Snakebite City

Credit: Photographs by Cedric Arnold

Among the residents of  Ban Khok Sa-Nga, otherwise known as Cobra Village, there are two kinds of bites: severe and not so severe. The latter — say, a nip on the fingers, hand, or arm — is no biggie. Just apply the local herbal remedy, concocted from a root called wan paya ngoo, and sleep it off. Far more serious is a bite that lands on the neck or foot — or, heaven help you, the tongue. In that case, symptoms (intense burning, blackening of the skin, drowsiness) can strike in 15 minutes or less. Then it's a trip to the hospital for some antivenin and, if karma is on your side, only a short coma.

Bites are a regular and inevitable occurrence in this village in Thailand's northeastern province of Khon Kaen, where men fight daily battles with king cobras, the world's largest venomous snake. The king cobra can reach a length of 18 feet and, when in attack mode, can raise a third of its body off the ground. Its venom contains what are called postsynaptic neurotoxins, which act rapidly to block communication between nerves, leading to paralysis and, in fatal cases, asphyxiation from an immobilized diaphragm. Depending on the amount of venom and the location of the bite, death can occur in as little as half an hour — about the time it takes to reach the local district hospital, assuming your motorbike doesn't break down or the rice fields haven't flooded.

Over the past two decades of battling cobras here, only four men have fallen to the fang. But every fighter has battle scars: amputated fingers, mangled hands and limbs. On a cool Sunday morning, one of those men, Sian Rorphaeng, 60, prepares to enter a small concrete square bordered on three sides by wooden stands. Speakers blare sarama, the percussive, jittery music played at Muay Thai fights, as about a dozen tourists, all Thais, take their seats. “Four men have died fighting the cobra here!" an announcer cries through a scratchy amplifier. The first serpent is fished out of its crate by a snake handler and tossed onstage. Rorphaeng slowly approaches it, and a hush falls over the crowd. Crouching low, he taunts the cobra with his foot — then lands a sudden, hard slap on the snake's head with the flat of his hand. The snake rises and releases a sharp hiss. It tries to slither away, but Rorphaeng pulls it back by the tail. The routine repeats itself several times. An extended foot. The cobra rises. A slapping hand. Tension continues to build until, after two minutes, a bell rings and the crowd erupts. The cobra is hustled back into its crate, and we await the next bout.

“This is the most exciting thing to do in Khon Kaen," says Permsak Paholpak, a spinal surgeon who is sitting beside me. It is his fourth trip here, he tells me. “Four times?" I ask. “Why?" He shoots me a funny look. “We are very afraid of snakes," he says. “For Thai people, snakes are very dangerous and scary."

Cobra fighting may sound like an ancient and sacred ritual. And while cobras have long been prevalent here, the village's special relationship with them dates back only to the 1950s. That, according to local mythology, is when an herbalist and traveling salesman named Ken Yongla began selling an herbal cure-all, an antidote for aches and pains, and — yes — snakebites. (Villagers still swear that it works.) For dramatic effect, Yongla traveled with a cobra, eventually staging impromptu battles with it.

Yongla was wildly successful, inspiring others in the village to sell their own versions of the remedy. Under the tutelage of  Yongla, these vendors, too, began fighting, and the snakes became part of village life. Indeed, rather than fearing the serpents like their countrymen, almost all of the 180 or so families in Ban Khok Sa-Nga own a cobra or python. The fights did not begin in an organized, professional way until the mid-1990s, when the local government built the ring to capitalize on the growing number of tourists venturing into northern Thailand.

The most exceptional fighter I saw was a 64-year-old named Charlie Phamuang. Phamuang learned to fight under Yongla as a boy but took a break from the sport for several years to work as a crocodile hunter, trapping animals that had escaped from nearby commercial farms. It was good money for easy work — once you get a sack over the head, it's all over, Phamuang told me — but he was drawn back to the ring after his brother was killed by a cobra in 1999.

Phamuang was the only fighter willing to take on the feared monocled cobra. Shorter and paler than kings, with an eye-shaped marking on the back of the hood, monocles possess the ability to spit blinding venom into the eyes of their rivals. This is especially worrying for Phamuang, whose routine is unique: He'll slowly edge closer to his opponent in an effort to land a crowd-rousing kiss on the back of its hood. I watched him do this four times over six hours, and each time I was sure he was about to get a pair of fangs to the face. But the snakes never seemed to learn.

Still, Phamuang has his share of scars. His right hand is missing a tendon above the thumb: It was removed after a severe bite left him dead for five minutes before defibrillation, and then in a coma for five days. He rested for three months before returning to the ring but still cannot make a fist. This is what happens when you attempt to smooch a recalcitrant cobra.

Other fighters possess their own styles, too. Some favor slapping, others head-­butting. Some taunt mainly with their hands, others with their knees and feet. But among all the fighters, I detect a desire less to subdue the reptiles than to positively humiliate them. During the fights, the cobras slither away in terror toward a barking crowd, only to get yanked back into the ring by the tail. At the beginning and end of each show, dancers tape the cobras' mouths shut, drape the snakes across their shoulders, and then, with great theatrics, insert the snakes' heads into their mouths.

And then there is the biggest crowd-pleaser of all — when the snake's head goes inside the pants, into a crotch. This is done by the fighters, which makes it seem doubly humiliating. It is hard not to hope for the tape across the cobra's mouth to snap: “Blow some herbs on that," I think to myself.

Later in the afternoon, a pair of tour buses from a neighboring province roll into town, the biggest crowd of the day. As the tourists snap photos with a giant cobra statue, Phamuang strolls down to the ring. In the golden hour of the dipping sun, wearing a red vest and bright scarf tied tightly around his head, he's idly chewing on a twig, and his lips curl into a cool grin that is part smugness, part melancholy, and all lunacy. “It's time," he mutters, letting the twig fall as he goes.

Again the announcer warms up the crowd, this time with an especially enthused oration for the show's star performer: Wild Charlie, the Cobra Kisser. The snake handler, an old man holding a hooked pole, follows Phamuang into the ring. He unfastens one of the snake crates and fishes for the serpent with his pole. The show is about to begin. With anxious, reptilian grins, everyone is thinking the same thing: How will this end?