A bit like squid fishing, really.
Let me explain. My friend Heinz is desperate to go fishing while he’s in Pattaya. We contact a number of possible tour companies. Yes, they do fishing trips. They cost a lot because of the diesel, don’t we understand, but you get lunch and one of them even promises a bottle of whisky. We’re just thinking that this sounds like our kind of fishing trip when we notice the price. We couldn’t justify spending that much.
Heinz is disconsolate until one day when we’re eating at a restaurant on the beach at Naklua. A number of seafaring types are hauling their boats out of the water just in front of the restaurant and we notice they’re unloading angling gear—rods and nets and so on. We engage one of these rugged nautical fellows in conversation. His name is Tonchai. Would he take us fishing? He would. When should we go? It’s up to us. When would he suggest our chances of catching a fish would be optimised? That’s up to us too. What about 6.30 this evening? Whatever.
We return to the beach on time to find that Tonchai has done nothing to prepare for our adventure, perhaps not convinced that we will keep our appointment. We help him heave his small but heavy boat down the beach, attach a motor to the back and make ready for the ocean.
I don’t want to exaggerate the smallness of Tonchai’s boat, but in some houses they have bigger soap-dishes. Apart from the cramped conditions there are no seats, so as we motor directly out from the shore, Heinz and I perch on a large ice-box, located it seems perilously above the boat’s centre of gravity.
It’s dark by this time and the lights have come on along Beach Road, Walking Street and Bali Hai—yellow, orange and blue. The Pattaya City sign throbs alluringly. Across the placid waves we can hear the dull thud of music from the bars. We can’t actually make out that it’s Hotel California, but it’s a fair guess.
After about 45 minutes, Tonchai cuts the outboard and tells us we’re going to catch some squid to use later as bait for fish. We each get a rod with a lure on the end of the line that looks like a baby squid. Apparently, big squid are attracted to baby squid—to satisfy their cannibalistic urges or perhaps because they want to mother them. We let our baby squid down about ten metres into the abyss and are told to jiggle them.
‘Up and down, like this.’
After about thirty seconds, Heinz feels a tug and winds furiously. He’s caught a squid about 30cm long which is put in a holding tank in the bilges where it flaps around angrily. I carry on jiggling.
We wait another few minutes and Heinz has hooked another one. Then Tonchai hauls one in. It’s not long before Heinz has claimed his third cephalopod and has assumed a confident expression.
‘You’re not jiggling right. Like this,’ Tonchai tells me in an attempt to ease my pain.
I vary my technique a little. I try my baby squid deeper, then nearer the surface. Heinz carries on with his tried-and-tested jiggle methodology. Tonchai hums softly.
We do this for about an hour, but nothing more happens. Down below the squid are frantically texting each other: Mr Pobaan alert! Go and be squids elsewhere!
Tonchai decides we’ve done enough squid fishing. He is surprised by our lack of success. ‘Yesterday,’ he says, ‘we caught many squid.’ He indicates with his arms the extent of the haul, suggesting that his little craft was heaped high with mounds of squid which queued up in the depths for the pleasure of grabbing Tonchai’s fake baby and ending up in the bilges of his boat.
‘And tomorrow,’ he adds with the faraway look of a mariner sniffing the makings of a storm, ‘tomorrow there will be many squid. Yesterday very good. Tomorrow very good. But today… not so good.’ His summary is hardly a comfort. It reminds me of those kids on the motorway.
He starts up the engine and we approach the shore, heading directly for Walking Street. Tonchai has a GPS positioning device which tells him where the best places for fish are and these seem to be quite close to the raucous bars for which Pattaya is rightly famous. Now I swear we can hear the words of Hotel California. The fish must like the noise because the GPS device tells us to drop anchor and start fishing.
‘Start fishing’ actually means watch Tonchai fishing because he’s only got one rod big enough to deal with the enormous tuna and sailfish that he is expecting to catch. This is disappointing for Heinz who agrees with me that the only thing more boring than watching someone play golf is to watch someone fish, but he still has that smug look of someone who’s caught three squid so my sympathy is short-lived.
Tonchai doesn’t catch any fish. After a couple of changes in location and a bit of furious prodding of the GPS device which has so cruelly misled us, we decide to call it a day. One good thing: the four squid were too big to use as bait so we can take them home for Mrs Pobaan to cook.
We head back towards Naklua, the calm solitude of Pattaya Bay behind us and the prospect of calamari fried with basil ahead. Here in the boat between those happy thoughts, all is quiet despondency.