In the morning we went to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute and Snake Farm’s 11AM snake milking. The Institute was founded in 1923 and is one of the largest herpetological research facilities in the world, not a tourist trap at all. Since Thailand has 160 varieties of snakes, 48 of which are venomous, they need a local production facility using the venom of snakes to make antivenom. They raise the snakes there, milk them of venom, and then bring it to a horse farm; the horses are then immunized with distilled and diluted venom and become blood donors. Their blood plasma is sent to Bangkok and purified and shipped to hospitals and poison centers. They also make a rabies immunoglobin and operate a travelers immunization clinic, where they test for STD’s. They’ve been breeding the snakes since 1994. It was fun watching them catch, grab and milk the snakes (onto a clear plate) – I really just wanted to buzz by the place, see the venom-milking, and do more temple-watching, but I became really interested. Here’s what I learned:
-There are three types of these snakes: neurotoxic (paralytic) – cobras, king cobras, and kraits; those causing tissue and blood clotting: vipers; and snakes that are both neurotoxic and destroy muscular tissue (sea snakes).
-Many bites from venomous snakes don’t cause evenomation, the snake just wanting you to go away.
-They’re pretty much into you applying an elastic pressure bandage to slow lymphatic spread of the venom but not using a tourniquet or ice – just getting the hell to the hospital.
-Some snakes have heat sensors.
-They don’t have ears but feel vibrations.
-Snakes hunt mostly at night and prefer shade.
-Water snakes eat fish and eels.
-The largest poisonous snake is the king cobra, which can be 3 1/2-4 1/2 meters long. It eats other snakes and hisses when it hunts to warn off other predators.
-The cobra’s poison affects the nervous system and paralyzes its prey (and a human) within 30 minutes.
-The Siamese cobra strikes straight forward and down, so handlers reach over the top and onto the back of the necks to grab it. It hunts mostly at night, expands its hood when warning; it can strike when expanded but not move forward.
-A spitting cobra can blind you at two meters.
-Pythons are constrictors and eat rabbits.
-The viper’s poison acts on blood and vessels, causing hemmoraging – intense pain – no paralysis but heart/kidney failure in an hour.
-A snake lover is called a herpetologist.
After the milking, we rushed over to the Sri Mariamman Temple (Wat Phra Si Maha Umathewi). The taxi drivers know it as Wat Khaek, which is what the Thais were calling any non-Buddhist wat; it means Guest Temple, which must not please the “guests” very much! This one was a small, very colorful Hindu one from the 1860′s, with multicolor deity icon statues all over the side and a copper dome. For $2, people were buying trays of marigolds and oil which they were then pouring on the images (the images were covered, for this reason, in a saran-wrap plastic.) They were making their offerings with both hands. There were two men dressed like something out of a 50′s Hollywood film, wearing togas and turbans with their hair tied back in ponytails, both a little pudgy and a little muscular. One carried a tray with an oil lamp, ash, red powder, and holy water. We asked him about some of the deities and where to find a vegetarian restaurant nearby, and he took a liking to us. (They, and the Sikhs, were much more open to interacting with us than were the monks, of course.) He blessed us with the red powder and ash on our forehead, but wouldn’t purify us with holy water, which hurt my feelings a little. I left wearing the mark of Hindu but pondering a zen koan: is it better to be blessed or purified? I found Cos outside of course – there was no way he was going to go in after what Allah told him yesterday – but what pissed me off was that I later found out that he’d exposed about 90 minutes of video filming the snake farm but not one second on the outside of Sri Mariamman.
We went to Monk’s Bowl Village, where we were trapped because there were no other tourists. They make the black alms-bowls there by hand, hammered from eight separate pieces of steel (representing the eight spokes of the wheel of dharma which represent Buddhism’s eightfold path) which is then coated with black lacquer. They weren’t making them because it was the Thai New Year, Songkran, so we had to escape people trying to sell them to us anyway.
