Bangkok Snake



David Whitley, not the greatest fan of snakes at the best of times, gets the chills as he visits a farm where cobras are milked for their venom


Ugh. His last film may have been a cinematic travesty, but Indiana Jones certainly has the right idea on snakes. There’s something about them, even the feeble non-venomous ones that are about as dangerous as soppy Labrador puppies, that makes me shudder. They’re fascinating, sure, but I want them safely kept a certain distance away from me.


That distance is a little bit further than it is at Bangkok’s Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute Snake Farm. The less-than-grand stand we’re sat in looks a little too ramshackle and the barriers look a little too undeterring. Especially when the guy in the wellies starts swinging the king cobras round by the tail.


The farm is not just a tourist attraction. It’s a World Health Organisation-backed research centre. It produces antivenin and studies toxicology. It also acts, at least partly, as a natural history museum of the slithery kind.


As snakes sleep in their glass cages, stats and trivia are reeled off. The mangrove pit viper is quick to strike when disturbed; the reticulated python can grow up to ten metres long. But it’s the cobras that have that magical allure. Kipling and co have built a handsome mythology around these romanticised serpents.


The conservationists can claim what they like; as far as I’m concerned, they’re horrible, vicious bastards.


A video upstairs shows the effects a cobra bite has. Death from one goes a little like this: progressive paralysis of the skeletal and peripheral muscles, then a sleep-like paralysis, spasms and excess salivation, then fatal respiratory failure. It is not a nice way to go. Even amongst those saved in time, 25% end up with severe muscle damage. And several thousand people a year in Thailand are saved in time.


Knowing this, it’s hard to understand why the handlers are so nonchalant while conducting the show. They initially give the cobras plenty of room, but chat away as if the snakes are not there, owning the floor. Occasionally one springs into action and goes for the handler’s legs. It becomes fairly clear what those welly boots are for.


Then the handlers pick the snakes up and swing them around by the tail. Presumably it’s about momentum – if the snake is swinging fast enough, it can’t co-ordinate well enough to get into a truly dangerous position. Even so, the fury is there. They make lunges, thwarted by gravity and speed of travel.


When the king cobras come out, I feel I’ve seen enough. They are astoundingly big, although not quite as venomous as their smaller cousins. I make a cowardly skulk towards the end of the stand and make my exit. The only way to do so without walking back in front of the massed crowd and looking like a chicken is to nip round the back.


I turn the corner, and I’m suddenly met with precisely what I didn’t want to see: another giant cobra being swung around by the tail. This is where the handlers are bringing them out from, and they’re not expecting visitors.


One “Woah!” is all I need to back off as far as possible.

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. Handily, it’s just around the corner from the snake farm