won’t have far to go!
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