So, yesterday I got up in the morning (a change from my recently-nocturnal habits) and made it down to the Snake Farm, aka the Pasteur Institute, where they produce antivenin for most of Southeast Asia. They also, not coincidentally, put on live cobra-catching and venom-milking shows for the tourists (70 baht, about $1.75), and keep a number of the larger/showier nonvenomous for “educational” purposes, i.e. display.
The show itself was pretty riveting–they started by bringing out a live king cobra (ten or twelve feet long!) and letting it loose, about six feet away from where the latecomers were sitting on the floor (!). The cobra immediately slithered for cover, but the lecturer waved a boot right in front of it (!) and it instantly reared into cobra “threat” pose–straight up, hood flared, and hissing like anything.
It was quite impressive–nothing like a rattlesnake, which draws itself up into a spring coil and clearly threatens. When a cobra’s in threat position, you might as well have stuck a steel rod down its spine, ninety degrees to the ground; it looks alert, and ready to strike, but not actively threatening. (Well, not to me, anyway. Your mileage may vary. 😉 ) It doesn’t have the jittery look and muscle quiver of a threatening rattlesnake, it just pulls itself straight up and looks at you, quite calmly, secure in the knowledge that it could kill you in three minutes if it really felt like it. (Come to think of it, I’ve met some people like that in corporate life. 😉 )
Anyway, the speaker continued talking, moving his feet periodically to avoid the snake, explaining about antivenin production, horse farms, and how the cobra in front of him produces a highly neurotoxic venom can kill within a few minutes. From time to time the snake would calm down, unflare its hood, and start looking for cover; at which point he’d stamp in front of it and bring it into threat position again.
It took me a little while to realize that this wasn’t just to please the tourists, but a *protective* maneuver–cobras, in general, can’t move forward while they’re threatening. (They flatten their neck ribs to create the “hood” and hold the top eighteen inches of their body absolutely vertical, which is hard to do while moving.) So, you’re safe with a hooded cobra, as long as you stay out of striking range. You only have to worry once it unhoods and can move. (Of course, there is one species of cobra that *can* move forward while threatening–I think it’s either the king or Siamese cobra–so don’t count on that, either.)
Also, because cobras only strike straight forward and down, if you’re eighteen inches away it can only hit you in the top of the foot–and he was wearing boots. (I carefully filed all those bits away in case I ever run into one–although, like all snakes they are apparently quite shy and tend to avoid humans.) Nonetheless, I was quite amazed that he could stand so calmly, less than twenty-four inches away from a quite thoroughly “loose” (and strike-poised) cobra. I wouldn’t do that with a rattlesnake no matter how “tame” it was–but I gather cobras are more predictable.
Anyway, he continued talking–from time to time, the snake would calm down, whereupon a handler would reach out and stroke the snake’s back (!) to make it threaten again. Eventually, one handler demonstrated catching the snake…waved a booted foot in front of it to catch its attention, got it to attempt a strike, then snagged the back of the head in one lightning move, held it, and bowed to the crowd.
They then brought out a glass petri dish, pried open the snake’s mouth, and pressed the fangs down on the dish. I’m not sure how the mechanism works, but that “milks” the venom, even though it doesn’t unfold the fangs–cobras (and virtually all front-fanged venomous snakes) have hinged fangs, that drop down from the roof of the mouth as the jaw opens. Neat to watch, though.
Anyway, eventually they had a few droplets of clear venom on the petri dish, which they passed around to show us. It didn’t look like anything in particular, but it did demonstrate that the guy really had been standing there with a fully-venomed cobra right in front of him. (I had thought it might be a freshly-milked cobra, which would have been relatively safe.) Okay, I’m impressed. 🙂
After that they brought out a number of other snakes, including the Siamese cobra, which is much smaller and much less calm than the king cobra–the three they brought out (holding them by the tails!) hissed and struck repeatedly at the handler standing right in front of them (just out of range), teasing them for the cameras. I took some photos but don’t know if any of them caught the strikes, they’re pretty fast.
I get the impression, generally, that cobras are actually *less* dangerous than most other deadly snakes, because their behavior is so predictable: they only strike forward (unless stepped on), their strike pattern is predictable, and they don’t move forward while threatening. I’m not volunteering for cobra-handling, though, you understand.
After the demo with the Siamese cobras, a guy brought out a pair of banded kraits–quite pretty with dark blue and yellow striping, they don’t *look* like one of the most dangerous snakes in Asia. I was quite astonished that he was simply cradling the two kraits in his arms, and letting them crawl (slowly) over him; that violates every tenet of venomous snake handling as far as I know, especially deadly ones. But banded kraits are apparently quite docile during the day…it’s only at night that they become dangerous. The snakes did seem pretty lethargic, so maybe there’s something in that.
I did notice that the black-and-white banded krait looks an awful lot like the standard black/white California kingsnake. Mental note: suppress the “ooh, a snake, catch it!” reflex while in Asia. It’s NOT what you think it is. 😉
After the show, I went wandering through their collection. They have a great display of king cobras–which are really quite nondescript tan snakes, twelve to fifteen feet long, until they raise their hood. They’re damn fast, though–I saw one by the wall, went over for a closer look, and instantly I found myself facing a flared and hissing cobra, less than six inches from my nose. Dang, that’s a memorable experience, even from behind a metal screen.
