Fermented fish jars, once a sign of prosperity in Thailand's northeast, are now a grim reminder of a culinary tradition threatened by the construction of dams on the Mekong River.
“Paddy fields full of rice, jars full of fish” is a proverb that reflects the richness of the land in Thailand. Rice, fish, and salt - three simple ingredients that form the backbone of one of Southeast Asia's most cherished food preservation techniques: fermented fish. This culinary tradition has been an integral part of the region's culture since prehistoric times and to this day is still practiced, particularly by the inhabitants of Thailand's northeast.
In a region with ancient sites dedicated to rock salt production and vast expanses of paddy fields, it is no surprise that the people of Thailand's northeast have perfected the art of fermented fish. After utilising fish for household cooking, selling, and gifting, villagers in the region will take the remaining fish and use a combination of salt and rice - or simply salt in some areas - to ferment the fish in jars for future consumption. These jars were previously symbols of well-being, particularly in areas with an excessive amount of fish.
As a result, it is not uncommon to find households with numerous jars of this treasured food preserve. The Mekong River, a sprawling freshwater fish habitat, has given rise to a multitude of fermented fish production stores which dot both banks of the river. For centuries, the process of fermenting fish has been an integral part of the daily lives of communities dwelling along the fertile river's shores.
However, the construction of numerous dams on the Mekong River has brought about significant changes to the ecosystem and the way of life along the river. Nowadays, in many communities along the Mekong, abandoned empty fermented fish jars can be found, a sign of the changes in the lifestyles of people living beside an altered river.
No fish, no jars
Kankong Junlong, a resident of Ban Muang sub-district, Sangkhom district, Nong Khai province, pointed to a water jar in front of her house that was once used for fermenting fish. She then took us on a survey around her house to see other fish jars, some now used for decoration and some for storing miscellaneous items.
Kankong recalls that she once had over ten jars, all that were passed down from her parents. Now, like other households in Ban Muang and other communities along the Mekong, fermented fish jars are increasingly being used for other functions.
"Catching even a single fish can be difficult. Even if we were to come across one, we wouldn't dare consume it, given its high price. We now only sell our catch. And as for making fermented fish, well, that's out of the question," Kankong said.
The reason for this, Kankong explained, is the construction of dams in China and Laos which have led to a significant decrease in the number of fish in the river. As a result, the production of fermented fish, part of village life for generations, has come to a halt.
Currently, there are as many as eleven Mekong dams, nine in China and two in Laos. The Xayaburi dam in Laos, located less than 100 kilometers from Sangkhom district, disrupts the Mekong river's natural water level, affecting the river ecosystem. Many reports confirm that after the construction of the dams, there was a considerable reduction in river fish varieties and numbers.
The impact is palpable in Ban Muang village, Moo 2, Ban Muang sub-district, Sangkhom district. Previously more than 20 villagers made a living from fishing but now only five do. The only ‘good’ news is that as a result of dwindling fish populations, the price of fish has skyrocketed and fishermen who manage to catch a few can sell them for a premium price.
In the face of these changes, the art of making fermented fish has all but disappeared from the communities that once relied on it. Fishing tools such as the "Toom," which were designed to catch a variety of fish including catfish, Java barb, and Siamese mud carp, have disappeared from the community as those species are no longer found in the river. Instead, fishermen have been forced to use nets to catch smaller, more abundant fish.
In the past, the stretch of river near the Sangkhom district was teeming with fish year-round. The rapids were particularly abundant during the dry season from December to April, with fish laying eggs around the area more frequently than at other times of the year.
"The Mekong was like a market. It was our food source, our home," said Kankong, recalling the traditional way of life in the region. During the fishing season, men would abandon their fields and venture to the river in search of fish, which would then be handled by women, either by giving them to family and friends or using them to feed their own households. The remaining fish would be fermented and stored, to be consumed throughout one year and into the next.
"We lived our lives relying on the river. When the river changed, the way of life and everything else changed," Kankong lamented.
“We never had to buy this in the past," Kankong said, holding a plastic bottle of fermented fish. Only people who traveled away from home and did not have time to make their own fermented fish, would buy pre-made fermented fish. However, as fewer people are making the product at home, villagers are turning to the convenience of bottled products.
This change is indicative of the broader challenges facing communities along the Mekong river as their traditional food sources and ways of life are disrupted. As resources such as natural vegetables and fish become scarcer, households must turn to purchasing their food, leading to higher living costs and decreased food security.
A research project conducted by Malee Sitthikriengkrai of Chiang Mai University, in collaboration with members of the Ban Muang community, found that before the construction of two large dams in China on the Mekong river in 2014, villagers relied on the river for their income and food source. They would fish, collect vegetables, and grow their own food on the riverbank. However, after the dams were built, food sources in the river became scarce, leading to a decline in villager incomes.
Kankong, a researcher who worked on the project, reflected on how rapidly the changes affected his community. "As we collected the data, we felt regret since our lives did not used to be like this," she said. "Before the dams, we had the river to rely on.”
