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King Cobras

Eye to eye with my worst fears

You’ve done some daft things for a buck, Ron. But this surely takes the biscuit.

It’s true. I stood on a window frame 1100 feet up an unfinished Hongkong skyscraper; held the middle ground between students and riot troops trading fist-sized rocks, molotov cocktails and tear-gas shells fired from shotguns; lied calmly to men in uniform all over Asia — including one heading a line of armoured cars that four days later rumbled into Tiananmen Square; I have been under citizen’s arrest in North Korea (more than once; it’s not difficult), and stared down an apoplectic South Korean waving an iron bar in my face; I once slipped into an Afghan war zone dressed as a Pakistani tribesman (fooling nobody), and tripped into the foulest of Kowloon brothels on the heels of the Hongkong Vice Squad; I even spent a weekend in Bangkok with Michael Jackson.

None of which was nearly as daft as this.

Flat on my stomach, nothing but a camera and a fine layer of dust between me and the flickering forked tongue of a 3-metre King Cobra.

Barely an hour in this remote village in north-east Thailand, and here I am with a mouth full of grit and a face full of a snake called Buffalo. But if you trust the locals — and, at this point, I have no other option — Buffalo is really a big softie who wouldn’t harm a flea, let alone bite a Scotsman. And in his defense, he has yet to disappoint them. Or me.

That doesn’t stop him being curious.

While I photograph him through a wide-angle lens, he gets so close that I have to scramble back to keep him in focus. Which puts that blunt weathered face, that slippery forked tongue, those needle-sharp venom-filled fangs, about 30 cm from the tip of my sweat drenched nose. Maybe, just maybe the grinning villagers are not laughing at my knees knocking grooves in the hard-packed earth.

Never mind that Buffalo shows no inclination to bite, I am still scared witless; the power he holds over me is his ability to bite me should the notion ever cross his little brain. And I’ve done my homework, so I know the adult King Cobra can strike from 1.8 metres. Placing me not so much in the strike zone as somewhere within his digestive tract. And did I tell you that I am very, make that VERY afraid of snakes?

Meanwhile Buffalo looks impassive, his wee tongue zipping in and out, gathering chemical information from the surrounding air. I wonder about the chemical footprint of terror-stricken Scotsman. It can’t be sweet.

“No offense Buffalo, but when these people try to make me wear you like a scarf, I’m out of here.”

I flash back to what the nice man at Wildlife Fund Thailand told me yesterday. “One thing about King Cobra venom,” he said, “Is the quantity of the stuff. Huge quantities. We’re talking sackloads.” All that and neurotoxic, too; the venom’s powerful neurotoxins attack the central nervous system, shutting it down until respiratory or heart failure takes over.

Eye to eye with Buffalo, my bet is on heart failure, bite or no bite.

Western countries have double glazing salesmen and evangelist door-knockers. Thailand has a wiry sun-browned man carrying bundled twigs and dessicated herbs — and a King Cobra in a wooden box. Ban Khok Sa Nga, this village in Thailand’s Isan region, is well-known for itinerant salesmen peddling herbal snake-bite remedies.

Like the snake-oil salesman of old, the herb seller from the North-East first has to round up a crowd, which is where the snake comes in. Gingerly pulling out an adult King Cobra, the salesman teases the snake until its hood, flaps of loose skin over movable ribs, stretches outwards in a clear sign of aggression. He then takes the cobra through a series of dances and boxing moves and other acts of folly to show that he has no fear of its venom. And why doesn’t he fear the venom? Funny you should ask, ladies and gentlemen, for indeed the answer is here, one that no rural Thai home should be without, a secret blend of jungle herbs, as used for generations by the legendary snake keepers of Ban Khok Sa Nga…..

When Wildlife Fund Thailand got involved a couple of years back, it hatched a plan to encourage villagers to be less cavalier with their dance partners. Whenever their snake died, villagers simply took to the jungle to get another, with no thought for the effect that had on breeding stocks in the wild. This at a time when the very survival of the King Cobra, one of fifteen protected species in Thailand, was already threatened. I can read your mind: ‘Cobras endangered? So what?’ My sentiments exactly, but as the King Cobra’s breakfast, lunch and dinner are made up exclusively of other snakes, its disappearance would lead to — you got it — an infestation of snakes. A regular conundrum.

Wildlife Fund’s plan was basically two-pronged: encourage the villagers to bring the audience to performances held at home in Ban Khok Sa Nga, thereby reducing fatalities among travelling King Cobras; and institute a breeding program to offset man’s steady encroachment upon the snake’s habitat. Success in the latter department has so far eluded them — as it has everybody else; King Cobras have never been successfully bred in captivity. The development of the village as a tourist attraction, however, is there for all to see.

On a raised wooden stage in the shade of a giant tree and flanked by terraced seating, a shiny faced lad who should be playing with Lego or cuddly toys is instead going three rounds with a frighteningly-aggressive young King Cobra. As King Cobras get older, they get longer, fatter — and more terrifying to us normal folks. But in fact it is the younger snakes who are faster. And, it’s worth remembering that, as with all the village’s performing serpents, this one has neither been milked of its venom nor been de-fanged.

