Charm school

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am

Visitors to Thailand are often overwhelmed by the choice of tourist diversions, particularly in popular destinations like Chiang Mai. Floating markets, ancient temples and traditional dances compete for tourists and their dollars.

One particular favourite is Thailand's stock of wild animals. Elephant camps are a staple of holiday packages, and crocodile farms and other zoos make a tidy profit from the tour buses that come their way. Chiang Mai recently opened its own Night Safari, modelled on Singapore's successful after-dark attraction - complete with imported wildlife.

But for visitors who want to get up close and personal with wildlife, it's hard to beat the snake farm in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai. Not only do you get to watch snake handlers perform tricks with deadly cobras and other hissing creatures, you can also get involved in the action.

The place is billed as Thailand's unofficial school for snake charmers. Its veteran boss, Manut Oemme, 45, trains would-be charmers to learn how to handle deadly reptiles, including pythons and cobras. He told Thai Day newspaper that five foreigners had completed the training - and none had died yet.

What kind of person would want to risk his or her neck in a snake pit? I can't imagine that any holiday insurer covers this particular brand of extreme endeavour. But there's clearly a market for going this extra mile. A three-day introductory course teaches students the basic skills of snake handling, using non-lethal species, before Mr Manut brings out the scary snakes. These include Burmese hissing cobras, which can spit in your eyes from a distance of 2 metres, temporarily blinding you.

There's no substitute for experience, and Mr Manut has 30 years of snake handling under his belt. One of his tricks is stuffing a cobra's head into his mouth. Still, it's a risky business: a veteran Thai snake handler who set a world record for the longest time spent in an enclosed space with lethal snakes died from a cobra bite in 1998.

An American who signed up for the course told Thai Day that he was bitten many times at the outset, but never by poisonous snakes. The first step, he said, is to conquer your fear of the snake and show it who is the boss. 'I measure my success in life in how I have overcome and managed my fears. Never in my life did I think that I would catch a six-foot cobra and put its head in my mouth,' he said.

If this all sounds too much, there's always the Queen Saovapha Memorial Snake Farm in Bangkok. Here, you can watch snakes being milked for venom, which is used commercially for snakebite serums. It's a much calmer option, and there's not a spitting cobra in sight.