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Of Cobras, Cockroaches and Kings


My son David recently went to exotic Thailand. He stayed in bustling Bangkok and toured ancient Chiang Mai and it was an enlightening experience to say the least. In a way I went with him, and not just in spirit. Let me explain.

 

As I write this, on the desk beside me is a small, white alarm clock. David lives in Boston and I live in Minneapolis. A while back, on a stopover to visit, he borrowed the clock. Then, mistakenly or not, he packed it in his luggage. On several subsequent visits, he forgot to return it. I could sense that he liked it, and guess what made the trip?

With a population of over 5 million, cosmopolitan and crowded Bangkok is the capital and largest city of a country once known as Siam. As perhaps nowhere else in the world, in "the city that never sleeps" history and high-tech come face to face. Bangkok began on the bank of a river as a community of elephant paths and canals. Construction of its first temple began in the 16th century. Today, His Majesty the King of Thailand resides in the opulent royal palace, yet he is a ham radio operator. Though Thailand is historic and mysterious, its Internet sites are among the most sophisticated in the world. And from an Internet café, David kept in touch with me via e-mail. Herein are some of his experiences.

Bangkok is a city of surprises. On his way to visit a temple, David was shocked when a man rushed from the crowd wielding a huge boa constrictor and thrust it around David's neck, where it hung and undulated. The man smiled and suggested photos. After several were taken he pointed to a sign, "Pictures With Snake $10." It was his livelihood, his gig, his racket, his scam. David paid the bill and went on his way - happy to be leaving the snake behind.

Though most people in Bangkok were casual and friendly, the city was filthy. One day he was strolling when it began to rain, and it soon became torrential. As he slogged along, the storm sewers became full to overflowing and the streets filled with rivers of brown sewer back-up. He was blocks from the safety of his hotel but pressed on. The water rose, at first shoe deep, then knee deep. He was wearing shorts, and felt a sharp pinch on his leg and looked down. A dripping, inundated cockroach, of the giant Southeast Asian variety, was clinging to his skin. When it began to crawl up toward what it presumed to be warm and dry, he flicked it off mercilessly and then noticed hundreds, no thousands of roaches in the same predicament, riding the swells of rainwater and sewage, some thrashing wildly, others motionless, having already succumbed to their untimely fate.

Arriving at his hotel, he took a long, hot shower and then placed the hotel's hair dryer into one of his thoroughly soaked shoes. He called housekeeping for a second one for the other shoe, a request which became the source of some confusion. The bellhop brought another dryer to the door, but wanted the first that was presumably not working. Eventually grasping the situation, he departed, all smiles.

The solid gold Buddha that was lost for many years. Copyright David Priest Temples and religious artifacts are ubiquitous in Bangkok. Gold-covered statues of Buddha are everywhere. But one day David visited a small, out-of-the-way temple, Wat Traimit, that houses an extraordinary one. Sculpted of gold in the 15th century, it weighs 11,000 pounds. Seeing it was amazing. But more amazing is that this huge image of enormous value was lost for over a century. Lost? How could that happen? During the 18th century, the Burmese army was pillaging the area, and the statue was camouflaged by a layer of plaster and later moved to a deserted temple. Amazingly, people forgot where it was. About 30 years ago it was rediscovered by accident when a piece of plaster chipped off, revealing, once again, the largest solid gold object in the world.

Visiting the Bangkok Snake Farm, a Red Cross facility that produces anti-venom by milking poison from snakes, proved both fascinating and frightening. Within the facility is a small amphitheater with rows of tiered seating overlooking a stage. About 40 people were in their seats waiting for the show. They were a mixture of tourists and Thais, many of them children. Several official-looking men strode silently and grimly onto the stage. The leader looked up and gestured for people to move down and gather more closely. The audience, including David at a safe distance in the top row, complied and crowded around the men.

Cobra at the snake farm in Bangkok that no one was afraid of. Copyright David Priest

 

Suddenly a burlap bag was produced and dumped onto the ground. At the crowd's feet was a 6-foot venom-spitting cobra. David was wedged in with the other people and was terrified because there was no barrier between the spectators and the snake, no way of intercepting it should it attack. But not everyone appeared concerned. Next to him was a Thai woman with a small child. With the snake no more than 5 feet away, she began fanning her child with a bright red fan, drawing the cobra's attention. It reared up and, transfixed, began rocking in cadence with her motion. No one except David seemed horrified, not the mother, not the snake handlers, not the audience. He waited for the inevitable strike. But, thankfully, it didn't come. The serpent lost interest and turned toward its trainers, hissing menacingly before being snatched up by a handler and stuffed back into its sack. Departing, David was shaken but unscathed.

One day he took a two-hour flight to northern Thailand to visit ancient Chiang Mai, the country's second largest city, but a world apart from Bangkok. Near the borders of Burma and Laos, it is a beautiful and clean mountain community. Nonetheless, it is not without negatives, being located in the golden triangle, a major focus for opium production.

