Melbourne Betta in Thailand
By Ness Flett
July 2011 saw me off to Thailand for a Betta-inspired holiday. A genuine a-typical trip that would not involve braided hair, sunburn or any real time spent in crowded beaches elbow-to-elbow with other ฝรั่ง “Farang” or foreigners….
On somewhat of a fact-finding mission, and after multiple emails between Jodi-Lea and some Thai Betta breeders, I was pointed in the direction of the Chatuchuk weekend markets, a shopper’s paradise. With over 10000 shops and 200000 visitors per weekend, it is believed to be the world's biggest flea market and spans over 35 acres.
Somewhere “out the back of Chatuchuk” is an area dedicated to all things fish, and somewhere amongst the rows and rows of stalls, are the Betta.
After several hours of lazy buying and perusing, it was time to aknowledge that even my eyelids were sweating. It was around 10am, 35 degrees and humidity reaching over 85%, fueled with a famous Chatuchuk pull-tea I resolved to buying bulk tins of condensed milk upon my return to Australia, and finding the illusive Betta sellers.
Past the fried scorpions, the torn banners, friendly smiles and piles of plastic bags, shone the familiar glow of fluro lights, exotic plants and more glass tanks than the average MTS sufferer could handle. Although I knew I was spending the next day visiting the breeders at their farms, I was sure I would be spending half my betta budget here.
Much like the rest of Chatuchuk, the Aquarium district was split up into sections – Plants, Supplies, Tanks, Filters/Lights, Marine & Corals, Tankbusters, Goldfish, Flowerhorn, Livebarers & Betta. It was hard not to beeline straight for the betta, as I wanted to take in the whole lot, so armed with my camera I visited the uncovered areas first. Mostly freshwater, catfish, mollies, goldfish, and even a bag of giant guppies (literally 5-6 cm long) all bagged up and ready to go. No photo turned out as they were as fast as they were big!
On sale here were also little turtles, frogs, freshwater stingrays (10cm diameter) angels, and multitudes of things I couldn’t identify.
Next up were some of the betta stalls, with many of the VT’s selling for 20BHT (60cents) and some HM’s selling for up to 100BHT ($3.30) While most were in good condition, only around 5% of what I saw was afflicted with growths, abnormalities or velvet – which is good odds when you are looking at such a high quantity of fish!
Realizing that even the more expensive HM males weren’t really what I was looking for, I became more and more impressed with the housing, transport and display systems used by the sellers.
Some were kept in yakult containers, sellers would bag-up as they were selling, and I can’t say trade was flying along – but it turns out that this is also where they wholesale from, so the more they can bag up, the more they can offer in quantity to the international buyers.
Further into the market were some more sophisticated betta stalls, with their own air conditioned rooms, individual tanks and specialty display tanks, I saw my first and ONLY half-moon (SD) giant long finned fish, some amazingly coloured mustard gas, dragons, salamanders and noted that the marble is extremely popular.
The next day I had been asking around for GIANT long finned HM's, as I figured, if anyone had worked these out it'll be the Thais - but I was stopped very quickly and explained that there is no such thing as a true longfinned HM giant, as they just can't maintain the weight of their finnage, and never breed true, often they result in Rosetail and lots of deformities.... There went my aspirations of breeding enormous Betta.
Speaking of which, I spoke with the stall holder's son about some blind dumbo ears I'd seen at the market. He explained that with any new "mutation" quite often these abnormalities come with several genetic 'disabilities' that should be monitored, particularly while the breeder is establishing this trait, ensuring that each spawn demonstrates good health and a consistant demonstration of the DESIRED trait, and if they continue to show the undesirable traits (such as this one with no eyes) you should cull the lot and start with new blood.
My observations at this point, were the quality here was on-par with what I’ve seen in LFS, so to save myself the trouble – I didn’t buy anything at Chatuchuk. As it turns out, there are several grades used in Thailand to classify fish, it is understood, that from even the best breeding pair - each spawn will get different grades of fish:
A grade is top top quality, show quality, and breeding stock
(for the more experienced breeders)
B grade is… well, okay quality – the sort we would see in Chatuchuk, no deformities, but imperfect show form – more our standard LFS quality.
C grade is everything else, ventraless, stunted, hump backed, and not necessarily deformed, as just poor quality.
