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The eyes of the naga

15/05/2013

It was on Koh Chang that I came face to face with the dragon.

Not the big Koh Chang on the Thai-Cambodian sea border but a smaller island of the same name on the maritime boundary with Burma.

It was 1990 and the islanders had only recently begun supplementing their coconut, fruit and smuggling incomes with tourist dollars, so far attracting just a smattering of low budget backpackers like myself.

“Where is everybody?”, I asked Terry, the elderly New Zealander who was one of the handful of other farangs on the island.
Usually at this hour the young Thais who ran the bungalow would have been in the kitchen-dining hut leisurely preparing our shared breakfast, chopping ganja and cleaning the bongs in readiness for another lazy day in paradise.

Terry turned his malaria ravaged face towards me.
Within a few weeks I would learn that malaria looks much worse than it feels.

“A snake got into one of the storerooms. They’re trying to kill it.”

“Kill it? There’s no need for that. I’ll sort it out.”

I feel a bit of an affinity with snakes and hate to see them killed.
Besides, this would be a great opportunity to show off my snake handling skills.

I grew up in swampy bushland a few hours north of Sydney where snakes had played a big part in my childhood.

I’d kept a diamond python as a pet and spent many hours observing its more dangerous cousins in the wild.
My parents were horrified the first time their nine year old son brought a deadly brown snake home to show them but eventually became accustomed to having me walk in with a poisonous reptile wrapped around my arm.
“Don’t let it go anywhere near the house”, my mother would say before turning back to her painting.
I never told them about the black snake I’d lost under the back verandah, but luckily it didn’t show up in anyone’s sock drawer.

As a teenager I had briefly volunteered at the local reptile park, feeding animals, cleaning enclosures and milking black, brown and tiger snakes for venom that would be sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to produce the life saving anti-venene stocked by Australian hospitals and rural clinics.

The conventional method of milking a venomous snake was to lift it by the tail, pin its head then pick it up to force its fangs through the elastic covering of a beaker while massaging less than a tenth of a millilitre of poison from the glands at the back of its head.
However there were two snakes at the park that could not be milked this way.
They had to be noosed with a long pole and required three or four grown men just to hold them.
And they produced up to five millilitres of venom per milking.
Eric, the park owner, wouldn’t let us kids near them and frankly that was of some relief to me.

Although not a cobra at all, the hamadryad is more commonly known as the king cobra.
At up to five and a half metres its the biggest venomous snake in the world and is reckoned by handlers to be the most intelligent reptile of all.
They quickly come to recognise their keepers and show distinct preferences, being almost ‘tame’ in the presence of a trusted handler.
Although not usually aggressive a mother hamadryad will ferociously defend her nest from anything and everything that comes near, only abandoning her brood when the baby snakes begin to emerge.

And hamadryads have presence.
You’d have to have been near one to know what I mean.

On Koh Chang it was the mating season for the much smaller monocled cobra.
It was such a snake that killed legendary handler Grace Wiley.
Only instead of the distinctive ‘O’ pattern on the back of its hood, this one had a ‘G’.
The snake with her name on it.

Though I didn’t see any matings I had been fascinated by their intricate courting rituals in which up to five snakes would weave around each other in a complex ‘dance’ which was probably an attempt by several males to intimidate each other away from a female.
I’d approached quite closely and been chased more than once, but now thought I had their measure.
Aggressiveness, territorial radius, strike range, sensitivity to movement and ground vibration – I was confident I was ready to pick one up, despite their status as Thailand’s most dangerous snake.

If it was up to a metre and a half I would simply hold it by the tail and carry it into the jungle to be released.
A big two metre one might require pinning and gripping behind the head.
I would ask one of the guys to come with me to help unwrap it from my arm for safe release.

As I approached the storeroom Jor and Lek were backing rapidly out, eyes wide and shovels raised above their heads.
“Don’t kill it!”, I cried, “I’ll catch it for you”.
They looked at me as if I were a lunatic.
Hah! I would show them how an Australian deals with snakes.

Coming into the small windowless hut from tropical sunshine I stopped just inside the entrance, waiting for my eyes to adjust to its gloomy interior.
I kept close watch on the rectangle of sunlight around my shadow in case a panicked and possibly wounded reptile made a dash for the doorway.

That was when I heard it.
Not a hiss.
A growl.
And it wasn’t coming from the floor.
Nowhere near it.
And I knew.

I raised my eyes to a tea crate against the wall barely two metres away.
Then to the body thicker than my thigh rising from it.
And finally to the hood as big as my head topped by two rubies blazing back at me.
Down at me.

‘Scared stiff’ is a misnomer.
You don’t feel stiff at all.
You feel heavy and weak with the strong sense that if you move a muscle you will collapse into a twitching heap.
That’s the only time I’ve felt it but I sure won’t forget it.

It could only have been seconds that we were frozen face to face in that tiny room, but it felt like a lifetime.
And I thought it probably would be.

Suddenly I was back in control of my body, leaping backwards through the doorway I had just entered and scrambling to get beyond a strike range that extended well outside the confines of the hut.

Jor and Lek erupted with laughter.

“You still alive Mike? What you do with the snake?”

“Umm, y-yeah guys. Maybe you should take care of it”.

And after a brief melee they did.

When we laid it out, the headless body of the hamadryad was over four metres long.
Later we carried it half a kilometre down the beach to another bungalow where it was curried for the evening feast.
The head was bigger than a full grown cane toad, but I was surprised at how small its fangs were.

Now I was in mourning.

Although I eat meat and used to hunt for it, I hate to see anything killed.
But this was even worse than usual.
Its as if those few seconds in the storeroom had created a bond between myself and something incredibly ancient, noble and wise.
Never mind that it had a brain the size of a cashew, I now understood why the naga was a symbol of arcane knowledge.
This was not just a killing. It was sacrilege.

I still feel regret over what happened that day.
If only I could have saved it.
If only I hadn’t been so scared.

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From → autobiography, hurts

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