15 June 2019
Snake vs. Tokay
Siem Reap. You probably already know that I have relocated to Siem Reap, a place where I have spent quite a bit of time, and where I owned a restaurant a bit more than a decade ago. My adopted son Rath lives here, and I now have two grandchildren who have dubbed me "OGD" (Old Grandpa Douglas). After twenty years in Bangkok it just wasn't fun any longer–just noisy, polluted, and stressful. Laid-back, colorful Siem Reap is where I always knew I would end up anyway.
Most people downsize when they retire. But I decided to "supersize" and have ended up in a two-storey, three-bedroom, four bathroom villa with a big garden and a "sala" that can accommodate ten or twelve for dinner outdoors. It's a "villa" because it is within a wall with a gate, as most homes are in this tiny pocket of leafy Siem Reap, not far from the Siem Reap River. "Villa" is not unsuitable for a grand house with a big personality like this one. I named it Villa Khursani after the Bhutan chilies I love so much. It even has its own Facebook page. How many people can say that besides Donald Trump?
Siem Reap is a city in a forest with forests within the city. The northern part town (our neighborhood) is a heavily wooded strip of land along the river, just a block away. Within the town's boundaries are enormous plots of land, larger than a city block, that are walled off and left as nature created them, never to be developed. So we all live very intimately with nature. This part of the world is still somewhat wild.
I'm told that around a dozen people are treated each year in local hospitals for cobra bites. Rath was bitten as a child, nearly died, and was carried by his father on foot about 30 miles to be treated in Siem Reap. He lost a finger and some of the muscles in one hand. I spend most mornings working in the garden and am prepared to come face to face with something that slithers. But I was not prepared for what happened in my ground floor living room last night.
This house is a real treasure, but it is, in many ways, quirky. There is an indoor/outdoor lounge on the second floor that is unlike anything I have ever seen. The bathrooms are big enough for a football team to shower in, if I could only lure one here. Electrical outlets are in all the wrong places. The lighting is a tragic mistake. Then there are the ceilings. Except for the master bedroom, half of the kitchen and half of the ground floor living room, ceilings are exposed beams. So are half of the walls in the upstairs bedrooms. Maybe the builder thought this was quaint in a farmhouse sort of way, or maybe he ran out of money. I'm betting on the latter.
I do not mind the exposed beams, except for a tiny and unintended gap between the exposed and covered parts of living room, directly beneath which is a trail of animal feces on the floor, some of which contained tiny bones. The kind of animal creating this mess was a mystery until about five days ago, when I noticed a large gecko sleeping on the side of a beam directly above the trail of shit.
There are two kind kinds of geckos in this part of the world; the small "jinjoke" which loves to eat mosquitoes and flies and is welcome in most homes, and the larger "tokay," which emits a very loud call matching its name. Thais believe they bring bad luck and kill them if they can. Tokays include jinjokes in their diet. The one defiling my floor was clearly a tokay, and a very, very fat one at that. Think Jabba the Hut fat. I saw him sleeping there three mornings in a row, so I positioned a ladder in the living room so I could climb up to evict him this morning. As it turned out, I didn't have to.
Last evening in the miserable lighting I saw a tail dangling below where Jabba had been sleeping, and grabbed a flashlight. The tail was attached to a bright green snake. Within moments I was Googling "green snake Cambodia." At the very top of the page was "17 Very Dangerous Cambodia Snakes–Venomous and Deadly," among them the green pit viper. My desk is about five meters away. Oh boy.
Some countries have specialists who will go to your home to remove venomous snakes, so I started looking for something like that online. Not finding anything, I had a moment of genuine panic. Rath was not picking up his phone. Mot, my driver of ten years, was helping someone get to the airport. Then I saw a text message from the American guy who owns the landscaping business that cuts my lawn weekly with a very big weed-whacker I call "The Beast." Surely he would know about snakes and how to whack one. Just as he was telling me how Cambodian men love to kill snakes because they believe them all to be poisonous, I heard a thunderous plop. The snake had fallen to the floor. I was terrified.
Now, I am not afraid of snakes. I grew up in the Northern California wine country, where there were plenty of snakes. I kept some as pets, including a wounded baby rattlesnake that did not survive. But I was not going to get too close to this one without knowing what it was. I did get close enough to it to see that it wrapped itself around Jabba so tightly that the old guy was either crushed or suffocated. I phoned Boren, Rath's baby brother. He does my laundry (picks up and delivers, he's charming, inexpensive, and does a great job. Please use him. He needs the money). He's young, has way too much testosterone, and must also know something about dispatching a dangerous snake.
