Snakes, sodas, sea creatures and sore backs

 My last full day in Bangkok and I didn’t get out of bed till gone 11am. In fairness, I had a lot of kip to catch up on after the last few days and the late arrival last night. The previous post was the result of an email conversation with Elaine and after checking web sites relating to the snake farm, I found directions to it and made my way there.

It’s not very well signposted, so unless you know how to get there you simply won’t find it. The farm is within the grounds of the Red Cross centre near Silom (10 mins or so walk from Sala Daeng BTS station). The centre does a lot of work to do with blood in addition to anti-venin production, predominantly rabies and malaria tests and shots. So it’s a handy place to know!

I was a bit disappointed to get there at 2:20 (10 minutes before the advertised time for the demonstration) to find that it was preceeded by a 30-minute slide show and lecture. Every web page I’d been to mentioned this in passing, but all stated that things kicked off on the half hour. A shame, as the demonstration was hugely entertaining and informative so I’d have liked to have seen the lecture. Mind you, for 70Baht you can’t really complain. For those interested, the slideshows kick off at 10:30 and 14:00 every weekday and 10:30 only on weekends and holidays. They run for 30 minutes and the demonstration following lasts another half hour or so.

The farm is over 80 years old and was the second in the world, Brazil having the first. It was needed as Thailand has 180 varieties of snake, 56 of which are venomous. Death by snakebite is scarily common over here, mainly out in the countryside and jungle. A large number of victims are rice farmers who get bitten by water snakes.

Venomous snakes are bred here for their venom which is “milked” every few weeks. This is sent to a decidated farm in Hua Hin where it is injected into horses. These develop antibodies to the venom and their blood plasma is collected (very humanely – similarly to a person donating) and sent for processing to WHO standards. This is the antivenin used to treat bite victims. The process for the rabies vaccine is virtually identical. For anyone worried, the horses otherwise live a nice relaxed existence with plenty of exercise. They are used to serum production for the ages of 4 to 12 and are retired after that, living up to the age of around 25. Due to the nature of their “work” they are kept meticulously happy and healthy.

In addition to breeding venomous snakes, non-venomous ones are also reared. In the main, these are endangered species. Some are killed in the wild because they bear a resemblance to venomous snakes, others for food or as souvenirs for the more stupid tourist.

The demonstration was fantastic and much closer to a live audience than you would expect. The people running it are all part of the antivenin project and all have been bitten at one time or another. The chap doing the talking (in both Thai and English) was bitten by one of the cobras about 7 months ago. His middle finger and the back of hand required reconstructive surgery and patching up with skin from elsewhere on his arm. Yet he’s still there day after day doing a job that so many people don’t even realise exists.

Not pulling any punches, the first snake brought out was a King cobra. At roughly 5 feet long, it’s amazing to see someone handle it like some kind of sentient rope. Once it was on the ground, an assistant wandered round, keeping its attention. After its turn in the spotlight was over, the senior handler “caught” it again by hand and (holding its head tightly away from the audience) walked up to us and allowed people to touch it. This is the first time I’ve ever touched a snake and it’s a lot softer than I would have thought. It’s also warm, but you can tell by the feel that it’s one long tube of almost solid muscle. It’s also one of the most venomous snakes around, its bite usually being fatal to humans. Unlike many other snakes, when it bites it stays gripped to the victim as its venom is rather thick and needs to be pumped out.

The next snake out was the banded krait, followed by a non-venomous snake with similar colouring. The krait, like the three Monocled cobras that followed, strikes quickly. It bites and releases, settling back to wait for its victim to die.

The final venomous snake to be shown was the Indochinese rat snake. This snake is endangered, but important to the ecology. I’m not sure whether they breed these for release into the wild, but rat snakes (as the name suggest) eat rats, which are hosts and vectors for a myriad of diseases. These snakes, amongst other species, help keep the rat populations down. With them being killed by humans, the rat numbers are not being kept under control.

 There were a handful of other snakes (including one nicknamed the “rainbow” snake due to the way sunlight made it glisten like oil), but I confess I lost track of the names. I have photos of them all and will try to get them onto Fotopic shortly. Finally, the King cobra was brought back out and used to demonstrate “milking”. Essentially, this involved getting it annoyed and then forcing it to bite onto a perspex dish. Its venom trickled out as two vaguely yellow oily streaks.

