Recently, while I was sitting at my desk at home, a ten-foot-long reticulated python fell past the window. I first saw it reaching out from above the eaves of the house in an attempt to get to a nearby champac tree. It overextended itself and slid off the roof, tumbling inelegantly into the tree’s lower branches. A couple of brave squirrels barked from the neighbouring mango tree and a pied fantail ineffectively dive-bombed the snake as it gathered its coils around the tree trunk. Impervious, the python rested for a moment and then slid slowly, silently, into my garden.
My house is located in central Bangkok, a city built on a boggy alluvial plain. Decades of rapid development – tons of concrete and countless skyscrapers – have done nothing to dispel the air and shade of the swamp upon which the city stands, and there is no better symbol of this than the enduring, primordial presence of the python. The municipal fire department is called out more often for snakes than for fires; tens of thousands are captured in the capital each year and, of these, thousands are reticulated pythons (Malayopython reticulatus), the world’s longest snake. Moving mostly unseen through the city drains, this muscular predator feeds on mice, rats, frogs, birds and cats (both strays and pets), and inhabits the city in numbers far greater than anyone cares to imagine.
I grew up in Bangkok and have a live-and-let-live attitude to the ever-present wildlife – from the oversized monitor lizards that stalk the city’s few parks and disused canals to the noisy koel bird with its ear-piercing 3am mating call that would sound more at home deep inside a rainforest than in a city centre. And this was not the first python to visit my garden; there have been three that I know of, and surely many more that have passed through unobserved. My preference was always to leave these mostly nocturnal visitors alone and let them continue on their way. As one of my Thai friends likes to say, ‘They were here first, after all.’
This particular python fell into the garden on a bright sunny morning when I happened to be home alone for a few days, so I locked up our two cats and one elderly dog (half-watched documentaries showing jungle pythons devouring whole deer having come to mind), and left for a meeting I had to attend, hoping the snake would be gone by the time I returned.
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Over a century ago, a young British doctor called Malcolm Smith travelled to Bangkok to assist at a private practice. Some years into his stay, Smith was invited to administer to the inner court at the Grand Palace, where the wives, concubines and children of the king of Siam (as Thailand was then known) lived in confinement. It was a rare opportunity, for both a male and a foreigner, as no one was allowed access to the inner court, except for its female staff and the king himself. In 1947, Smith published A Physician at the Court of Siam, a fascinating record of his time there. A few decades earlier, the Siamese royal court had been made notorious by Anna Leonowens, who had been hired to teach English to its young members. Her account would later be popularised in the 1950s Broadway musical and film The King and I. Smith’s book is more sober and trustworthy than Leonowens’s occasionally hyperbolic memoir, but it is no less intriguing.
At the time Smith lived in Bangkok, the inner court was home to the family of King Chulalongkorn, who had over ninety consorts and seventy-seven children. Smith describes the inner court as a world within a world, which had ‘its own government, its own institutions, its own laws and law courts’, and from which no one could leave without special permission. After the king’s death in 1910, Smith writes, senior wives were allowed to return to their families but unmarried consorts had to remain until their own deaths; the women were known outside the palace as nang ham, forbidden women. Five years later, when Smith was requested to administer vaccinations to the remnants of the late king’s harem, he found some twenty-five remaining consorts, ‘still young by European standards’ and living under the same restrictions they had when the king was alive: ‘Life for them was a monotonous existence … Tomorrow would be like yesterday and all the other yesterdays, stretching back like a trail of ghosts into the past.’
A Physician at the Court of Siam is a small, unassuming book but Smith writes with an empathy seldom seen in the white male gaze on Thailand. His precise, scientific perspective often shifts to poetry and his sensitivity to the human condition bridges a vast cultural chasm – between a Western-educated doctor of modern medicine and women steeped in ancient royal rigmarole, whose ailments had been until recently treated by Brahmin priests and herbal tinctures. The book is divided into seven chapters structured around the life of King Chulalongkorn’s principle consort, Queen Saowapha. Smith chronicles the dynasty over the course of her lifetime (1863–1919), during which successive kings – her father, her husband, and then her sons – opened the country up to Western trade and influence. The leap of empathy on Smith’s part comes most compellingly to the fore in his chapter about Saowapha’s years as dowager queen when she left the confines of the inner court for good.
After the king’s death, Saowapha moved into a palace of her own. There, with a small army of staff, she maintained a nocturnal existence, seldom waking before dusk or going to sleep before dawn. She required Smith’s presence almost daily, irrespective of her health. Despite sometimes being summoned at midnight after working all day at his own practice, Smith describes their exchanges warmly – her talk of the old ways of the palace, her curiosity about Europe (especially those countries that still maintained royal families), her retellings of the Siamese myths and legends on which she was raised. One night, he found her in tears and complaining of having had too few visitors. He sat on the floor by her bed and let her talk: ‘She dried her tears and blew her nose, and in the music of her own voice her troubles disappeared.’
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It was dusk by the time I returned home. I poked a stick into the tangle of vines at the base of the champac tree where I had last seen the snake and, feeling confident it was no longer there, let the cats and dog out of the house. Shortly thereafter, I heard a persistent hissing noise from the garden and found one of the cats glaring at the undergrowth against the back wall. With a torch, the python was easy to spot. It was sashaying back and forth along the base of the wall, seemingly waiting for me to go away so it could make a bid for the cat.
Something Malcolm Smith once wrote came to my mind. Aside from working as a medical doctor, Smith was an ardent herpetologist. He founded the Natural History Society of Siam (and, upon his return to England, the British Herpetological Society). In Thailand, he maintained a network of local catchers to collect specimens from the wilds and kept live snakes in his house to study their behaviour and diet. He discovered four new species of snake in the region, each named in his honour, and, as an honorary associate at the Natural History Museum in London, compiled three volumes on reptiles for the exhaustive Fauna of British India, Including Ceylon and Burma series. The words that came to mind as I was looking at the hungry python in my garden were: ‘There are many ways of tackling big snakes but the following method is as simple as any of them…’
The sentence came from an article Smith had written for the journal of the Natural History Society of Siam titled ‘A Bangkok Python’, in which he stated that he caught one or two pythons a year in his garden alone. In the article, he passed on the unique method he had devised, which consisted of wrapping a bath towel several times around one hand and forcing it into the snake’s face, and then, when the snake bit the towel and before it could free its fangs for another bite, grabbing it around the neck. Smith nonchalantly noted that, though the constricting power of a python of around twelve feet isn’t that great, ‘It is as well however to have someone at hand to seize the tail and unwind in case a coil gets round your neck.’
I thought about it for two seconds, and then pulled out my phone and called the Bangkok fire department. Within half an hour, three firemen in fluorescent orange jumpsuits were in the garden. It took them less than ten minutes to catch the snake (with a snake hook). They secured it inside a tarpaulin sack and tossed it unceremoniously onto the back of their pickup truck. Although many Bangkokians believe the captured snakes are passed on to snakeskin dealers, the firemen insist the snakes are released into the wild. ‘This one’s destined for a holiday in Khao Yai,’ a fireman told me that night, referring to a national park not far from Bangkok.
Smith caught his last Bangkok python in April 1920, just over one hundred years ago. He was driving home from dinner when he spotted the snake. Not having a towel handy, he threw his coat over it and sat on it until he could locate its head. As he was due to return to England just two days later, he took it back with him. It was – similar to my python – a ten-foot-long specimen around two years old that turned out, upon further inspection, to be a female. Smith presented her to the Zoological Society of London, where she lived to be nineteen, growing to twice her size and breeding three times. It’s quite possible her descendants are still living in captivity at London Zoo.