Phatthalung’s Thale Noi: A Visual Journey
With the slow hum of the boat’s engine, we headed out into the pitch-black depths of Thale Noi’s peat swamp forest. Only aided by the light of our headlamps, we cruised cautiously over the vine-infested shallow waters – carefully navigating as to not get the propeller intertwined.
Our mission on this particular morning was simple: to reach the Pak Pra Canal, a freshwater expanse dotted with traditional Yok Yor fishing nets before sunrise.
Each morning at dawn, local fishermen raise these giant square-rigged nets from the water below to collect their catch for the day and we wanted to photograph them in-action.
With our mission now complete, we took a moment to scan our surroundings. Thankfully, the sun was now climbing rapidly in the sky and its rays were increasing the illumination of the scene,. It’s almost as if a theatre curtain was being raised on a spectacle of fisherman – ones busy at work.
We spent the next half hour or so slowly motoring around between different areas of the lake – to take in the views and to ensure that we had plenty of photo opportunities with the fishermen.
Unlike most tours on Thale Noi (ทะเลน้อย), our guide took us to a more uncharted section of the lake – an area past Ekachai Bridge that’s typically reserved for locals.
For as far as our eyes could see, there was nothing but water and marshland painting the horizon.
On this side of the Ekachai Bridge… the only signs of life were white herons gracefully hunting for their next meal, little cormorants standing watch amongst tall trees, and the blinding vibrancy of pink water lilies emerging from the murky water below.
Eventually, we spotted a fisherman that was wading chest-deep in the water. Using a traditional technique, he was tending to his net just as his father and grandfather did before him.
According to our guide, the fishermen past Ekachai Bridge still adhere to the old ways of doing things. By utilizing the wisdom and skills that have been passed down to them, generation after generation, they’re able to honor their ancestors and keep their customs alive.
During our conversation with the fisherman, a herd of water buffalo began grazing the grassland in front of us. Without hesitation, our guide sped up the boat to take us in for a closer look. As we inched closer and closer to the herd, our guide pulled back the throttle and slowed the boat to a halt. Next thing we knew, we were face-to-face with a wild water buffalo.
Seeing this powerful beast up-close, intrigued us to scout out more wildlife on the lake.
Regarded as Thailand’s largest waterbird park at 285,625 rai (~176 square miles), Thale Noi is normally a birding paradise that’s home to over 287 exotic winged species.
However, we visited the lake during the off-season (August) and didn’t get to see much of the migratory and resident waterfowl that are normally observed here. Even though our timing wasn’t ideal, we still tried our best to photograph the birds that we could spot.
As we searched for more birds to photograph, we began to hear a repeated thrashing – a frenetic and aggressive tone amongst an otherwise peaceful backdrop.
With our curiosities peaked, our guide sped the engine of our long-tail boat to try and get a closer look. As the boat hummed closer and closer to the sound, we realized that the thrashing was from a tilapia fisherman practicing the tried-and-true beating method.
Essentially, it’s a method where a fisherman places a static gill net in the water and then scares the fish into the net by strategically thrashing the surface of the water with heavy-ended stick. When implemented correctly, the beating method is a very effective way to catch wild tilapia.
For all of this fisherman’s intensive physical labor, he’s only able to sell his catch for a measly 30 baht ($0.82) per kilo (2.2 lbs) – barely enough to make ends meet. Turns out, his daily payout is one of the lowest in Thale Noi, even though his work is some of the hardest.
Despite the fisherman’s hardships, it was easy to see why he would choose to call Thale Noi his home. The lake was as beautiful as it was calm. And being there was oftentimes meditative – the melodic songs of the passing birds would resonate across the water, forming the lake into a pastel-toned dreamscape that induced a sense of calm.
The inherent calmness of Thale Noi seemed to be infectious, as every fisherman we passed greeted us with a warm-hearted smile. Their authenticity and genuine love for the lake, served as a beautiful reminder that happiness comes not from material wealth, but from a tightly-bonded community and the rejuvenation of body and spirit from time spent in nature.
Where To Stay: The Rich Resort is the best value hotel in town and it’s only 15 minutes away from the fisherman village by car. The rooms are clean, have aircon, and are very spacious for the price. Alternatively, if you’re craving a place with a bit more luxury then you can check out, Varni Homestay, which is located a stone’s throw from Thale Noi Lake.
When To Visit: Thale Noi Lake (ทะเลน้อย) is open year-round, but the best experience will be during Thailand’s high season (December – February) – during this time you’ll get to experience the sea of lotus flowers plus a large amount of migratory birds that this place is known for. If possible, we recommend avoiding Thailand’s burning season (April – May) as the view will be filled with haze.
Hours of Operation: 5:30am to 7:00pm, 7 days a week.
Boat Fees: The long-tail boats can accommodate up to 7 people and the cost per boat is 500 baht for one hour, 900 baht for two hours, and 1,200 baht for 3 hours (depending on who you book with). Entrance to Thale Noi Lake is free for all visitors – both Thai and foreigners.
Tip #1: Regardless of where you stay, we highly recommend booking a boat ride via your hotel to guarantee a departure time. Make sure to wake up early for a 6am departure, in order to enjoy the majestic sight of a golden sunrise over Thale Noi’s Pak Pra Canal.
Tip #2: If you book a 3 hour boat ride, confirm with your guide that he / she will take you beyond Ekachai Bridge. Most tours do not go beyond the bridge, but some of the best scenery is located there. For an extra tip (100 baht), your guide might be willing to spend an extra hour there.
Tip #3: To help out the local community, make an effort to visit the Fisherman Village’s morning market. Not many tourist visit this market, but there’s a variety of food and handicraft stalls that sell inexpensive dishes and locally-produced goods.
Tip #4: Thale Noi lake is best-visited as combined trip with either Trang, Songkhla, or even Nakhon Si Thammarat – both Trang and Songkhla are only 90 minutes away by car.