Once this part of the demonstration was over, two small pythons were literally handed over to the audience. Despite their small size I could really feel the strength in them as they wrapped around me. Especially round my neck! It was rather surreal watching audience members handing snakes to each other. Despite them being moderately docile creatures and “squeezers” rather than “biters” I just can’t imagine anything like this happening back home.

Although only an hour of my time, this was a superb place to visit. I urge anyone with the remotest interest to add this to a “to do” list should they ever visit Bangkok. You can even work it into a shopping trip at the nearby Pat Pong market!

I settled for lunch at A&W having originally intended just to go in for one of their delicious root beers in a tall, frosted glass. The menu was just too tempting. And at less than £1.50 for a large meal, I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

 On the way back, I realised I’d not visited the Siam Ocean World. So I did just that. At 450Baht, it was slightly dearer than the snakes, but I spent almost 90 minutes there and enjoyed it. This is the same place that offers diving with sharks, but that’s definitely out of my price range (and I don’t have enough time) so it’ll wait till I next come to Bangkok.

Now, I’ve not been to The Deep in Hull but people who’ve been haven’t been too impressed. I did visit one of the Sea Life centres in Tynemouth, and again I didn’t think much of it. Ocean World is in the basement of a shopping centre and extends 2 storeys underground. It’s also very well laid out, has interesting plaques next to all the exhibits and a huge variety of waterlife.

The only problem I encountered was taking photographs. The light levels are quite low, but if you use a flash it often bounces off the thick glass walls to no effect. Also, some of the curved surfaces just didn’t want to work with my camera’s autofocus. Hardly something to complain to the management, however. Besides, I got some great photos (the one just above is a favourite).

As well as a multitude of fish, molluscs and the like are a handful of otters, beavers and two seals. The seals are a temporary exhibit, on loan from Japan. Both hve been rescued from the wild, the female with serious chest injuries from which she’s recovered. Their “native” centre is overcrowded with seals and Siam Ocean World had an empty display area ideal for them as a result of the Thai government’s current ban on bird imports. Yes, bird flu even stops penguins being delivered!

 There is even a “hands on” section where you can handle starfish (more fleshy and less rough than you’d expect) and sea cucumbers (soft and slimy… but not!). The tunnel towards the end is spellbinding, with sharks and rays floating over your head. Like the snake farm, I’d recommend this for a visit. It is perhaps a bit pricey, but centres like this must be expensive to maintain.

On the way back, I popped into the Bull’s Head for a quick pint and a look at the papers. The annoying thing with the way the newspapers are “delivered” over here is that they don’t include any supplements. This pretty much means all the football news on a Monday. Grr.

After killing an hour, I wandered through the BTS station to the cinema (going past a Swensons) and watched The Wild. Nice animation, couple of giggles, pretty innocuous Disney storyline.

Walking down the road to Big John’s afterwards, I thought I better have a Thai massage. This time at somewhere fairly reputeable. I do learn from my mistakes. Sometimes. I popped into the massage parlour round the corner from the hostel that had been recommended by several people I’ve met. The proprietor recognised me as a friend of Sanjana’s (the girl I met on my first night in Big John’s) and I got a free drinkie while I waited.

Annoyingly, my back’s been pretty niggly today (probably from hoiking luggage yesterday) and I hoped the massage would help. It didn’t. But it didn’t make it worse either. The massage is rather hefty and I did actually have a small Thai woman standing on me and walking up and down. This might sound OK as she wasn’t the biggest person in the world, but I refer the reader to the laws of physics: Pressure = Force / Area. The force being her weight, but the area being her proportionally teensy feet. Hence much pressure!

Afterwards, I was engaged in much conversation and have exchanged email addresses. As long as I’ve not inadvertantly become engaged to her, that’s fine…

It is now much later than I intended to stay up and I’m off to bed. I have quite a lot of pictures to put on Fotopic and I’ll try to get them up in the morning. Posted by Picasa

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