So this is why I’ve not seen anything I want, they're B grade! (I was only to learn this the next day, and spent the rest of the evening sulking that the only good thing I bought at the world’s biggest market was a pull-tea and a scarf) The rest of the aquarium adventure was dominated by Flowerhorn, they are an extremely popular fish in Thailand, with an ancient history and thought to bring good luck to it’s keeper. I’ve never seen so many varieties, with the “pearlscale” being extremely desirable. The aquascaping and display tanks were quite notable, as they take up valuable stock space, only the more expensive & established sellers seemed to have them set up – but when they did, the Thai aesthetic and tropical plant culture really shone. I can’t speak highly enough about the botany both in and out of the tanks here, as a fish and plant nerd, I was in absolute heaven.
(I had to consciously avoid the plant section of the market as I could just about guarantee heartbreak)
After an evenings rest, it was time the next day to meet with Preecha Ammara, who had kindly offered to show me around to some of his “members” farms in a small area called Nakornpratom. If you have bought anything from Aquabid (Thailand) you have dealt with Preecha at some point, as the he is the one who collects all the purchases and arranges shipping out of Thailand. He is also the one that deals with any issues that might arise, as his English is better than mine!
Preecha is now semi-retired, having worked in Bangkok teaching English to high schools, and has spent the last 7 years breeding Betta and supporting the industry by orchestrating shows, judging, and promoting the industry. First thing’s first we got off to a roaring start (as most fish people seem to) chatting about the perils of keeping fish in various water conditions, as I told him about Melbourne water, he explained that Thailand’s water supply is not fit for drinking, nor fish keeping, so often fish farms use pumps from nearby dams and fields, as the rain that falls is just about perfect for keeping and breeding conditions…. But can make for tricky photography.
Hearing more about Preecha’s history as a teacher brought him to the fish (his current past-time), and he now occupies most of his week arranging transport for purchases, organizing shows and judging at main events, between running his own betta breeding program with his partner. I asked him if he was part of the IBC, but he explained that it is not very popular in Thailand as the IBC shows offer no prize money or cash incentive for their events, and with plenty around that do – it’s no surprise which is more popular.
With the average skilled laborer’s wage at 30THB /$10AUD, and high unemployment I can see why these Thai events are so popular, with prize money around 300THB for a first prize, and 500THB for best in show. Let’s be clear, the Betta breeders in Thailand are working for a passion for their fish, many of them take part in the shows but they make very little money from their breeding labors, and most of the Aquabid fish pass-in.
Preecha took us to several temples on the way, where we had plenty of opportunity for photos, along with the most fantastic open air restaurant sitting inconspicuously on the side of a freeway.
Then it was off to our first breeder! (I could hardily contain myself)
Patsayawan has been breeding betta for 14 years, he is the guru of Betta form and his results speak for themselves.
Initially quiet and happy to speak to me through Preecha, he was more than happy to show me through the entire setup, from what processes he uses for his spawns, the introduction/courting tanks, the grow outs, the jarring process, barracking up the A grade fish for the display tanks and all the rest.
Let me point out that the temperature had climbed from the previous day, so in now 40 degree heat and more humidity than I have probably ever experienced, I think I did well to string together sentences / photograph / select fish to purchase / keep my balance.
Not to mention my impeccable balance when standing on the glass ‘jars’ of which there were hundreds…. I was glad to dismount after a photo had been taken!
We worked through the mustard gas butterflies (blue-yellow-white) and I selected a male that had just been jarred at 2 months, and was showing the potential for good form, a conversation Preecha and I had for quite some time.
Next, it was time to find him a wife. I was taken around the back of the farm where rows upon rows of cement tubs housed the sororities of females from each spawn. With no numbering system or indication, Patsayawan knew exactly where the ladies were, and ushered us over to choose a few. Preecha and I came over while Patsayawan scooped over 100 females up in a large shallow sieve still semi-submerged.
I’ve begun to train my eye to seeing these fish out of water, and I asked both Preecha and Patsayawan to choose a few, asking what they were looking for. With the females, the branching in each fin is important, along with the roundness of Caudal edges, as something to watch out for.
It’s still about geometry, balance and form.
I later asked Preecha to tell me what he looks for when he is judging hundreds of fish, and what his priorities are. Much like the IBC standards, emphasis is placed on:
1.) Form: Geometry & Balance
2.) Colour: Clarity & Quality
3.) Attitude: Flaring & Health
In the display tanks were the older fish, from 6-12 months – either being kept as breeding stock or potential sale stock, and I fell in love with a Salamander dragon, having vowed to stay away from dragons, giants and marbles, I’ve just about done a 180 degree turn, and I needed to have this fish. It was being kept as a breeder, and was quite a bit older than the Mustard Gas pair I had selected, but you know when you just need something?
