The sun hasn’t risen yet, but several teenagers have got up and left their beds, bound for nearby rice fields. It takes at about 15 minutes for them to walk the one kilometre down a narrow path to some holes they have dug near the edge of the paddy.
Carrying a plastic container, Meas Seiha, 17, a young boy with muddy trousers, takes the thatched cover off one of the holes at the corner of a rice field. Meas Seiha sticks his hand in recess hoping to find trei ros, or Snakehead fish, that might have crawled in during the night.
Snakeheads are a strange evolutionary phenomenon. They are one of the few species of fish that can breathe in and out of water. A small cavity allows for air intake, so they can survive for hours out of water, and can even move on land.
During the cooler months of October, November and December, the people of Kampong Preah commune, Sangke district, Battambang province, dig holes at the edges of their rice fields to catch these fish.
“The fish look for the holes because they don’t like the cold paddy water during the cool season,” Meas Seiha explained.
Seiha says that the fish crawl out of the cold water and seek the holes too keep warm.
“Last month, it was not too cool like this, but some fish were lying on the levees in the rice field. My father and I got up early and collected the fish.”
As soon as the sun sets, the temperature in Battambang province drops quickly, and the people, like the fish, try to keep warm. People wear jackets and sweaters to protect themselves from the cool air from Tibet.
“I cannot even put my leg in the water, and I sometimes don’t take a bath for the whole day,” commented Seiha.
To make a hole for the fish, Meas Seiha needs to dig about 30 to 40 cm into the ground to prevent the fish from swimming and squirming out again.
“By making a hole near water, the fish will look for it, jump into it and stay there for a whole night, so it doesn’t take much time for me to find them.”
The Snakeheads caught this year have been fewer and the fish have been smaller than previous seasons, which Meas Seiha blames on less rainfall.
On some days he says he can collect an entire kilogram of fish, but on others he cannot find even one fish because they are not cold enough to go in search of a cosy hole.
“Last year, villagers and I could get at least five kilogrammes per day,” Meas Seiha said.
To improve his catch, Meas Seiha plans to dig more holes in a variety of places in the hope of catching more fish before the end of the cool season.