Bangkok Snake



David Whitley, not the greatest fan of snakes at the best of times, gets the chills as he visits a farm where cobras are milked for their venom


Ugh. His last film may have been a cinematic travesty, but Indiana Jones certainly has the right idea on snakes. There’s something about them, even the feeble non-venomous ones that are about as dangerous as soppy Labrador puppies, that makes me shudder. They’re fascinating, sure, but I want them safely kept a certain distance away from me.


That distance is a little bit further than it is at Bangkok’s Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute Snake Farm. The less-than-grand stand we’re sat in looks a little too ramshackle and the barriers look a little too undeterring. Especially when the guy in the wellies starts swinging the king cobras round by the tail.


The farm is not just a tourist attraction. It’s a World Health Organisation-backed research centre. It produces antivenin and studies toxicology. It also acts, at least partly, as a natural history museum of the slithery kind.


As snakes sleep in their glass cages, stats and trivia are reeled off. The mangrove pit viper is quick to strike when disturbed; the reticulated python can grow up to ten metres long. But it’s the cobras that have that magical allure. Kipling and co have built a handsome mythology around these romanticised serpents.


The conservationists can claim what they like; as far as I’m concerned, they’re horrible, vicious bastards.


A video upstairs shows the effects a cobra bite has. Death from one goes a little like this: progressive paralysis of the skeletal and peripheral muscles, then a sleep-like paralysis, spasms and excess salivation, then fatal respiratory failure. It is not a nice way to go. Even amongst those saved in time, 25% end up with severe muscle damage. And several thousand people a year in Thailand are saved in time.


Knowing this, it’s hard to understand why the handlers are so nonchalant while conducting the show. They initially give the cobras plenty of room, but chat away as if the snakes are not there, owning the floor. Occasionally one springs into action and goes for the handler’s legs. It becomes fairly clear what those welly boots are for.


Then the handlers pick the snakes up and swing them around by the tail. Presumably it’s about momentum – if the snake is swinging fast enough, it can’t co-ordinate well enough to get into a truly dangerous position. Even so, the fury is there. They make lunges, thwarted by gravity and speed of travel.


When the king cobras come out, I feel I’ve seen enough. They are astoundingly big, although not quite as venomous as their smaller cousins. I make a cowardly skulk towards the end of the stand and make my exit. The only way to do so without walking back in front of the massed crowd and looking like a chicken is to nip round the back.


I turn the corner, and I’m suddenly met with precisely what I didn’t want to see: another giant cobra being swung around by the tail. This is where the handlers are bringing them out from, and they’re not expecting visitors.


One “Woah!” is all I need to back off as far as possible.

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. Handily, it’s just around the corner from the snake farm






In a city of knock-offs and fake designer gear, David Whitley discovers what the anti-counterfeiting operation is up to


A stroll down Thalan Silom and through the Patpong Night Bazaar reveals a cavalcade of blatantly obvious fakery. It’s a world of dodgy D&G belts, fraudulent Facebook flip-flops, blagged bags and rip-off replica kits. Obviously photocopied DVD covers sit in plastic, waiting for a recently burned blank disc to be slid inside; watches are Swiss in the Swiss Toni sense of the word and the Oakley sunglasses probably offer all the sun protection of rubbing lard all over your eyeballs. It’s even possible to buy an unlicensed 7-Eleven t-shirt, should you wish to show your allegiance to your favourite convenience store without being loyal enough to it to buy the genuine merchandise.


For connoisseurs of Ralph Laurain’t, Phooey Vuitton and Hello Shitty, this must be some kind of paradise. Personally, I don’t get it. If the point of being clad in Versace, Rolex and Jimmy Choo is the quality, then you’re not getting the quality. If the point is to walk around showing labels off to people, then getting faked versions of those labels will only serve to make you even more of a phenomenal arsehole.


Thais tend to have an enterprisingly liberal approach to intellectual property law. Counterfeiting is often seen as fair game, much to the disgust of multinational corporations that rather like making lots and lots of money from selling expensive things.


Elsewhere in Bangkok, it’s possible to get a glimpse into the fight against just about everything on the Patpong Night Bazaar.


In the south of the city lies the Supalai Grand office tower. It is the home to Tilleke and Gibbins, a law firm specialising in international property on the behalf of numerous corporate clients around the world. If you ask them nicely (it’s best to set up an appointment at least a day in advance), they’ll show you around their carefully acquired Museum of Counterfeit Goods.


There’s quite a collection, with some of it amusing and some of it deadly serious. The huge wall of T-shirts is the immediate attention-grabber. All are labelled with an F for fake or G for Genuine, and the two different approaches become immediately apparent. Some are attempts to pass off copies as the genuine article – such as the knock-off football kits – while others are trying to cash in on well-known brands. There is, for example, a shirt with a Ralph Lauren-esque crocodile on the front going under the world famous “Chemise Lizzard” brand.


Moving on, there are attempts to show how best to identify the fakes. In the shoes section, for example, the illegal imitations from Vietnam are obvious from the cheap glue used to stick them together.


Elsewhere, the fakes are hilariously poor. The ‘Tamborine’ version of Toblerone looks like it has been wrapped in coloured-in A4 paper. Others are perplexingly pointless. Why would anyone go to the bother of creating fake Staedtler pencils, for instance?


But the more serious side of things raises involuntary chills. One case is full of fake medicines – heaven only knows what’s inside them – and the cheap and nasty phone batteries could lead to some very unpleasant incidents.


But perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is how these counterfeits come to be in the museum. I’m told that the companies being ripped off ask Tilleke and Gibbins to keep an eye on the people infringing their copyrights. Thus, when the rip-offs are spotted, they’re bought as proof. The most reliable customers of these counterfeit goods, therefore, are the very companies who want to get rid of the counterfeits.


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park. It’s a good option in the Silom area.