Volume 1 No.7

What's New

Place of Interest

Phrase Of The Month


Fish Tales
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( December, 2001 Volume 1 No.7 )

Most of Cambodia's population depends on fish in some way. Fish is the main source of protein. Markets are filled with fish in every shape and form, from fresh to dried to fermented into the fish cheese called prahok. A huge percentage of Khmers glean a living as fishermen, from the wet season inland sea of Takeo Province in the south to the great Tonle Sap Lake which stretches from just below Siem Reap and forms the heart of the country. But fish is not only to eat. Fish and fishing for Khmers also means fun, luck even sport. In a stall on Street 174 in the heart of Phnom Penh, a wall of glass bottles hold brightly colored fish. The street itself is nicknamed Fish Street, and stallholders up and down here sell fish of all types and aquarium products. These particular fish are special, though. They are known to foreigners as Bettas, or sometimes Siamese Fighting Fish. In Khmer, they are trei krem. In the aquariums and pet shops of Europe and America, breeds with names such as the Cambodian Bettas, a fish with a clear or salmon colored body and brightly colored fins, or the Cambodian Butterfly Bettas, a white or pale salmon-colored body and variegated fins, are highly sought after.
Sometimes in Cambodia, and especially in the provinces, a group will gather to bet on a contest between two males of the species, although this is frowned on by the authorities. The female bettas does not have the bright colors of the male, or the tendency to fight, so it is the males who form the centerpiece of any display of these fish. The bottles, each with just one male fish inside, will be placed side by side so the fish can see each other. Just a glimpse of another bright blue or red male is enough to send the bettas into a frenzy, and their colors become even brighter. They puff out their fins. When they are sufficiently riled, they are put into a single, larger tank and will bite each other and pull each other down until one escapes and flees or until one dies.
But not all those who breed and sell the fish are gamblers. Mr Bo Sophon has been breeding fighting fish since he was 12. "I must have spent two or three thousand dollars on breeding these fish," the 45-year-old said. "I'd estimate I'd have about 30 to 40 thousand fish on my farm. They are not difficult to breed, as long as you have the right food. Live mosquito larvae are best, but earthworms can also be used sometimes. "I have all different colors - blue, black, white, red, green, gray and purple." He says he doesn't breed his fish to fight. He breeds them for export. "They can bring $5 to $9 when I sell them to the United States. I think they use them to fight, but also as a hobby. They are beautiful fish. Cambodia is famous for these fish." In a little shop front house near Psar Thmei, another man is breeding fish of a different nature. Also not for eating, these fish are valuable just the same. Huge earthenware pots line one wall of the house, and a glass tank sits at the head of the room. "That is where I put the fish when they are ready to breed," said Mr Om Sophon no relation. These are no ordinary fish, but dragon fish, or arowana. They are not the Asian variety found in Malaysia and Singapore and protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). But these silver arowanas (Osteoglossum Bicirrhosum) are ornamental arowanas all the same. Lovers of tropical fish value them because of their worldwide free trade status, their ease of maintenance and their "feng shui" value. For this reason, they provide a sort of poor man's alternative to their more colorful but prohibitively expensive Asian cousins. South American arowanas, recognizable by their more snake-like bodies and plainer black or silver color depending on the breed (there is also a South American Black arowana), do not face this problem. But Mr Sophon, at age 48, is the only man in this kingdom so much further north of the equator than their native South America who has managed to breed these natives of Brazil and Columbia successfully. From just one pair, he has built up to four breeding pairs and has 11 adult fish altogether, all between 60 to 70 centimeters long. One day soon, he hopes to take his fish to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam and create a new export business for his country. They are not easy to breed in this part of Asia. Silver arowana dislike "cold snaps" where the water temperature falls below the mid-20 degree Celsius mark. The sophisticated aquarium equipment easily available in other parts of the world is prohibitively expensive here and electricity can stop for hours. "I actually bought five fish two potential breeding pairs and a spare for US$24 a pair. I lost three fish when the power failed and the oxygen pump stopped," Mr Sophon says. Arowana are mouth brooders and notorious for eating their young, but for some reason Mr Sophon's fish have decided to breed prolifically.
"It took me years to find success," he says. "I was ready to sell, but the fish wouldn't let me. They are lucky fish for me. Any dragon fish has luck." "I have never kept any other fish before," Mr Sophon says. "At first I just kept them to see as pets, but after some years I wanted to breed them and they would not. I grew tired of feeding them. Then I agreed to sell them and set a price with one buyer. The night before he was to take them, one fish jumped from the tank to the floor. They had never done that before. I believed that was a sign he did not want to leave me, so I cancelled the sale. "I agreed to sell them again. Again one jumped. I waited, and soon, the female lay on the bottom of the tank and would not eat. Then, I looked in her mouth and there were eggs. I had succeeded." At first, 200 eggs only provided 40 or 50 offspring. "But then the fish started to love their children. They bred every two months or six weeks, and began to raise 150 or 160 per brood." South American dragon fish are faster to grow than the Asian variety. After three months, the fry are 12 centimeters long and ready to sell. Mr Sophon said that two years ago the young brought a wholesale price of around $8 or $9. Now, market saturation from his fish and an emerging middle class that is affluent enough to buy imported arowanas has cut that to $5 or $6, but survival rates compensate. And markets in Thailand and Vietnam where the fish are also very popular are flourishing, he believes. He says the fish have not been bred with great success in Vietnam, either. "I would love to breed the expensive arowanas, but I cannot afford thousands for the stock or the equipment. These large earthenware pots I keep mine in cost me $30 each. I didn't have to outlay much to keep these. They are hardy." Ly Kieng, manageress of the famous Hang Neak restaurant in Prek Leap, believes in the power of her Silver arowanas. "I used to have 12. When six got sick and died, my business died off as well. It halved, and a nightclub I owned was closed down," she says. She is a firm believer in the power of the fish to predict business trends and create luck. "A friend of mine had a fish who changed color and got sick with a humped back. My friend lost his health, then his position, and now he is dead. I believe these fish have the powers of the expensive ones, but if I bought those, they would be stolen or I would be robbed."
But there are even simpler ways to enjoy fishing. Young Piseth doesn't have the money for fighting fish or expensive lucky fish. Instead, he pays a few hundred riel for a bamboo stick and some fishing line or thread and spends his afternoons fishing for fry in the flooded fields during wet season. "We catch a few. Mostly I fish to have a good time with my friends," he said. For more serious fishermen, there are recreational fishing ponds, like the one across the river in Kien Svay District attached to the go-cart track. Here, Khmers and foreigners pay between $2 and $4 to fish a specially stocked pond. "I bring my kid out here about once or twice a month," one expatriate said. "They provide the fishing gear and bait and there are plenty of fish in here. He usually catches something and he has caught a good-sized fish before. "It's just a good day out for us."