Statue of the peripatetic elephant that selected the site for a temple in Chiang Mai. Copyright David PriestTwo of David's experiences involved elephants, one of them in Chiang Mai. There he visited the city's most famous temple, an elephant figuring prominently in its history. Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is a spectacular mountaintop sanctuary 3000-feet above sea level. According to legend, the site for its construction was chosen in a most unusual fashion. In 1388, a monk placed an ancient relic of Buddha on an elephant's back and turned the animal loose. Wherever it stops, he declared, a temple will be constructed to house the religious treasure. The elephant set off up the mountainside and didn't pause at any convenient location. Higher and higher it climbed, wending its way to the summit, where it finally stopped. And there the emperor, King Kuna, constructed the temple which today houses a life-sized statue of the peripatetic pachyderm.

Copyright David PriestOn another occasion David got up close and personal with real elephants, visiting a community in the countryside that raises them. Living side by side with human handlers, they are treated as part of the family. David rode on one of the animals and it was different from anything he expected. You have no sense of its size, he relates, except that you are elevated from the ground. You see is its head and large flapping ears, but the head seems unexpectedly small. They have no unusual odor but, surprisingly, have long, thick, black hair.

They are exceptionally agile. David's was able to negotiate a steep, narrow, muddy mountain path that he would never have attempted himself. He also watched them play soccer with a huge ball. Instead of lumbering, as we picture them, they could nimbly change direction, kick the ball accurately, and run faster than he ever imagined.

He flew home safely to Boston. I phoned him. "How did the alarm clock work?" "Perfectly. I couldn't have gotten along without it. When it's day here, it's night there.""Where is it now?" I knew he liked it. "I'll bring it home the next time I visit." And this time he did. I look at that clock now with renewed respect. Thailand is an exotic and captivating place. And in one small way, I've been there.

© 2000 by James D. Priest

In addition to David, the following sources were used in preparing this article. The web sites provide visitor information about Thailand.

http://www.escati.simplenet.com/bangkok_thailand.htm
http://www.pixtoriz.com/bgkktems.htm
http://asem.inter.net.th/bangkok/index.html
http://newpaper.asia1.com.sg/journey/travel/thailand/thai.html
http://www.chiangmai-online.com/

Cobra at the snake farm in Bangkok that no one was afraid of. Copyright David Priest

Suddenly a burlap bag was produced and dumped onto the ground. At the crowd's feet was a 6-foot venom-spitting cobra. David was wedged in with the other people and was terrified because there was no barrier between the spectators and the snake, no way of intercepting it should it attack. But not everyone appeared concerned. Next to him was a Thai woman with a small child. With the snake no more than 5 feet away, she began fanning her child with a bright red fan, drawing the cobra's attention. It reared up and, transfixed, began rocking in cadence with her motion. No one except David seemed horrified, not the mother, not the snake handlers, not the audience. He waited for the inevitable strike. But, thankfully, it didn't come. The serpent lost interest and turned toward its trainers, hissing menacingly before being snatched up by a handler and stuffed back into its sack. Departing, David was shaken but unscathed.

One day he took a two-hour flight to northern Thailand to visit ancient Chiang Mai, the country's second largest city, but a world apart from Bangkok. Near the borders of Burma and Laos, it is a beautiful and clean mountain community. Nonetheless, it is not without negatives, being located in the golden triangle, a major focus for opium production.

Statue of the peripatetic elephant that selected the site for a temple in Chiang Mai. Copyright David PriestTwo of David's experiences involved elephants, one of them in Chiang Mai. There he visited the city's most famous temple, an elephant figuring prominently in its history. Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is a spectacular mountaintop sanctuary 3000-feet above sea level. According to legend, the site for its construction was chosen in a most unusual fashion. In 1388, a monk placed an ancient relic of Buddha on an elephant's back and turned the animal loose. Wherever it stops, he declared, a temple will be constructed to house the religious treasure. The elephant set off up the mountainside and didn't pause at any convenient location. Higher and higher it climbed, wending its way to the summit, where it finally stopped. And there the emperor, King Kuna, constructed the temple which today houses a life-sized statue of the peripatetic pachyderm.

Copyright David PriestOn another occasion David got up close and personal with real elephants, visiting a community in the countryside that raises them. Living side by side with human handlers, they are treated as part of the family. David rode on one of the animals and it was different from anything he expected. You have no sense of its size, he relates, except that you are elevated from the ground. You see is its head and large flapping ears, but the head seems unexpectedly small. They have no unusual odor but, surprisingly, have long, thick, black hair.

They are exceptionally agile. David's was able to negotiate a steep, narrow, muddy mountain path that he would never have attempted himself. He also watched them play soccer with a huge ball. Instead of lumbering, as we picture them, they could nimbly change direction, kick the ball accurately, and run faster than he ever imagined.

He flew home safely to Boston. I phoned him. "How did the alarm clock work?" "Perfectly. I couldn't have gotten along without it. When it's day here, it's night there.""Where is it now?" I knew he liked it. "I'll bring it home the next time I visit." And this time he did. I look at that clock now with renewed respect. Thailand is an exotic and captivating place. And in one small way, I've been there.

2000 by James D. Priest

In addition to David, the following sources were used in preparing this article. The web sites provide visitor information about Thailand.

http://www.escati.simplenet.com/bangkok_thailand.htm
http://www.pixtoriz.com/bgkktems.htm
http://asem.inter.net.th/bangkok/index.html
http://newpaper.asia1.com.sg/journey/travel/thailand/thai.html
http://www.chiangmai-online.com/