(Photo at the top of me 11 years and 53kg ago at the Red Cross Serepentarium in Bangkok. It's a great show if you are interested in snakes. They run a milking program for venomous snakes from throughout Southeast Asia, so they can provide antivenom for just about any kind of snake on short notice. If you are not squeamish you can play with a python, like I did.)
During the ten minutes it took Boren to arrive, I summoned my courage and got a little closer to the snake. It was still wrapped around Jabba, its head erect in a defensive posture. Armed with a broom and the kind of a dustpan with long handle used by people too lazy to bend over, I got closer. The snake did not strike the dustpan, so my hunch was that it was probably not venomous. So with one quick move I swept it up, and fifteen seconds later the snake and its intended dinner were on my lawn. (My villa is only one of five or six residences in Siem Reap with an actual lawn.) By this time the snake had positioned itself so that it could swallow old Jabba. Several different people have told me that this snake eats either the gecko's heart or its liver. I honestly do not see how that would be possible since he was trying to wrap his jaws around the tokay's head.
Boren arrived and we watched the process with a flashlight while debating whether to dispatch the snake or not. "If I don't kill it he'll just keep coming back," was Boren's argument. I did not think that it was fair to the snake to kill it just for doing its job. And, after all, it had saved me the nasty job of removing the tokay. So into a plastic bag it went, Jabba and all, to be liberated at an empty lot at the end of the road. I poured a very tall Jack Daniels on the rocks. Or two. I suspect the snake eventually gave up his meal. Some snakes can unhinge their jaws to consume plus size prey, but he could not possibly have swallowed the whole thing, it was so large. But I will look for a snake with a huge belly when I take my afternoon walk today.
If you visit Siem Reap, chances are very, very slim that you will see a snake of any kind. I have seen very long skins that had been molted by cobras on Phnom Kulen, but never a live cobra. They are quite shy. Chances are equally slim that you will see a tokay. You might see jinjokes. They're everywhere and completely harmless. To this day my only encounter with wildlife was the last time I stayed at Rambutan Resort. A tiny fruit bat had taken a rest on the back of some drapes while my patio door was open. (I later closed the door.) The poor thing spent the night flying around the room clicking in search of a way out. I felt very bad for it. They are more happy wrapping themselves in a banana leaf.
And did I say "retire?" Never. I'm still working, developing three tourism, and one real estate-related websites and a magazine story or two. I am still helping Purple Dragon customers arrange their trips through our local guides in most places where we have worked. And I have this ginormous house with terrible lighting, a kitchen and bathroom that need makeovers, a sala that needs twinkly lights, and a garden that needs love. And that's practically a career in itself. I'm not even fully unpacked yet.
If you are in Siem Reap and we actually know each other, please do not feel slighted that you have not yet received an invitation to visit. I lived for more than a month in utter chaos in Bangkok as I prepared to move, then in utter chaos after each trip across the border with bits and pieces of my household. In between trips I slept in a condo with no electricity. (The building was afraid I would stick them with a bill I had already paid.) I am only just now beginning to feel settled, so it will not be long. My new BBQ will not be delivered until next week anyway.
Your own bedroom at Villa Khursani. Interested in spending part of your year in Siem Reap? You can have your own bedroom at Villa Khursani for up to three months (need not be consecutive) a year for as long as I live here. I spent 20 years in my Bangkok condo and 25 in my Victorian San Francisco townhouse, which tells you how much I love moving. And people in my family live to be very old.
Unlike a hotel, where you are insulated from most culture and community, spending time in a place like Villa Khursani us a genuine slice-of-life experience with kids playing in the road in front of the house, and sometimes music from two nearby Buddhist temples and monastery. It's calm. There's a little shack next door that's like a Cambodian 7-Eleven, where you can buy cold beer, water and instant noodles and a lot more We buy ice cubes and charcoal there. They have no refrigeration so a block of ice is delivered every morning by a truck that has back down the road because it cannot turn around.
Pub Street is about eight minutes away. Transportation around town is only a phone call away. We have one tuktuk and one "PassApp" (Indian-style mini taxi) that are operated by close friends and never far away. If you are interested shoot me an email. If you are considering retiring here, we have a way to save you a lot of time, money and grief beginning in September: https://www.SiemReapRentals.c0m
Next time: How I carried the entire contents of a 93 square meter condo across a border in five miserable trips, and why am thinking about a shopping excursion to IKEA to do it one more time.
P.S., 2 July: Days later, Boren remembered to tell me that he had stopped at the construction hole into which he had deposited the snake when he delivered my laundry the next morning. There was no sign of a snake or Jabba's corpse. Either something significantly larger had eaten both of them, or the little green snake had its best meal of the year.