'Evil' monitor's reputation not so black and white

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 June, 1999, 12:00am

IN its quiet pockets, Bangkok can still beguile despite its many woes. Its fiery reds and shimmering golds lure the eye. The heady perfume of fuchsia, sandalwood and camphor seduce the senses.

Yet any Bangkok resident will tell you the most unspeakable evil is never far away: a mottled-grey beast thriving in the damp, rank and fetid corners.

The monitor lizard is the ultimate in bad omens, a creature of darkness that, when not stealing chickens, ducks or babies - if you believe the tales - likes to feast on long-dead flesh.

It is a creature so despised and feared that to call someone a hier, or water monitor - the largest and most feared of Thailand's six species - is considered the most extreme insult possible.

It is one characterisation that Bangkok's famously savage political cartoonists generally steer clear of, and if ordinary Thais have to refer to one in conversation they will do so with a euphemism spoken in the most hushed of tones.

The mere sighting of a water monitor more than two metres long padding down the linoleum corridors of the Defence Ministry this year was enough to spark days of debate and intrigue about the future of Thailand's troubled generals.

Top brass dismissed it all - but only after ordering underlings to conduct a special ceremony to wash away the bad spirits left behind.

A close relative of Indonesia's endangered Komodo dragon, the hier will grow up to 2.6 metres. It constantly shoots a great forked tongue from a long flat snout that allows it to taste and smell at the same time.

A frequenter of swamps and mangroves, the lizards still occasionally find their way through the city's canals and embankments into residential compounds in search of food.

'It is the only thing I fear when doing my rounds at night,' said Nipa Veeraswan, a soldier-turned-security guard in an apartment block on the banks of the Chao Phraya.

'I can handle car thieves and drunk cowboys, but I really don't know what I would do if I ran into one of those. I have always been told to stand my ground and kill the beast as quickly as possible.' Now experts say it is time for a rethink. The lizards' taste for rats and mice, as well as rotting carcasses, provide a vital service in a riverine environment, they say.

The creatures will only attack if cornered and are scared of humans. They much prefer to play dead if disturbed, then quietly slink away into the undergrowth.

They rarely get the chance.