Patsayawan decided to join us on the rest of the tour, and we all jumped back in the car to travel 80 meters down the road to the Aquastar farm. Greeted by enthusiastic dogs and cages of Cockrels, we were lead down the back to the “display foyer” with walls upon walls of barracks, my jaw dropped and after greetings, got straight to work.
Thankfully I’d brought a small torch and was able to see the colour in the dark tanks, having fallen in love with a large extended red (intended for my red lady Ruth) I had looked over the rest of the farm, but couldn’t stop thinking about this big red male, as it came to asking to purchase, I was devastated to discover he had already sold on Aquabid.
Looking around, it’s easy to understand how Aquastar achieve such amazing shots on aquabid, they have a computer set up in the display room, with a small office, a good lighting setup and several photography tanks.
While we trawled through more jars, Preecha went on to describe another pearl of wisdom in selecting fish for form. The “comb” that’s evident in quite a few anal and dorsal fins, is really not a very desirable trait in show fish, fine in breeding stock and display fish – but if you are breeding for show quality (A grade) you would use as little of it as possible in your initial stock.
Upon rolling up to Smile Betta’s farm, a heavily pregnant Chihuahua warned us to behave ourselves, stepping respectfully out of the car we were greeted by 3 large smiles (understanding now where the name of the farm came from)
Run by a young family, Smile, his wife and 2 year old son were excited about the visit and eager to show us to the “studio.” A large 3 sided shed housed rows upon rows of tiered barracks. Smile is known for his Giants, as well as his Halfmoons, and I was drawn to several of the giants. Knowing very little about Giants, I asked Preecha to help me again with my selections, I really appreciated another set of eyes and his years of observation, there were several HM’s I was looking at that he also gently suggested “I don’t think so Ma’m” and upon enquiry, he always had a detailed explanation about a fault in form or suchlike.
We went through the giants with a fine tooth comb, there was a big dragon Dalmatian that I was completely in love with, but we kept coming back to him and suggesting he wasn’t quite “the one”
I did find a beautiful little Copper HM male (yes, I know, I just did a copper marble spawn) but this one just stole my attention and I couldn’t focus until I owned him! We went out the back where the jars were to look for a suitable sibling partner for him, where you can see Smile’s wife walking easily across the jars.
There is also what was dubbed “The Studio” where photos are taken under special lighting conditions for Aquabid.
I departed Smile Betta having patted the irritable Chiuahua, played with his son and chosen my little marble pair, but I still didn’t have a giant.
Next we were off to Nunpun and his slightly smaller setup, another giant breeder who’s reputation preceeds him. By this stage Patsayawan was inviting me to come up and stand on the large cement walls of the grow out tanks and inspect the giants – they looked like KOI from above and were just starting to show signs of aggression (3 months)
On the way in I had spotted a pair (a spotted dragon/copper pair infact) that I quite liked, good size and form, it turns out this was one he had intended to breed from, but was happy to sell for a ‘breeder quality’ price.
We agreed who would look after the fish until the shipment in a week or two’s time and I returned to Preecha’s car to be dropped back into the bus station to get me to Hua Hin.
Preecha and Patsayawan arranged the entire fiasco, ensuring the bus driver was to look after me & would tell me where to get out 3 hours down the road. Part of the highlights of travel are the small victories of communication at places like bus stops, but just this one time it was a welcome treat after a busy day’s investigation.
In conclusion: While it can be cheaper to purchase fish direct from the breeders in Thailand, you get a clearer image and more time to comfortably choose your fish on Aquabid.... in essence, I still risk each one of the fish in transit as they must (obviously) travel through the customs and quarantine process to enter Australia.
I feel great comfort in knowing Preecha has all of the Aquabid Thai sellers as 'members' and wants to represent the industry as trustworthy and reliable. Now that I have met with these breeders, I would be comfortable asking any one of them for a special request, and that they would be capable of finding me the perfect fish.
It seems each breeder is known for his particular passion and I urge you to do your homework on each of the Aquabid sellers, and see where their strengths are.
One thousand thank-you's to Preecha for his time and tireless energy (even after 4 hours sleep!) and giving me my most treasured day in Thailand. The betta were amazing - although the photos here let them down, and the passionate breeders of these beautiful animals, an inspiration.
Aquastar Dumbo Ears - to be promoted at the big Betta show at the end of July
The red I selected, only to discover he'd been sold on Aquabid & was awaiting shipment to the US.