BANGKOK, Thailand — Lurking near Bangkok's raunchy bars and elegant temples are beautiful, exotic creatures shunned by Thais and tourists alike--deadly cobras, banded kraits and vipers.
"Many poisonous snakes live in the city's suburbs," said Uthorn Wangruamkang, a venom extractor at a snake farm. "A bite from a king cobra can kill you in three minutes."
Bottle-green vipers and black-and-yellow kraits hiss and writhe at the Bangkok Snake Farm in the city center, just a quick slither from business and shopping districts.
"We try not to let them escape," Uthorn said. "At night when it feels aggressive, a krait can chase and bite someone, like a dog does."
About 2,500 people die each year from snakebites in Southeast Asia, experts say. Uthorn said that probably hundreds are killed in Thailand each year. Many of the most lethal snake species live in the Bangkok area.
Many lives are saved by serum made with venom from the farm, funded by the Red Cross. Uthorn said it has to be administered quickly to be of much help.
Dozens of tourists flock to the farm each day to watch venom being extracted from snakes.
Snake handlers first caress and prod their dangerous charges, leaping back if they raise their heads and seem about to strike.
Horror and Delight
The snakes slide and dart across the ground flicking forked tongues at the crowd, to the horror of most adults and screams of delight from the children.
Among the most common of Thailand's poisonous snakes is the Siamese cobra, which looks like a harmless four-foot earthworm until it rears up and spreads its hood to reveal a mottled blue-and-white throat.
To extract the venom, a handler squeezes the front of the snake's head to make a tablespoonful of the clear liquid ooze onto a plate inserted in its mouth--"Enough to kill 10 people," Uthorn said.
For the snake, the process is extremely painful. "Many don't stay alive here for more than a few months," Uthorn said. "It's too uncomfortable for them."
Farm's Pet Python
Apart from poisonous snakes, the farm is home to an eight-foot python that wraps itself around tourists but prefers to spend its time eating the white mice that handlers put in its cage.
Venom-extracting can be a dangerous business even with serum available, Uthorn said. Several handlers have been bitten, and Uthorn once needed months to recover from a particularly venomous attack.
Experts say that Thailand now has fewer snakebite-deaths than in recent years, partly because more serum is held in hospitals across the country.
The number of poisonous snakes in Thailand--like that of crocodiles, elephants and other wild animals--is probably falling as man encroaches on forests and swamps.
But some snakes can survive easily in paddy fields and thickets, often in the middle of inhabited areas.
"You almost never see a snake, but then one might turn up anywhere," a Bangkok resident said. "When it does, you'd better start worrying."
As in other parts of Asia, snake meat is eaten with relish here, usually with chili, hot peppers or curry.
Superstition has it that once you have eaten a cobra, live ones will treat you as a friend. Old men believe that eating snake will make them young again and give them many wives.
Fresh Snake Liver
Hawkers line up outside Bangkok's Lumpini Park early in the morning with live snakes curled in baskets, ready to slit them open and sell the raw liver as breakfast.
Almost everyone agrees that the taste is disgusting. So the hawkers offer local Mekong whiskey to help the morsel--often eaten to cure poor eyesight--go down a little more easily.