the nothing whatever...

Crazy Snakemen

Our guides, Tom and Bon, picked us up from our hotel at 8:30am in their 4WD, and as with “Baby Mustard” in Vietnam, we were the only two that would be taking the tour, just the way we like it. They told us that even with such an activity filled day, there was no rush at all, and if we wanted to stay longer somewhere or do something that might not have been on the itinerary, then all we had to do is say so. He asked if we had ever eaten Pad Thai, and seemed slightly shocked when I told him how often we have eaten it, and how prevalent it is in Australia. He then told us that Tom was an ex-chef and would be cooking it for us, but as he and Tom eat ridiculous amounts of the staple as well (contrary to the myth I heard about Thai people not eating Pad Thai, nor calling it “Pad Thai”), he began eagerly rattling of suggestions of other things Tom could cook, almost pushing us to not be complacent with Pad Thai because (I got the impression) he and Tom were so sick of eating it. We settled on a Green Curry and a Penang Curry, and Bon said that we will stop in at the markets after the snake farm to do a bit of shopping, seemingly pretty rapt with the outcome. I would imagine that for the guides, the best part about having that small an amount of people is that the tour can shake some of its commercial routine and start becoming as much a democracy as it would be if we were 4 random people hanging out together.

But first was the snake farm. The treatment of animals throughout most of SE Asia is fairly deplorable at best, but if you dwell on it too much, you can really ruin your own time. That’s not to say it isn’t something that shouldn’t be thought of, but, for the sake of hedonistic pleasure, we switched off that mindset when we arrived at the gates. There were four or five prominent pictures of Sylvester Stallone with his arm around the owner on proud display in the car park, and we found out that it was because one of the Rambo movies (I forget which, most likely the one where he catches Cobras) contained their snake farm as the particular one to which Rambo sells snakes in order to make himself a few bucks (or something like that, I never really saw the movie). One of the mad showmen who works with these deadly unpredictable creatures met us at the door, and it was easy to see that as a result of spending just about every day with them, he now carried with him the same sort of wily unpredictability as the creatures he has been working with. As we were the only ones there (and because we were from the land of spiders and snakes, according to them) to Nic’s horror, we became somewhat of a novelty. The showmen reminded me of daredevils on TV who have crossed the border of sanity by being a bees dick away from death so often, whether it be through base-jumping or wing-suiting or motor-cross stunts, and when they get interviewed about their latest and greatest feat they just seem eccentric and unrelateable, their mind permanently regressed back into survival mode. You can tell they still know the danger in what they do, but they know it by fact rather than by feel, and you get the sense that something is missing, maybe just a few brain cells, or maybe the fear of death. The kind of guys that you are scared to joke with because you know it won’t take very long to escalate beyond your comfort zone.

Now, not to brag, but I have had a hand size Huntsman looking up at me from the center of my chest and have remained composed enough to wait till somebody fetched a Tupperware container and a newspaper so we need not kill the thing unnecessarily. Be it moth, mantis, locust or ant, none of the insect family has ever really made me flinch in the way that you could call it a “fear”. Even snakes and lizards and other reptiles don’t really irk me, such that I didn’t see myself coming away from the snake farm with a raised heartbeat. But it took me till that day to realize my hidden unnerving with scorpions, and now that I know it exists, I can see it with the full torchlight. That must have been the reason why I watched “Honey, I shrunk the kids!” on repeat for weeks on end when I was a tot, the reason why I had the scene where Captain Hook’s doubter (incidentally, Glenn Close…who knew?) gets put in “The Boo Box” in a perpetual state of rewind. Nic saw it coming the minute old mate opened the wooden entrapment, and was already about ten meters away when the first one was planted on my shoulder.

“See, these friendly scorpion, only bite sometimes.” the guy said, smiling a gummy smile with two missing front teeth.

