Though you may not believe it from reading my blog, I didn’t come to Bangkok to herp. I came to the city to connect with people, to explore the subtleties of culture, and to find ways to work in an NGO-type job that served people in need. Herping was just a hobby that I did in my free time. But when you’re in a city that’s as teeming with life as Bangkok, you can’t really make hard lines between finding wildlife and discovering culture.
One day I hit up a wild-looking spot I’d recently found on Google Earth. It was only a kilometer from my place, but impossible to notice unless you’re looking from the sky. When I got there I found tons of herp habitat interspersed with impoverished squatters trying to build a life on whatever land they could find. (One third of Bangkok’s nine million people live in slums or squatter homes.) At one point I began to walk up a trail when I realized that it led to someone’s tiny trash-built hut. I was about to turn to leave, but just had to flip over the perfect-looking mat lying on the turnoff to the home. Sure enough, a beautiful Red-tailed Pipe Snake was under the mat.
Their defensive display is fascinating. It may be meant to mimic the venomous southeast Asian coral snakes or may simply be to distract attention away from the vulnerable head. Of course, this species is completely harmless and didn’t even try to bite me.
On a different night I went walking down Oh Nut Road. A fascinating aspect of Bangkok’s culture are “spirit houses”, the miniature shrines that can be found on intersections and everywhere else throughout Bangkok. You really haven’t been in the city until you’ve sat on a vehicle cornering at high speed when the driver decides to take his hands off the steering and wai the spirit house in mid-turn!
So while I was walking down Oh Nut, I passed a familiar old spirit house laying at the base of a tree. On top of the table that the spirit house sat upon was the biggest Tokay Gecko I’d seen in my life! I was almost dumbfounded by the size – it looked like a Gila Monster. The thing had to be close to 35 centimeters long, but what was most impressive was the head size and body girth. The spirit house setting didn’t look like a normal place for a Tokay to be, but it may have been driven there by the rain.
Though I could have grabbed the gecko right there, I instead tried an in-situ pic, and the big guy lumbered up onto the tree while I was trying to snap the photo. By the time he stopped moving and I was able to focus the shot he was well up the tree:
When I lived in Bangkok I spent a lot of time volunteering with an organization that helped girls who had lived through terrible situations. As any tourist knows, thousands of women are trafficked to Bangkok from rural Thailand and foreign countries to satisfy the huge demand in the sex trade. Many of these girls tell stories of the brothels that are horrifying beyond belief. Though technically illegal the tourism income alone from the sex industry makes up 3% of Thailand’s GDP, so it’s not going away anytime soon.
One morning I helped one of the women at the organization take two young girls to the dentist. One of them asked to use the restroom and the dentist said, “Well, we have a restroom but there’s a snake in there.” It looked like I could be more helpful than usual today! The dentist (and the girls we brought) were quite happy to have me remove it. When I went looking it turned out that the snake wasn’t in the bathroom anymore, but with the dentist’s help I found it in the adjacent outdoor patio. It was only a baby, but it was the first Copperhead Racer I’d seen in Bangkok.
I slipped him into a grocery bag and released him the next day in a nearby overgrown lot. Though it was only a few meters away from the original office, snakes are extremely secretive, and chances are that neither the dentist nor her neighbors will ever know the snake is there.
Such are the treats of herping in urban Asia. It is a far cry from the pleasant illusion of untouched wilderness that I would usually prefer to spend time exploring. Yet it also breaks through the wall of separation that modern urban society has placed between itself and nature, and reminds me of the real lives that people are living here in a manner that national parks and tourist spots never could. Herping these concrete jungles has brought this particular herper experiences that never could have happened elsewhere.