We headed toward Khao San Road to see the preliminary festivities for Songkran, and I needed to go to the bathroom, which was funny because I’d just used it an hour before. This time the diarrhea was pretty bad, and I was feeling a little weak. Dilek and Cos brought rain panchos to protect themselves from being soaked during Songkran festivities, which I thought was overreacting, because yeah they splash water, but the official date is the 13th to the 15th and today’s the 12th. But Dilek had Cos give me his pancho, which I wore, and the second we hit Khao San a guy poured an entire bottle of ice water down my back. Now I was wet and it was, oddly, the weather was 20 degrees cooler than it had been – it was around 75-80 when the entire time in Thailand it had been 95-105. Next thing that happens is a bunch of teenagers, smiling, say “Happy birthday!” and touch my face, covering it with wet plaster.
OK, this means war. I buy two chilled bottles of water from the street sellers and a rapid-fire semiautomatic water pistol, and head into the mob. Imagine Mardi Gras without the racism, without the classism, without the sex, without the crime, without the drunk people vomiting or peeing into the streets. This kind of thing would never work in America – toddlers, grandmothers, tuk-tuk drivers firing waterpistols and spreading white plaster all over each other in a blocks-long moshpit, without women being fondled, without any crime, without pee or anthrax put into the water. Just the world’s biggest water-fight, no holds barred.
Elif and I are wet to the point where you cannot get any wetter. My semiautomatic is great for repeat fire, but the one-blast pump guns are killer, a huge shotgun thick spritz of cold water that makes your heart jump. What I do is get up to somebody who has one, let him nail me with the blast, and then when he has to reload, I chase him down the street, nailing him again and again with my thinner spray until he ducks for cover, at which point his friends blast me. Time and again a toddler will come out from an apartment with her grandparent, who’ll send the toddler forward to shoot me. The toddler will shoot me, and the grandparent will insist that I shoot the toddler back, which I’m loathe to do, but they insist, so I shoot the toddler in the kneecaps or something and the toddler will run inside and cry, and the grandparent will giggle and thank me. I run off into the crowd. I fire into a school bus, which nails a girl in the face and the whole bus roars with laughter. I nail a tuk-tuk driver in the ass when he’s bending over counting change, which makes him roar with laughter. A pickup-truck full of girls nails me right after I nailed the driver. A couple of kids are standing outside their apartment with a trash barrel and a hose, and they squirt me with the hose. I realized that you cannot win against an endless source of water, but the hose wasn’t such a problem because at least it wasn’t iced, and it helped wash some of the plaster off my glasses. I charged at them with my gun, and then asked them if I could refill from their hose, which they let me do; once I was done, I thanked them, fired off a shot at them and ran. I got cornered by a group of 10-year-olds, who chased me into an alley and I was in big trouble. I ran back around them, getting nailed from all directions, and squatted behind a pickup. They dispersed and attacked me from all directions from the other side of the truck. I would pop my head over the truck, fire down on them, and duck down, or fire around the front. Once I escaped, we headed to the park where they were doing the Sand Chedi competition. Huge castles made out of sand and plaster; my favorite was one of a ruin of Chiang Mai, where the sand and plaster were made to look like crumbling brick. The people at the park were kinder and gentler than at Khao San, merely anointing our heads with plaster and water rather than pummeling us with fat blasts of ice water, but I was becoming very focused on finding a bathroom again. They had two buses parked which were bathrooms, a men’s (no line) and a women’s (huge line), and I went to the men’s and realized that I was not all right at all. I got out, walked a block, and turned around and used it again. I was whining that I wanted to stay and see the Ramayana, and Elif said she’d dance the Ramayana for me in our bedroom, we should go back to the hotel.
Finding a cab was a bitch. Now we had three problems to deal with – the traffic (it was rush hour) and the drivers’ unwillingness to go somewhere north through it; the Thai no-amount-of-money-will-get-me-to-work-hard factor; and the problem that we were covered in water and plaster. I offered outrageous sums of money to cab drivers who wouldn’t take us. I started sitting in the back seats, getting it nice and wet, and leaving the door open when I got out. Finally a very jovial guy pulls up, wishes us happy Songkran, and takes us to the hotel. The whole way, he’s telling jokes; we tell him about the south, he says there’s too many Moslems there, and Islam is so loud – 5 times a day, the minarets blast, ALLAH!!!! – and we’re all cracking up, except Cos, who’s glowering in the passenger seat. He says we Americans are as sweet as sugar in your coffee. We arrive and insist that Cos give the driver his cowboy hat as a tip. Now Cos gets his dear religion ridiculed and has to give up his hat. I scurry inside and head straight for the bathroom lobby. By the time I reach the room the air conditioning in the hotel has given me ferocious shivers, so I do what Jeff did when he came back to our dorm room from February crew practice in college – I headed straight for the hot shower. Except that there was no hot water. I threw on layers upon layers of clothes and got in bed. I sweated all over myself all night and stunk up the sheets.