My reaction was perfect for him, as whilst I was absolutely hating them being on me, I was so completely paralyzed that he could just go ahead and continue to add them, an insect hat-stand. I had the feeling that any form of protest might exacerbate his need to demonstrate the fear he didn’t feel, so I put on what I thought was a tolerant smile (it doesn’t look tolerant at all in the photo) and swallowed my urge to shake myself like a wet dog and rid my body of the crawling Satan spawn. Half my mind was calming me, assuring me that I was in no danger and that the Discovery channel says that, despite their appearance, the large black ones are the particularly placid variety, but the other half kept telling me that these are animals with minds of their own, and they don’t give a flying proverbial what documentary you have watched, they do exactly what they want when they want…and they probably don’t like you! Curiously, whether I had one or two or three or four or five on me, my terror didn’t increase, it remained consistent. The sign of a true and healthy phobia.

The showmen eventually grew bored of that game, and took them off, and I was allowed to breathe again. They pulled a couple of diamond pythons out of their enclosure and flipped them over, pointing out the male and female reproductive organs and making a few lewd jokes that I laughed at with incredible amounts of gusto, still with the thought of scorpions in the back of my mind. To my relief, after this, it was time for their performance, so while they went off to get themselves prepared, that allowed me to relax a little on the walk over to the small arena with the carpeted center.

The performance was incredible. There were two baby Cobra’s loose at once, with the crazy showman crouching in front of them and wobbling his knees to reign in their focus, inching ridiculously close. He climbed out of the ring (I say ring, it is a wooden barrier the height of a gutter) and directed both the snakes attention our way for a photo, their black beady eyes piercing into the nosebleed section much to Nic’s distress. Deciding that now was my hour of redemption, I climbed onto the ground level with the camera, and they all cheered at my bravery as I stepped closer and closer to the two poisonous snakes hovering half their bodies vertically above the ring, subtly swaying in slow synchronicity (sssssssssssss!). I got to what I felt was a close but comfortable distance a couple of meters away, took a few shots, and started adjusting the camera for another, but just as I did I felt two set of hands grab me by the arms and start thrusting me forward, and I scrambled to claw my way back to the safety of the stand, my facade of bravery completely exposed by those mad bastards. They burst out laughing, and so did I, my reaction would have been priceless if I was in their shoes. But it wasn’t funny.

I never realized how big King Cobra’s actually are. When it came out, Nic and I had wished there was another seat we could back up into. If it felt the need, the 30cm of guttering supposedly separating us from it would be easily surpassed. As mad as he was, you could tell that old mate was not going to joke around with this one, wobbling his knees and keeping his eyes firmly focused on the snakes head. Then, for a brief moment, for reasons probably only known to the snake and the charmer, the snake seemed to calm itself, and old mate leaned forward, eyes till honed in on the head, and planted a two second kiss on the top of it. We applauded, he bowed. He lives for another day. The next few snakes to come out had terrible bites, but no venom, with the other two showmen obviously rookies in training. They were still very impressive, one protruding his head as two snakes simultaneously went after it, dodging their strikes using only his neck. The announcer then said that the next one they were bringing out was a jumping snake, and out of the box it flew into the air, spinning end to end, making its way straight for Nic. She screamed and ran, and was, again, ten meters away before I realized what was happening. The thing bounced off the seat next to me and landed underneath the stand, and it took me a little while to convince Nic it was just a black piece of rope. She was the sucker this time. The funny thing is though, I wouldn’t put it past them to hurl a snake in our direction, and if I hadn’t have been so vague I would have probably been right behind her.

At the end of it all, after saying goodbye to the crazy snakemen, their announcer and the owner of the farm, I realized I had gotten exactly the experience that one sets out for when they attend these things. If I wanted to stand a meter back behind an electric and barb-wired fence while a scorpion tied to the ground in a two-by-two inch clear perspex box moves its one free claw to prove its alive, I would have gone to see it in a country governed by strict safety standards that ensure no harm will come to its customers. But I didn’t. I went and saw a snake show in Thailand, it terrified me, and anybody who wants to be terrified (I know there are a few out there) should do the same.