She snipped off the head and tail, finishing with a final clip low on the stomach. The shiny hand-length fish glistened in the early morning light as she threw it back into the pile. The pile of bodies on one side of the tarp shrank, as the pile on the ‘done’ side grew. Myanmar culture of fish is strong here, as Lake Indawgyi lies 6 hours from the nearest airport, and a day-long bus ride to Mandalay.
Visiting Myanmar? Click here for all my Myanmar content! I spent 5 weeks traveling from Dawei in the deep south (think beaches), to Indawgyi Lake in the far north (villages many hours from any city). 100% by public transportation. Since I know you want to ask: Yes the bus rides are long!
Gutting Fish on the Shore of Lake Indawgyi
Squatting alongside the young women gathered around the tarp, I watched for several minutes before holding out my hand. Giggling, they glanced at me and then at each other. I gestured that I could pick out the guts, and the woman seated on the ground next to me passed a single fish from the pile of hundreds.
For the next hour we gutted fish together. They chatted while working expertly. I silently focused on learning my new skill. My hands became covered in sticky silver scales, and my fingertips turned black from guts. I also smelled fishy. At home I avoid touching raw meat, but here it is unavoidable if I wanted to understand the process of turning fish into food.
The Weak Foreigner Provides Humor
An hour later, I tried to stand and felt my culture. In my American culture I had never before sat in a squat for more than a few moments. All the women laughed merrily as I bent forward at the waist and slowly straightened my knees, trying not to fall over forward into the piles of fish.
Together we discovered that unlike them, I am unable to squat for hours at a time. My legs tingled as I cautiously placed one foot slightly in front of the other for balance. One of the women bounced up from her spot and passed her miniature bench in my direction. The woman next to me adjusted its position underneath my bottom as I sat down again. Moving the pressure from my knees to my butt, I was able to sit more comfortably and we continued processing the fish.
First Step of Fish Processing
Each animal is touched several times during processing, all of which is done by hand. First, each fish is delicately untangled from the net, the woman tugging its nose and fins out of the threads. Whether piled on the ground or still on the boat, rain or shine, the net is inspected meter by meter and each fish body detached from it. This time-consuming task is difficult as tearing the net and damaging the fish are both avoided.
Once free, the limp-bodied fish is tossed into a basket, bowl, or onto a tarp or other ground cloth. There are no tables.
This Transportation is Fishy
Fish are often transported by motorbike, and moved short distances to a local market or restaurants, if not kept by the family who fished them. A cooler may be mounted over the back tire of the motorbike for longer distances.
How Do They Fish?
Depending on the location, people fish with nets or baskets, or even by hand if there is very little water. Lake Indawgyi, in the far north of Myanmar, is the country’s largest lake and sees few tourists outside of the bird watching season. Motorboats and nets are used for fishing. Many boats go out before sunrise and return to shore just after dawn. They go out again near sunset. Fewer boats go fishing during the day.
There are at least two types of net fishing done on the lake. One is to lay out the net with floaters made of foam or empty soft drink cans. After waiting a period of time it is gathered and the fish caught in it hefted onto the boat. Another method is to throw a basket-like net, rather like a huge butterfly net. With this method it is necessary to know where a school of fish is located at a particular moment. This method takes skill and luck, as there are no fish-finding electronics on the boats.
Most often I saw men and boys fishing from boats on Lake Indawgyi. Fishing with baskets in rivers and ponds was mostly done by women and children.
Fish Paste is the National Food (practically)
A favorite food flavoring in Myanmar is fish paste. Many Myanmar people told me that it is their favorite food, so is seemingly the national food. Unfortunately, I never acquired a taste for the brown overly sour fermented mush.
Apparently the distaste is common enough among foreigners that whenever I was invited for a meal with Myanmar people, fish paste was kept in a separate bowl, so that everyone except me could partake. Normally it is the key ingredient in a dish. This was for my benefit, as meals are eaten family style—everyone takes food from a single bowl in the center of the table, and places it on their own plate.
Fish is eaten in soup, in curry, and grilled. It may be dried first or eaten fresh.
A Few Last Tidbits
Surrounded by hills, Lake Indawgyi is tranquil, and very much off the beaten path. Fish at the Floating Pagoda are fed by tourists– fish food is available for sale. Both birds and people use the aquatic animals for sustenance. In fact, in January there are so many birds at the lake that birding tourism boosts the local economy. The two hotels fill completely and boat rides to the north end of the lake are in high demand.
Thanks for Reading!
If you are thinking of visiting Myanmar, or have you already been: what places did you visit or are you thinking of visiting?
For Your Myanmar Pinterest Board
Another culture experience in Myanmar: Women with Tattooed Faces in Mindat. I asked what part hurts the most.
En route to Mongolia, I learned about sushi from a Japanese woman I met in the Seoul-Incheon airport.
In Maui, Hawaii, USA, I ate sushi in Hana and Makawao.
In Myanmar, I ate fried frogs that were practically potato chips. Delicious!