The International Writers Magazine: Snake Pit
Eben Strousse in Thailand
found a monkey under my table at breakfast this morning. I wasn't
sure if this was normal or not so I tried to ignore it, but kept
thinking of that movie "Outbreak." I was digging
for my camera when the owner of the cafe hustled over, grabbed
it by the neck, and dragged it screaming and clawing into the
restaurant. I have no idea if it was his pet or tonight's special.
Im in Bangkok,
and its not just my breakfast thats unusual. The word "intense"
comes to mind when attempting to sum up my surroundings. "Total
sensory overload" wouldnt be an exaggeration either. Just
crossing the street here is an adventure. Hundreds of bicycles, tuk
tuks and motorcycles dart around in every direction like a colony of
ants under attack. It's not uncommon to see four people and a half dozen
chickens zip by on a moped. There are also random nameless vehicles,
as the locals can turn almost any animate or inanimate object into a
mode of transportation. One guy wearing a conical hat and a Led Zeppelin
t-shirt drove by on what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow.
It has been approximately six weeks since I left my apartment in San
Francisco for a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. Ive traipsed
through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and will be heading South
in a few days for Malaysia and Singapore. From the beginning of this
adventure, my agenda has been to avoid agendas, but one thing Ive
made an effort to do is indulge in exotic cuisine. Im not a food
connoisseur by any means and my culinary skills reside at a fourth grade
level (although I make a 5-star tuna-melt). Yet, in efforts to immerse
myself into these provocative cultures, experimenting with the local
chow has been essential. Plus, I just enjoy trying unusual food, and
in Southeast Asia the possibilities are endless. While fried monkey
is not on my wish list, my exploration has gone way beyond putting ketchup
Its important to note that exotic food exploration can be risky
business. I learned this the hard way in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, otherwise
known as Saigon. I was at dinner with some seasoned Australian travelers
I met when my temperature began skyrocketing and stomach cramped up.
They told me, based on my symptoms, that they thought I had eaten dog,
not an uncommon dish in Vietnam. (Hopefully none of you work for the
ASPCA.) All I know is that I was shivering violently in 95+ degree heat
by the time I got back to my hotel room. Its definitely unnerving
being ill in a developing country so far from home. It was an eerie
feeling of complete helplessness Im not anxious to repeat. I lay
incapacitated and miserable in my squalid hotel room watching MTV Asia
with a fever, migraine and knife-edge stomach cramps. I emerged a beaten
man three days later but it was a good week before I was able to fully
retain any liquids or solids.
I had another meal with interesting side effects at a restaurant in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was called "Happy Pizza" and was
fairly nondescript in appearance. The unique thing about the pizza is
that dope is one of the toppings offered. If you request your pizza
"happy" they sprinkle some pot on it. "Very happy"
is major league. I stuck with "happy" to be safe since I was
out of my element. My mistake was the hash brownie I ate for dessert.
Fortunately, I made it back to my hotel before the brownie kicked my
ass. I locked my door as I began to feel my demise, as I knew I would
soon be defenseless
and pathetic. For the next 48-hours I was catatonic
on my bed in a pool of warm sweat staring at the ceiling. My only contact
with the outside world was the Khmer hotel manager who came the next
morning to tell me I had missed my bus. She keyed into my room when
I didnt respond to numerous knocks. She was wearing a bright green
bathrobe and jabbered loudly in unintelligible broken English. She was
freaking me out. I never moved off the bed. I just mumbled incoherently
and stared at her with hollow eyes. I was glad when she left.
More often than not, my dining experiences were outstanding and didnt
demand fistfuls of Tums or two to three days of sleep. But there was
one meal in particular Ill never forget, and most probably never
It was my last night in Hanoi, and I made friends with a couple of twenty-something
Vietnamese guys at a bar near my hotel. Their names were Honda and Hung,
and were students at a local university. They told me they were headed
to a place outside the city called Lat village to eat snake and invited
me along. I accepted, and offered to pay for gas in exchange for a ride
on the back of one of their mopeds.
