Sixty years ago, a doctor from Thailand had a vision for his small, dusty old village – to convert it into a major tourist attraction. And in an attempt to do so, he actually convinced his fellow villagers to raise pet snakes in their homes, putting them in shows for tourists. Surprisingly the ploy worked, and today the village of Ban Kok Sa-Nga in Thailand’s Northeastern Province of Khon Kaen is better known as ‘The Cobra Village’, among tourists.
All of the 140-odd homes in Ban Kok Sa-Nga have at least one pet snake, which they place outside in wooden boxes. The pet snakes range from deadly ones, such as king cobras or monocled cobras, to less dangerous ones such as copperheaded racers and pythons. The atmosphere in the village itself is always festive; it is one big snake show theme attraction. The snakes are bred in captivity and put together in daredevil shows such as – you won’t believe this – man vs. snake boxing matches.
Obviously not for the light-hearted, these shows involve the handlers taunting an already enraged giant king cobra. As the snakes slither across the stage, the men pull their tails to provoke them further. Despite all the weird stunts that take place in these shows, what spooks out most tourists is the level of comfort the villagers share with the snakes. Most people are terrified of these creatures, but the people of Ban Kok Sa-Nga don’t even bat an eye-lid. Even the children are completely at ease; they are taught how to handle snakes, how to fight them and feed them, at a very young age.
Another disturbing aspect of the Cobra Village is the poor standard of safety. Rumors are plenty about a number of tourists having died from snake attacks. It’s unclear if they are true or not, but the locals certainly have suffered. For instance, the village’s top snake-handler, 72-year-old Bualee Chai has been bitten 21 times – a fact that he’s rather proud of. He’s been in the business for over half a century and sometimes tours Thailand with his cobras, putting on shows. For proof of his injuries, he has a few gaps in his hands where there should have been fingers. “If I didn’t get my fingers amputated, I would have died.
The last time I was bit and lost a finger was December 26, 2004. It was the exact moment the tsunami hit Thailand.” Surprisingly, Chai refuses to take any anti-venom after a bite, because the technique for extracting venom is cruel and hurtful to the snakes. This, from a man who would not hesitate to kick a cobras head and hold it down on the stage during a show…
But it is true that these villagers truly consider their snakes a part of their families. “If one of my snakes died, I would be very sad,” says Chai. “They’ve been with me for years. When snakes in our village die, we make offerings for them at the temple.” But despite all the attachment that they have with snakes, the villagers of Ban Kok Sa-Nga do not make much money out of their snake shows. The real cash is in fact, made from something completely different – rare, locally grown herbs that are sold in the cobra show market.
The most famous of these herbs is the ‘wan paya ngoo’, which is what is mixed with lime and used as treatment for a snake-bite. Chai claims that this herb can cure bites from any venomous animal, like millipedes and scorpions. Eating the herb is supposed to make a person feel better in 30 minutes.
At Ban Kok Sa-Nga, snakes are not only bred but also purchased. Villagers are ready to shell out 5,000 ($160) to 6,000 ($200) baht for a snake. But they are never ready to sell. Even if the snakes aren’t too profitable, they continue to buy them out of sheer love. “It’s not just for business,” says Chai. “Very few of the snakes are put in the show. We just buy them to take care of them.” For those who are not too keen on viewing snake-fighting shows, there are other attractions on display. Markets selling beautiful handicrafts, souvenirs, toys and clothes are plenty. If you ever happen to be in Thailand, you wouldn’t want to miss this unique Cobra Village, where men and snakes live together in harmony.