The impact of dam construction on the river goes far beyond its ecosystem. Villagers like Kankong have been forced to shift to other economic activities, such as growing rubber trees, to make ends meet. The loss of food security has also been a major concern. "The impact is not only on the river," Kankong said. "It can be seen clearly in our lives, something the dam builders never thought of."
In Nakhon Phanom province’s Samphong sub-district, located on the banks of the Songkhram River, the art of making fermented fish has been practiced for generations. The Pak Yam Community Economy Group has for many years been producing high-quality fermented fish, which has become a well-known product throughout the region. Now, due to the dwindling fish population, the group has been forced to stop production.
On a recent visit to the community, Cha-ngon Bongbut, the head of the group, led us to their office, where over 100 empty fermented fish jars were on display. "When there are no fish in the Mekong River, fish in the tributaries also disappear," Cha-ngon explained. He went on to say that the decrease in the fish population is due to a variety of factors, including agricultural contamination and illegal fishing during spawning season. But the construction of dams on the Mekong River is the biggest culprit, he said, since the river's ecological systems are all connected. When the number of fish in the Mekong decreases, so does the number in the Songkhram River.
The Songkhram, one of the 37 Mekong tributaries, flows through five provinces in Isaan before emptying into the Mekong in the Tha Uthen District of Nakhon Phanom province. The lower Songkhram basin has been registered by the United Nations as an important wetland area with a high level of biodiversity. It was a habitat, spawning ground, and nursery for over 124 species of fish but over the past decade, fish populations have decreased dramatically, affecting the livelihood of communities like Pak Yam.
According to Cha-ngon, the community has been making fermented fish for household consumption for generations. It wasn't until 40 years ago, when his father Hanuman Bongbut sold their land and bought 200 fermented fish jars, that the group began exporting the product outside the community. The villagers then pooled their resources and established the Pak Yam Community Economy Group. Their fermented fish was selected as the product for "One Tambon (sub-district) One Product," or OTOP of Samphong sub-district, and became famous throughout the region.
The decline in fish population has had a significant impact on the group's business. Over the past three to five years, the number of fish in the Songkhram River has decreased by more than 70%, forcing the group to stop production for the past two years. Today, the empty fermented jars of Hanuman, who has since passed away, are a stark reminder of how the disappearing fish have changed the community's way of life.
"Fish that live in flowing rivers have a better fragrance when fermented. They don’t smell fishy like fish raised in ponds or brackish water areas," Cha-ngon explained. Taken from different water sources, the same species of fish have a different taste, too. The decrease in fish population is not only a threat to the community's way of life but has also changed the unique flavour and quality of their fermented fish.
Cha-ngon first started to notice the decrease in Songkhram fish populations about ten years ago. In the past three to five years, the situation has become dire: the number of fish has plummeted by more than 70 percent, a trend that has hit the community's fermented fish business hard.
The Pak Yam Community Economy Group has had to reduce its output significantly in response to the shortage. In fact, the group has not made any fermented fish for the past two years, and the office is now filled with empty jars that once contained the product.
Cha-ngon, who is 50 years old and was born near the river, has seen firsthand the various factors that have contributed to the decline in fish populations. Among these are agricultural chemical contamination, illegal fishing during the spawning season, and most notably, the construction of dams on the Mekong River. According to Cha-ngon, the ecological systems of the two rivers are interconnected, and when the number of fish in the Mekong River decreases, it also affects the Songkhram River, which many fish migrate up from.
This impact is most pronounced during the flooding season, which lasts from June to October every year. The Mekong's water mass pushes upstream along the Songkhram River for over 200 kilometers, flooding the plains and wetlands alongside the river and providing vital nutrients and sediments for plants. However, the disruption of water levels during this season has prevented water from flowing upstream to the wetlands, destroying food sources and spawning areas for both local and migrating fish.
A way forward
Cha-ngon led us to another community enterprise, located a kilometer from Pak Yam. There, his older brother sells jars that were once used for fermenting fish as decorative items to people from Bangkok. These jars are ancient, passed down for generations. Made using traditional potting and stone-working methods, they have shapes that differ from jars made more recently. The jars are valuable and prices range from 2,000 to 20,000 baht.
Cha-ngon said that he wants to pass his father's jars on to future generations. However, many families have run into problems with members of the younger generation secretly selling jars off. To address this issue, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is considering letting community members take their jars home on the condition that they do not sell them.
While preserving old fish jars is a priority, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is also adapting and making fermented fish again. The group has purchased hundreds of kilograms of fish from a farm in Lampao Dam, Kalasin Province. Farm-raised fish have different properties from river fish so they are working on improving their fermenting method. If restoration goes well, the group plans to have members run fish farms for the group to make fermented fish.
The villagers in Samphong sub-district are optimistic that this adjustment will revive the fermented fish business and the economic culture of their group. By adapting to changing circumstances and persevering in the face of adversity, the Pak Yam Community Economy Group is setting an example for other communities facing similar challenges.