About 30 minutes later we pulled into a quiet alley and stopped in front
of a small, decrepit building. My driver, Hung, smiled and pointed to
a faded, wooden sign with a large, black snake which was coiled as if
ready to strike. We walked in and were greeted by an old, dark-skinned
Vietnamese man with deep, proud wrinkles. He was wearing what looked
like a medieval nightgown with large, white buttons running down the
length of the front. He sat us at a small oak table in the entranceway,
served us green tea, and just stood silently off to the side, observing
us as we drank.
When we finished our tea, the old man collected our cups and motioned
for us to follow him. He slowly led us through a dingy room with a bare
mattress and some tattered clothes on the floor, and into what appeared
to be his living room. There, against the wall in the middle of the
room, was a huge wire cage the size of a garden shed. Inside the cage
was a murky, kidney-shaped pond dug into the floor, surrounded by small
rocks and rotting logs. There was a thin tree in one corner and branches
strewn about. Piles of leaves and dirt covered the remainder of the
floor except for a rusty, children's bicycle leaning against the far
side. The old man unhooked the latch on the cage door, strolled inside,
and closed it behind him. As Honda, Hung and I peered in we noticed
just one snake that lay motionless on the ground near the pond. The
old man walked directly to this snake, casually picked it up, and began
examining it closely. Then, he suddenly threw the snake to the ground
behind him with a look of disgust (apparently dead) and gave us a nonchalant
"shit happens" shrug.
For the next few minutes the old man made his way around the cage poking
with a stick beside rocks, under leaves and behind logs. As he did,
snakes began popping up everywhere. There were dozens of them. Almost
every branch or rock he moved would reveal a new snake, which would
coil up and hiss, and quickly slither off to a new hiding place. Hung
leaned over to me and said they were all King Cobras, and extremely
poisonous. He said you could tell by their black and white markings
and by the way they flare their necks into an oval shape when theyre
angered. I wouldn't have gone in that cage wearing a suit of armor,
while the old man seemed perfectly at ease in his worn sandals and thin
A short while later, the old man tossed his stick to the floor and started
grabbing the cobras by the tail with his bare hands. One by one he would
hold them up in front of the cage to show us, and then casually toss
them to the floor behind him. Even with the chicken wire between us,
Honda, Hung and I would jerk back every time the old man thrust a snake
in our direction. Honda told me he was presenting us cobras to choose
We eventually agreed on a nice, healthy looking 6 1/2-ft. cobra, which
the old man shoved roughly into a burlap sack and slung over his shoulder.
He then led us up a narrow staircase to a small dining room where a
table had already been set. The dining room was a rat-hole. Four ugly,
wooden chairs with worn, purple cushions stood around a faded, pine
table. Crappy chipped plates and cheap, plastic cups cast shadows on
a white painted wall, now gray and peeling with neglect. The room had
a severely cracked, cement floor and just one small open window facing
an alley. The only decoration was a large, poorly framed poster of a
mustached Marlboro Man cowboy from the early seventies with "Come
to Where the Flavor Is" written underneath.
As soon as we were all seated, the old man simply dumped the cobra out
of the burlap sack onto the floor in front of us. It almost immediately
slithered across the floor towards me and I jumped up in a panic to
seek cover behind my chair. Call me a prick, but if the old man hadn't
caught it by the tail, I would have grabbed my 5 ft. friend Hung and
used him as a human shield.
The old man started taunting the cobra, which hissed angrily and sprang
at him several times. (I secretly hoped the snake would nail him since
it would have made this a better story.) After narrowly escaping its
fangs several times, the old man cleverly whirled around behind the
snake, grabbed it by the tail, and started swinging it around in circles
over our heads. Then suddenly, he whipped the snake violently to the
ground and cracked its head loudly against the cement floor.