His wee legs protected only by track suit trousers so threadbare you could spit peas through them, the boy shuffles back and forth taunting the creature, keeping up the pressure until inevitably the snake lunges, jaws spread horribly wide, fangs dripping. The boy is quick, but twice the snake gets a mouthful of purple polyester; I kid you not, the kid’s trousers are liberally splashed with neurotoxins. If those were my trousers, I’m thinking — but some thoughts are best left alone.

The music halts, the boy bows proudly to applause from the sprinkling of tourists rubbing their eyes in disbelief, and the snake is returned to its box using two-metre poles with wire curves on the ends. To my mind, those poles are on the short side — about five metres short. Next is the turn of an adult villager wearing a lurid orange shirt with ‘Amazing King Cobra Boxing Show’ in English and Thai script, and a picture of an adult snake poised to strike in a giant ‘S’. It’s quite the ugliest t-shirt I have ever seen. I must have one. Soon a very real Cobra is in an ‘S’ of its own, swaying sideways, the first one-third of a three-metre body raised, hood spread, mouth open, tongue flashing in and out, telling the snake when it is most threatened, when to strike.

The villager, his gaze fixed almost hypnotically on the eyes of the snake, crouches down, knees bent, arms spread wide, hands constantly moving. As casual as you like, he slaps it gently on the sides of its hood, then raps it on the top of the head with one finger, every once in a while springing back to avoid a strike. The snake’s hood never deflates; this is one genuinely aggrieved King Cobra, and like the lad before him, only the man’s speed saves him from being bitten, from those ‘sackloads’ of venom — enough in the sacs of one adult serpent, a villager tells me, to bite 180 people.

The man’s name is Bowatong Boonpengyootin; try saying that three times fast after a couple of large Mekong Whiskies. He tells me that in ten years of performing he has been bitten four times, though only once seriously. (Smile with me, if you will, at the thought of dismissing any King Cobra bite as ‘not serious’.) Like all the performers, Bowatong takes a daily herbal tonic to protect himself from venom; that, combined with a compress of the herb sanseviera thysiflora, mixed with lemon and applied to the wound, pulled him through his one ‘serious’ episode.

Not surprisingly, among villagers, tales of the herb’s effectiveness are legion. Some years ago one performer, Garong Noi, was bitten on the tongue; by rights he should be dead, but he too was saved by his daily intake of herbs. Another performer, Tong Kam, came to grief while doing what the village brochure quaintly refers to as ‘challengingly letting a King Cobra creep under the pants’. It turned out he was in luck — he was bitten on the backside. Once again, it was herbs to the rescue, and after four days of high fevers, Tong Kam was back onstage. If that had been you or me, I am told, we would have been dead within 45 minutes. Never mind the rather grand assumption that you or I would ever have a King Cobra down our knickers in the first place.

Nowadays, thanks to tourism, instead of the majority of Ban Khok Sa Nga’s men being on the road selling herbs village to village, more than half are able to stay home, supported by income from either of the village’s two competing stage shows. Not even King Cobra boxing, it seems, is immune to man’s tendency towards factionalism.

What visitors get is a show of daring and dancing involving villagers of all ages and snakes both venomous and non-venomous; one three-year-old girl follows her elder’s bidding in a faltering waltz with a young Burmese Python, then obligingly pops its head in her mouth, drawing halting applause from her audience. Sort of a one-and-a-half-metre, wriggling village lollipop. Another four-year-old, when confronted by the pale foreigner, runs away in tears; up until that point she is contentedly hugging her end of an adult King Cobra. Better the snake you know than the farang you don’t, it seems. A third little girl shows me the contents of her pockets — two writhing bootlaces, snack-food for the captive snakes, under temporary reprieve as pocket pets. Which takes the shine off my childhood succession of guinea pigs.

The tough economic realities of rural life mean the tourism business is here to stay. For it is only thanks to tourism money that these villagers can now make in a year what a white-collar city dweller might expect to generate in a month.

But village income has to be the farthest thing from my mind as I am rubbing noses with Buffalo. I soothe my frayed nerves with the thought that I am under the wing of people who spend their whole lives around the King Cobra. I have to trust them, bow to their expertise. Yeah, right.

Later, I talk with Mr. Ta Boonka, President of King Cobra Club, Thailand. I ask if it is true that, on coming across a King Cobra in the wild, I should stand absolutely still.

Mr. Ta nods confidently.

‘So I’d be quite safe?’

‘One hundred percent safe,’ he says.

‘One thousand percent safe,’ chirps a voice from the sidelines. ‘One thousand percent,’ repeats Kom, a wrinkled sun-dried 53-year-old who tells me he has been handling King Cobras since he was a kid. Here’s a man who must know what he’s talking about.

‘Have you ever been bitten?’ I ask.

There is the usual short delay while the question is translated. He looks back to me with a proud smile.

‘Thirty-three times!’

Time to gently prise Buffalo from around my neck, buy that hideous t-shirt — and get the hell out of here.