May 7, 2017
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The Strange but True Story of How an MTV VJ Became a ‘Bangkok Hooker’

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Sittipon “Oz” Chanarat has been a journalist, an emcee, a restaurateur, an MTV VJ, and a boxer. Now, he travels the world in pursuit of cobra snakeheads, giant Mekong catfish, and other river monsters.

“You gotta have showmanship in this industry,” Sittipon “Oz” Chanarat tells me with a grin. We’ve driven to the outskirts of Bangkok to do what he does best: go fishing. While many of his excursions have taken him to far deeper waters all over the world, he’s been casting lures in these canals along these sleepy, tree-lined streets by his grandmother’s house since he was a kid. As he speaks with me, he keeps his eyes trained on the darkened water, looking for signs of movement. “You can be the best fisherman in the world, but if you don’t know how to present yourself, people aren’t gonna take you seriously.”

Oz knows a thing or two about both showmanship. He’s worked in some form of media for his entire adult life. At various points, he’s performed as a VJ for MTV Thailand, served as an emcee at a cosplay convention, and covered everything from pop culture to food to mafia dens as a reporter for the Bangkok Post. He first went fishing at age three and hooked a bream by age 11. In 2009, he figured out how to take his longtime hobby to the next level. While working as a journalist, he launched a cheekily titled blog called Bangkok Hooker. Thailand’s waterways host some impressive aquatic life, including 3.3-meter alligator gar, predators with serrated teeth and skin like tree bar that date back to the Cretaceous period—”Those ones will chomp your hand off if you’re not careful. They’re basically river monsters”—200-plus-kilo Mekong catfish, and cobra or bullseye snakeheads, lithe, muscular carnivores that have evolved to survive in low-oxygen water by sucking in air from the surface.

Though Oz was hardly the first person to set off after of these monsters, he was the first to create a comprehensive, English-language information platform about fishing in Thailand. Since its launch, Bangkok Hooker has grown to be a focal point of Thailand’s increasingly international game-fishing community, and his corresponding YouTube channel has more than 18,000 subscribers, with a number of his more popular videos clocking in at 400,000-plus views. It’s also landed Oz a starring role on the documentary King Fishers on National Geographic and a three-part miniseries on the Discovery Network Asia-Pacific premiering this month.

For all his bravado in front of the camera, however, Oz was once, by his own admission, cripplingly shy. He landed the gig on MTV thanks to his photogenic features and an elaborate stunt on stage that involved singing while enduring a steady drip of hot wax. The schtick left the audience in stitches, but before long, he realized he couldn’t keep up the bold front. “To be honest, I had stagefright. I stuttered when I talked. I don’t know what miracle happened during the audition, but somehow the adrenaline must have just kicked in,” he remembers. “Once I actually did get the job, I wasn’t that good at being a VJ.”

Oz attributes the change in his ability to perform to a rather unlikely source—a different sort of fishing, if you will. After quitting MTV and heading to Toronto to continue his education, he dove into amateur boxing and became obsessed with The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. While author Neil Strauss has justifiably taken a lot of flak for and expressed serious reservations about the book that attempted to make it socially acceptable to take a hatchet to a girl’s self-esteem in a bar, Oz insists that he sees it differently. Growing up as a slightly overweight kid shuttled between divorced parents, he previously lacked the ability to navigate most social situations, let alone romantic ones. The concept that social confidence, and by extension, showmanship, was a skill that could be learned, or at least convincingly faked, appealed to the 20-year-old trying to find his niche.

“This is training wheels for the socially awkward. I don’t think The Game is the mantra that I live by, but it’s about the art of being able to get over your shyness,” he says. “For me, it’s all about choice at the end. My whole life, I’d been dragged around doing things simply because I felt cornered.”

Oz’s decision to start on his own unconventional path coincided with a family tragedy. Days before he was due to resign from the Bangkok Post, he received a phone call that his Japanese stepfather had died in a car accident. “I cried and cried for days. I cried until there were little drops of blood in my tears,” he remembers. Though his mother asked him to attend the funeral, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The day of the memorial service, he went out looking for solace the only way he knew how. “In that time, fishing was my therapy. Mom was like, ‘I want you to be home.’ And I said, ‘No, I need to have one day where I go out and catch something.'”

So he ditched the Buddhist ceremony and set off for one of his favorite haunts instead.

“This fishing park is called Bungsamran Fishing Park and they’re very famous for having big-ass catfish. Mekong giant catfish can grow to such ridiculous sizes. The world record is 273 kilos,” says Oz. “They have these weight scales there and you can lift it up to see how heavy the fish is when it’s in the net. It maxes out at 50 kilos. If you max out that 50-kilo scale, you can call it a ‘Willy’—as in Free Willy, the orca. So, it’s like you caught a fucking orca. Or as the Thais say, Willeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, willeeeeeeeeeeeee, willeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Oz had never caught a “Willy” or even come close, but on this particular day, something pulled on the line—hard. After almost a half an hour of struggling in front of a growing crowd, he dragged in a colossal catfish larger than him, weighing roughly between 70 and 80 kilos. As he posed for the obligatory photo, he heard cheering in Japanese from an onlooking tour group.

“I let it go and I called my mom to see how the ceremony was going and she said, ‘It was really strange. All of a sudden, the prayers stopped. There was this huge gust of wind that just blew through.’ As the wind blew through, she felt like it was his presence leaving. I asked, ‘Mom, when did this happen?’ She said, ‘Ten minutes ago.’ And I had let my fish go exactly ten minutes ago surrounded by all these Japanese people. I’m not religious at all, but I do believe that the universe is a very interesting place.”

Life has only gotten more interesting from there. Though enthusiastic about his rising profile, he still sometimes seems ill at ease with his status. He’s also quick to point out that, while he sells merchandise and does his best to make a living out of it, he’s had help along the way. “I don’t want to be that selfish asshole that takes the credit for everything. I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to chase my dreams and I don’t ever want to deny it.”

While chasing those dreams has led him to the depths of muddy waters tracking down massive, onyx-black snakehead fish with little more than a tiny landing net, it has hardly ever resulted in the death of an animal. As the partial owner of a sushi restaurant and avid home cook, he eats plenty of fish, but almost never anything he catches.

“Ironic for a sushi restaurant owner, right? The thing is, we’re looking at a world that’s kind of screwed, whether you like it or not. I don’t want to contribute to the screwing of it any more,” he says. One of his greatest concerns is the lack of regulation in the fishing industry in Thailand, a country that has often been too slow to protect its environmental resources. And while Oz may battle against the fish, he feels a tremendous respect for his scaly opponents and their ability to survive. “Sometimes it’s really amazing the life you can find even in these dirty Bangkok canals. I’ve fished in canals that are nothing but putrid shit and I’ll still pull a snakehead out. I think it’s such a magnificent creature to waste its life like that. I could eat it, but I would just feel so sad, because this fish has taken me so far. They’re more like costars in this strange kind of way.”

After stalking much of the length of the canal in pursuit of ripples in the water that never seem to bite, Oz and I decide to call it a day and head back into town. As we turn to go, a sudden splash in the shallows catches his eye and he casts out for one last time—then just once more, then once more.

“Never believe a fisherman when he tells you this is the ‘last one,'” he says with a rueful laugh as the line comes up empty. “With this sport, it’s never enough. It’s like an addiction.”

As they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Look for Oz and you’ll find him down by the water, chasing the ghostly movements of his next unseen trophy, the next Willy.

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