Thursday, April 28, 2011


Rosa’s eyes… they are hazel brown, and deep. They stared unblinkingly into mine and there was something primal and brazen in that stare. The smooth touch of her skin sent a nervous rush up my spine as her sinuous form undulated in my arms. I felt her weight on me. She was stronger than I had imagined. My breath grew heavy and awkward…

We were close enough to kiss and for a moment we searched for answers in each other’s eyes, almost daring the other to take the next step. And then she flicked out her tongue and waved it in my face. Almost on an impulse, I did the same. For the briefest of moments one brushed ever so lightly against the other. “Aah… mouth to mouth!,” screamed a voice on the public address system.

In parts of rural Thailand, snake-pits are about as common as dentures in an old-age home. So here I was driving up a mountain in Chiang Mai when I happened to see a big cardboard sign that said “Dance of death with the King!” As soon as I pulled up, I was greeted by a rather squat Thai lady with hair dyed so blonde that it would not have looked out of place on Boris Becker’s eyebrows. She sang out a welcome and then grabbed my arm and tugged. I waited for a moment and the shock to pass and then allowed her to drag me in to see the treasures that the snake park had to off er. We went past the thatched ticket counter and a counter selling snake-skin shoes, bags and trinkets and then there we were, in front of an empty snake pit. “Show start fifteen minute”, sang the lady, and beamed a happy-gappy grin. I wondered where the stars of the show might be. As if on cue, I heard a faint hiss and then the rustling of scales against concrete.

I looked around and for the first time noticed the row of fine-mesh cages behind the seats. The hissing and the rustling grew louder and I followed the sound to the first cage just in time to see the tail end of a snake disappear into the mouth of another. The King was at lunch.

King cobras eat other snakes, both venomous and non-venomous ones. The King didn’t bother to make eye contact and chewed on the tail like Dirty Harry might on gum, and slithered back into a corner. I drift ed towards some of the other cages. There were Siamese cobras in the next one, then a python and then another king cobra. In the far end was a tank full of dirty brown water and I could see a dark shape at the bottom. “Take out! Take out!,” sang the blonde woman from behind the public address system. I looked away from the tank and quickly took my hands out of my pockets. I looked at her trying to understand what she might have meant. “You take out?” she repeated. The intonation suggested a question and I showed my hands. “No, no… you take out Pi-ping... take out water?” she asked again. Hmm… Pi-ping taking out water… I wondered where this was going. I just managed a confused shake of the head. The lady pushed the table and microphone aside and waddled up to where I was standing. Then she pointed at the dark shape in the water and said, “Pi-ping take out water, you want?” Ah, it was Pi-ping in the water. Although I was still a little unsure about whether the lady wanted me to take Pi-ping out of the water or whether it was Pi-ping who wanted to take out water, or was it that she wondered if I wanted Pi-ping’s water, but I decided to go for it. I rolled up my sleeves and lunged in the water. Halfway down, I realised that a misunderstanding now could be rather painful, perhaps even fatal, and so I asked the lady even as I felt Pi-ping’s leathery skin if Pi-ping happened to have a venomous bite. The lady smiled and shook her head. “No Pi-ping very gentle”, she said. And sure enough Pi-ping was as docile as a house cat. I later learnt that Pi-ping is an ‘elephant trunk snake’, also known as the Javan Wart Snake, called so because of the snake’s rough leathery skin.

“Showtime!,” screamed the lady on the mike, and I went and took my seat at the edge of the snake pit. There were a handful of Australians who had come in for the show. I took out my camera and was about to take a few test shots when a little Thai boy, in an oversized tee-shirt that ran all the way to his knees, patted me on the shoulder and then dropped something black and bristly in my hand. I looked down and saw a rather large black Malayan forest scorpion, with its hound’s tail sting poised for what could be an excruciating introduction. And crawling on its back were two baby scorpions. My wife would never agree, but I tell you dear reader, those little baby scorpions are some of the cutest creepy-crawlies you could ever see.

Meanwhile, the first of the wranglers entered the pit with a pair of cobras. Music played and then he teased and goaded the snakes while they raised their hoods and ‘danced’. Then they fooled around with a pair of rat snakes. Each of the wranglers would finish off his performance with a ‘kiss’ and the blonde one would look at the audience with an expression that said ‘have you ever seen a happier threesome?’ and go “Aaaah!... Mouth to mouth!”

Then they brought out Rosa, the reticulated python, and took her around and asked if anybody from the audience wanted to hold her. No one did, and since I didn’t want to hurt Rosa’s feelings, I volunteered. At 15 feet, young Rosa’s pretty small for a reticulated python. These snakes, the longest in the world, oft en grow to be nine metres or more in length. But boy she was a handful already.

Anyway, it was now time for the grand finale. Superstar wrangler ‘Lek’ sauntered in with a huge snake on a ‘snake-prod’. It had olive green scales and its eyes reminded me of an eagle’s. It must have been about three metres long. This was what I had come to see. The king cobra!

Lek had an assistant with him, just like matadors would in a bull-fight. Whenever Lek would get cornered by the snake, the assistant would distract the snake and help Lek get out of the situation. I was on my knees outside the ring, taking pictures when the King raised its hood. And suddenly from taking pictures at floor level, I realised I was now pointing the camera way above my head. The King had raised its hood more than four feet off the ground. I was awestruck, and so must have Lek been for he froze as the snake launched itself in the general direction of his crotch. He was wearing loose track pants and jumped out of the way at the very last moment. But the snake still got one of its fangs into the fabric while the assistant tried to draw him away. A collective gasp went round the snake pit and there was a stunned silence. The audience knew this wasn’t a part of the plan. And perhaps to give the shaken Lek a break as well as prove that the snake still had his poison glands intact, the assistant with the help of the other wranglers subdued the snake. Then, with its head in his hands, he brought it around in front of the audience and then made it bite down onto a glass container with a soft cap. We could see those fangs and those glands squirting surprisingly large amounts of golden yellow liquid death into the container. Those drops of neurotoxic venom were potent enough to kill all 22 of us in the audience. Lek was lucky, very lucky.

But Lek wasn’t done yet. It was now time for his signature move. Like a bullfighter drawing his saber for a final thrust, Lek squared off against the angry snake. He didn’t have a cape so he used his hands to keep the cobra transfixed onto a target and then as the two moved towards each other, with grace to match the matador’s pirouette before his final thrust into the hump of the charging bull, Lek reached over the snake’s hood and kissed it even as the snake looked on, as if spell bound. The audience erupted and Lek took a bow.

The show was over. The King was back in the bag.

The finale was a splendid display of skill and courage and I was glad I got to see it. Unlike the bull-fights in Spain, the snakes aren’t harmed. Not until they are made into hand-bags anyway. And yet it just didn’t seem right to poke and prod these magnificent creatures for the sake of entertainment. I can’t make up my mind about this one. Snake wranglers like Lek are an invaluable asset in the race to create more anti-venom than there are victims. And anti-venom can only be made from the venom of live snakes. So, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. If wranglers are good, then why are snake charmers bad? And if charmers are bad, why are such snake shows any better?

Well, that’s an issue I’ll save for next week but until then, tread carefully, lest you be no lucky Lek…


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