Later, I passed a cage stuffed full of reticulated pythons, (maybe six or seven adults in a cage way too small–I felt sorry for them). Then I saw a head poking out from under the cage–a full-grown retic, as far as I could see. (Reticulated pythons, if you didn’t know, are the longest snake in the world (the anaconda is the heaviest), maxing out somewhere between 20 and 30 feet, I think.)
Anyway, it didn’t look like it was in very good shape (skin hanging off from a poor shed) and I was crouching closer to get a better look. Then it dawned on me that the head was *under* the cage, not in it, i.e. the rest of the snake was probably under the cage, not in it, i.e. the thing was loose.
So, I got up and went off to find one of the handlers, and explained to him that one of his retics was loose. He came by, looked at it, went off for backup, and eventually I got to watch, very amused, as three people dragged a very large python out from under the cage with a snake hook, threw a burlap bag over its head, and shoved it back in the cage (it took two people to carry it, it was so big!). I didn’t understand why they bothered with the snake hook and bag, until they popped open the cage and suddenly six or seven full-grown, giant pythons were awake, hissing, and striking at the handlers as they tried to pop the eighth one in. At this point it dawned on me that, unlike the retics I’m used to seeing, these *hadn’t* been handled regularly since birth, and I’d been standing with my toes about eighteen inches from an essentially wild, fully-grown reticulated python.
About ten minutes after I left the snake farm, it dawned on me that if they had a reticulated python loose from its cage (we are not talking a small snake here, folks), they might actually have “lost” some of their other snakes, too.
Well, it’s a good thing I watched where I put my feet, that’s all I have to say.
Anyway, after that I tried going to the Chao Praya Cultural Center, but couldn’t figure out how to get the ferry across the river. After half an hour of tedious miscommunication with the ferry attendants, I gave up, went home, and took a nap.
Later I went for dinner with Kaew, a Thai woman I’d met Tuesday, at the expat bar–she introduced me to her friend at the AIDS NGO. He gave me some information packets, we chatted for a bit, and we agreed that I’d come by Monday to talk to some European expat staff (better English). But they have a very interesting project–it’s basically a corporate outreach program, where companies send their employees to AIDS education seminars in exchange for reductions on their corporate life/health insurance rates. I don’t think the concept would fly in the U.S., as employee turnover is significantly higher (and infection isn’t as commonplace), but I like the idea.
After dinner, Kaew and I went off to Khao San Road to meet Nima (Ben’s cousin), her sister, and an American movie producer named John, who’s in town for two weeks for the Thai film festival. Khao San Road is the backpacker’s Mecca, and I’m now VERY glad I’m not staying there–Bob Marley T-shirts, woven-bead necklaces, and funky purses, need I say more? But it was good to see the place, I may have to see a travel agent there.
I did feel pretty twitchy while we were hopping through the dance clubs on Khao San Road, though; there are terrorism alerts all through Southeast Asia right now, and I was pretty intensely aware that I was standing in the number one target in Thailand–the trendy nightclubs in the prime tourist district (exactly the places that got blown up in Bali). On the other hand, given that there’s a sniper running around DC shooting people right now, I don’t think there’s anywhere that’s truly safe. And Thailand is not a Muslim country. I am thinking I will skip overlanding through Malaysia and Indonesia, though I may still go to Bali. (With tourism already devastated, it’s unlikely IMO there’ll be other attacks, so it might be the safest place to be.) Haven’t decided yet.
Plans for today include the Weekend Market (which is supposed to be a must-see, a giant flea market that sells *everything*), and maybe either a Thai massage or a conversation with Buddhist monks. Sunday I’m lunching with Wu, a 63-year-old Chinese man whom I’ve never met, but who’s read my posts on the handspinners’ list and (I kid you not) wants me to teach him how to spin silk into thread on the drop spindle I brought along. Since he only speaks Mandarin and I only speak English, this should be pretty interesting, but I imagine the language of craft is universal.
Sunday, Kaew and I are going for dinner–I’m helping her break into the social scene here (which is a laugh, since I just got here) in exchange with help on one of my other little projects, and some general help sightseeing.
Monday, after stopping by the AIDS NGO, I’ll be heading to Ko Chang (beaches + rainforest hiking)–I’m getting a little burnt out on the American-expat bar scene, and also starting to feel a little too settled-in. Much of the point of this trip is to get a chance to try out different cultures and reflections, so while it’s good that I have a firm “home base” in Bangkok, it’s time to go poke elsewhere. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut, after all. 😉
Oh yes–almost forgot to mention–I’ve been invited to two expat parties in Bangkok week after next, one big one on the 26th (hosted by Nima) and one on the 28th (hosted by a friend of Kaew’s). So I’ll be wheeling back through Bangkok for that, then probably up north to Chiang Mai, home of craft artisans and silkweavers. Though I don’t know; Nima’s sister mentioned that there’s a temple in southern Thailand that does excellent vipanassa meditation retreats starting on the 1st of every month, so I may take some time and do that, too.
Oh, and Nima mentioned that the best body-painter in Bangkok will be at the party on the 26th. I have GOT to talk to this guy. (Actually I have more nefarious plans, but I’m not going to tell you what they are. I figure you can have much more fun trying to figure out what I might be up to, than you’d have if I actually explained. 😉 )
Off to the Weekend Market!