As I exchanged dumbfounded glances with Honda and Hung, the old man
pulled a long, serrated knife out of his belt. Holding the cobra by
the head, he shoved the tip of the blade into the snake about two inches
below its neck. Then slowly, he slid the knife down through the snake's
skin leaving a 1 1/2 to 2ft. long incision. He slid the knife back into
his belt, and using his hands, noisily pried the cobra open, exposing
its organs. He then took our three, clear plastic cups off the table
and put them in a row on the floor in front of him. Still holding the
snake up vertically by the head, he began squeezing it so that the blood
flowed down its body and off its tail into the glasses. Once each glass
was about half full, he dug his hand into the snake, tore out one of
its organs (not sure which) and squeezed what looked like bile into
each of the cups. He then picked up the glasses, put one in front of
each of us, and made a drinking gesture with his blood-soaked hand.
We sat silently for a moment peering into our glasses. The cringe on
my face was beginning to hurt my cheeks. Honda, Hung and I shared a
few skeptical glances, some nervous laughter...and we drank. It was
thick. It was warm. It was nasty.
The old man smiled with approval as we finished our blood. Then without
warning, he crammed his beefy mitt back into the snake's carcass, this
time, deeper than the last. Then, with a vile sucking noise, he ripped
out the snake's heart, and casually plopped it into an empty glass in
the middle of the table. Honda, Hung and I stared at it in amazement
and disgust as it continued beating in the glass.
The old man disappeared with what was left of the cobra and came back
a few minutes later with beer. We proceeded to drink heavily and laugh
incredulously about the unusual dinner preparations and the snake heart
still beating in the middle of the table.
For the next two hours the old man would keep reappearing with a different
snake dish, all surprisingly good. It began with stir-fried snake meat
and vegetables. Next came snake egg-drop soup and snake egg rolls, followed
by snake chowder with the cobra's backbones floating on top. We had
crushed snake ribs fried with ginger and served on rice crackers, which
had the consistency of bacon bits. And finally, deep-fried snakeskin
which tasted a bit like fried pork rinds, if you've ever had the pleasure.
Over all, it was one of the best meals I had on my trip so far, and
nice to know none of the cobra went to waste.
When there was no food left, the old man came back upstairs and we asked
for the bill. To our surprise, he shook his head, smiled, and pointed
to the cobra's heart, which was still slowly beating in the glass on
the table. He then made the same drinking gesture he had given us when
we forced down the blood. Honda, Hung and I sat silently for several
seconds, alarmed and confused. The old man then leaned over the table
and slowly slid the heart in front of Hung who was sitting in the middle.
The room went silent. Honda and I glanced across the table at each other
in quiet celebration as Hung stared miserably at the heart. Then suddenly,
Hung stood up and snatched the cup off the table. He took a deep breath,
gave each of us a courageous look...and tossed the cup, with heart,
out the open window, and ran like a son of a bitch past the old man
and down the stairs. Honda, the old man and I exchanged looks of astonishment,
and then burst into laughter.
After Honda and I finished our beer, we paid and thanked the old man
and made our way downstairs. We paused to gaze into the deceivingly
empty cobra cage, sauntered through the old mans bedroom, and
stumbled out on to the street. The air was still thick, but much cooler
than in the stuffy dining room. It felt like walking out of a movie
theater after two hours of intense fiction. We found Hung leaning against
his moped looking ashamed but amused, and made our way back to Hanoi.
The cobra was my last meal in Vietnam before heading back to Bangkok.
Im now sitting in a small, grubby restaurant overlooking the Chao
Phraya River. I just finished lunch. I couldnt read the menu and
the owners didnt speak any English, so I just motioned for them
to bring whatever they liked. I started with a bowl of "not quite
sure," followed by a plate of "no idea," with a side
of "not a clue." The only thing Im sure of are the Rolaids
waiting for me back at my hotel. I just hope I see that monkey hiding
under someones table on the way.
Eben Strousse July 2005
travel experiences in Hacktreks
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