When you are cruising the Chao Phraya River on the Mekhala, you will stop at a riverside fresh market in Pathum Thani.

This is interesting in many ways. Especially, the fresh food “department” is a sight to see. From an abundance of fruits and local bakery to freshly made Thai dishes, the place is an ocean of appetizing smells and colors. If you love Thai food and fruits, this is the place to visit.

When you walk down the aisles in the market towards the end, things start to change. I have to confess: whole pig heads, cow tongues, all kinds of intestines and the smell of fish. Altogether is not my cup of Earl Grey.

And once you are in the “meat department”, there are things that are often irritating, especially to Europeans. You may see plastic tubs full of turtles of all sizes. Some visitors ask if these turtles are also for eating.

Not a crunchy snack...

My honest answer is I would never rule out this possibility…but normally….no! Actually, these turtles, along with some types of fish, serve a different purpose. They are bought by people and released into the river.

Local Buddhists believe that setting an animal free will bring them good luck and merit. And it is also seen as a kind of exorcism, driving evil spirits away. In former times, animals were released when they got caught in fishing nets. Even if you hang the nets to dry, sometimes birds got caught in them and releasing them would be a good accumulation that reaps pleasant results in the future. 

Fishing and nets are not common in a big city like Bangkok. So people buy these animals at the market and release them back to nature. (You can buy fish food at a stall near the Wat Yannawa pier, where the Mekhala departs in Bangkok, and feed hundreds of fish in the river.)

Birds are also sold at many temples around the city. As people say, you buy a bird, you set it free. It flies away, taking your bad luck with it. Then it takes a little tour around the main building of the temple and return safely to its cage just to be sold again.

But don’t worry. This is not harmful to your good luck. It just means even better luck for the guy who sells the birds. It is all a question of the perspective.

Not so "free as a bird".

So what kind of animals do Thai people choose to release for what purpose and how many to release? There are different opinions on that but my- usually- reliable source told me the following:

You release (any kind of) fish. It means the road ahead becomes easier. You will find success, have a peaceful life and end many kinds of sufferings you struggle with. You think it is kind of open and a bit vague but it can be more specific.

Here we go!

You release eels. It means you will gain happiness in your professional life. Learning will be easy for you and it helps with several financial means.

You release a climbing perch (a kind of bass). You get help with many health issues.

Release a catfish and you will win over an opponent in your business or private life.

The release of a snake-head fish will reveal things that are hidden from you…especially money!

Birds are obviously really helpful, as their release puts an end to setbacks you might suffer from, guarantees a safe transition (to a new job, a new town or just on a journey) and opens up new opportunities…and make you generally happy.

Turtles or soft-shell turtles give you a long life, drive evil spirits away and end sickness and streaks of bad luck.

You can also set something as supposedly insignificant as periwinkles (snails) free and they will put an end to your bitter or sadness and give you a happy life.

Last but not least; frogs are excellent to fight evil spirits.

But of course, it is not all that easy. You just don’t walk to a market, buy a willy-nilly number of eels and set them free. There are rules to follow. For example, on a Sunday, Wednesday or Saturday, you should release eels to make the “magic” happen. Monday? Birds for you! Tuesday, periwinkles. Thursday, turtles. Friday, any kind of fish.

An even age number has to release an uneven number of animals and vice versa.

Having a happy life and earning merit are not that easy!  But at least, the animals are happy, right?! 

Not so fast! For example, a turtle needs to get on land. So it needs riverbanks that are muddy, not caged in by concrete. The rather questionable water quality may be another point. Or the absence of any mud banks as a retreat for eels or periwinkles.

And of course, there is another problem. Some of the fish species sold in the markets are not indigenous to Thailand. They may come from China or Cambodia and become a challenge to the local species and even drive them to extinction.

But somehow…it at least made me feel better that the turtles were not sold for eating. And that is mighty good luck for them, isn’t it?!

Feeding the fish for good luck!