Bangkok General Hospital was a thoroughly lovely, modern facility, with a hotel, fountains, the works. I was attended to by the cutest nurses, all standing over me and giggling, it felt like the ending of Clockwork Orange – I was cured, all right! Yes, I’ll have one of you, and one of you…Finally the doctor shows up, the loveliest of all, Dr. Pornsuk. I’m thinking, only Bangkok would have a doctor named pornsuk. I want to give a stool sample, but she sees me for a white farang, gives me pills of many colors for abdominal pain and diarrhea and electrolyte powder and sends me on my way.
The others went to the Weekend Market again while I slept in the hotel, and Cos was being so annoying that Elif and Dilek took a cab back and had him take one back later. He returned without having bought luggage, so there was no way of getting it all on the plane – he lied that they didn’t have any, which cracked them up, rather than just saying he forgot.
I spent the day watching movies, sitting on the toilet, eating room service, and wallowing in the sweaty stench that was our sheets. I saw some Gene Hackman/Denzel Washington piece of crap about a nuclear submarine mutiny. I saw Holly Hunter in a dramatic reenactment of the Harlan County, KY miners’ strike. I saw the worst independent movie ever made, Route 395, twice. And I saw the Elizabeth Hurley PG-rated cocktease, Bedazzled, twice. Not the best of days.
Back at Bangkok General, they still insisted it was food contamination and not dysentery, as I wasn’t throwing up. They gave me more pills and powder and a shot of some anti-diarrhetic, as well as a medical certificate for air travel signed by one Dr. Duangpen Thirabanjascik. We stopped at a supermarket on the way home to buy food for the plane so we wouldn’t have to eat Turkmenistan Airlines’ month-old food. Cos and Dilek went to buy some luggage. The leg of the flight from Bangkok to Ashkabad was one of the least-pleasant of my life. I read The Merchant of Venice while thinking we are going to die, we are going to die. The whole flight, the plane rocked left to right in exact sync with one of the engines, which was vroom vrooming, pause, vroom vroom, pause. For the whole six hours I was sure we were doomed. At Ashkabad airport, there was a crush of Turks and Turkmens trying to get on the (different! hooray!) plane going to Istanbul, and the same soldier whom I’d talked with 24 days before spotted me immediately, grinned, and passed us through, in front of everyone, while yelling at everyone else, “You, go! Get out of here! Move it!” in a very Turkmen way. I patted him on the shoulder as we passed him, saying to him, “You, move it!” and winking. I’m sure he remembers me today – how many Americans do you get talking to a Turkmen in Turkish in Ashkabad?
The last leg of the flight was amazing. Smooth as butter.
In the morning I went to the Bostanci emergency clinic, where they asked for a stool sample (“That shouldn’t be a problem. Let me reach down my pants and give you one.”) and an hour later revealed that I did indeed have amoebic dysentery – E. Hystolytica and lots of mucus in my stool. Some pills, and the diarrhea was gone in 3 days and the cramping in 6.
Dilek’s officemates paid for the damage to their offices themselves, as Dilek had been there for decades, except the travel agency downstairs, who had the most damage and tried to use the opportunity to upgrade all their computer equipment and furniture and bill Dilek $10,000 for it. But they made the mistake of buying new stuff without having the old damage assessed, and the insurance company didn’t buy it, and their insurance company talked to Dilek, who offered $1800 and settled for $2000. A lot of money at these wages but not as bad as it could have been. All in all, a pretty great trip.
- Songkran (vagabondhighheels.wordpress.com)