Friday, 4 January 2013

Snakes on a Plain: the weird life and foolish death of the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'

If you want wack-jobs wont to live in small spaces with fierce critters, then it's hard to beat amazing Thailand. In the land of the Scorpion Queen and the Centipede King, one would hardly choke on one's cornflakes to learn there is indeed a 'Snakeman', from the dry dusty plains of unlovely Sisaket province in darkest Isaan. This one from the vaults originally ran in the Sunday Telegraph magazine (UK) and South China Morning Post's Postmagazine. It was later picked up by National Geographic channel, who coaxed me back to Sisaket to be part of filming for a piece on the 'Snakeman of Sisaket' for its 'Hunter/Hunted' series (Series 1: Victims of Venom ... see it here ) While filming a segment in the Red Cross snake farm in Bangkok, the gung ho serpent wrangler dropped a fiesty cobra on the floor inches from my feet. It then slithered through my legs before he pinned it with his snake-wrangling rake and restored it to its plastic box piled upon dozens of other snakes in plastic boxes waiting to be milked of their venom. I'm all for getting deep into the story, but a cobra bite to feel what the Snakeman felt before he popped his clogs would have been going too far, even by my usual silly standards ...

PHAO BUACHAN SMILES through a web of wrinkles, spits a jet of bright red betel juice through what's left of her crimson teeth, and regards me with a rheumy eye. 'I can't speak about my son without begging his permission,' she says. 'I'm scared the snakes will come, and they'll be angry.'

She hands me a candle and a stick of smouldering incense, and we pick our way through a building site at the back of her wooden house to a white shrine dappled with shards of coloured glass and tiny mirrors. She nods. I kneel, mumble a few words and deposit the candle and incense in a jar of sand. Her prayer is longer, a rambling entreaty punctuated by slow-motion prostrations. When she's finally finished she stands, smiles again and says, 'Now we may speak.'

Her son, Boonreung Buachan, was the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'. In 1998, he had a fleeting taste of international fame when he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for spending seven days in an enclosure with venomous snakes.

Before and after setting the record - which still stands - Boonreung made a living by performing throughout Thailand. In his hour-long shows, he would pluck cobras from wooden boxes and drape them round his neck, stroking and kissing them as he kept up a steady patter of cobra lore. He would milk their venom, letting people get close as the deadly, viscous liquid oozed from scimitar fangs.

The sense of danger was heightened for those who knew him because Boonreung was epileptic and prone to seizures. While his friends say he never had an attack during a show, the risk weighed heavily on the snakeman's mind.

International attention was to come his way just once more. Unfortunately, he wouldn't be around to enjoy it. Three months ago, Boonreung, aged 34, was bitten by one of his pet cobras while putting on a show for three tourists. He collapsed in the dirt beneath his parents' house in Ping Pong village, a parched corner of one of Thailand's poorest provinces. By the time he was taken to hospital, his respiratory system had all but shut down. He never recovered.

'A lot of people came after he died, but since then, no one,' says Phao, in her village of Ping Pong, 640km northeast of Bangkok. 'I'm glad you've come. I don't want the world to forget about my boy.'

The Buachans, while far from wealthy, became the envy of the poor farming village because of the success of their son. Their humble house is a palace compared with some nearby. Phao says she knew her second son was special from the start. 'When he was born, he had a patch of scales on his waist,' she says. Psoriasis, perhaps? 'No, no,' she insists. 'These were real scales - like a snake.'

Soon after Boonreung's birth, the snakes arrived. 'It was weird,' says Phao. 'There was hardly a day when you wouldn't see four or five in the yard.' When her son was three, Phao says, her heart stopped when she saw him playing with a cobra.

'Here was this little kid, poking at this big snake with a stick. Absolutely no fear. After that, all he cared about was snakes.' He didn't take to school. 'The real trouble started when he was seven. He brought a snake to school. It wasn't poisonous, but the teacher caned him. The next day, he put a cobra in the teacher's room. He was told not to come back.'

Phao lowers her voice. 'I wouldn't say this if my husband were here, but I believe my son's real father was the Naga.' The Naga is the giant, hydra-headed serpent of Buddhist lore, who appears in various guises and famously coiled himself into a chair for the Buddha.

Shortly after her son was expelled, she says, a man with a white beard, dressed all in white, appeared. 'He came to stay for a week. He gave my son a serpent ring, and told him he had the gift of power over snakes. Then he left, and we never saw him again.'

It was then that Boonreung began to suffer from seizures, which were diagnosed as epilepsy. Many of the villagers had never heard of the disorder, but these frightening interludes fuelled rumours about magical powers. 'By the time Boonreung was 12, he had dozens of snakes,' says Phao. 'Mostly cobras he caught in the fields. Kraits. Pythons. He kept them in boxes under the house. He started putting on shows.'

His fame spread, and when he was 17, a television team arrived to film him for a chat show. The legend of the snakeman was born. Thais dubbed him Manot Ngu, the human snake. His father, Pon, back from working the fields, shows me photographs of a cherubically handsome fellow in a lurid martial arts uniform, festooned with huge cobras. 'My son,' he says.

'The crowds loved us,' says Sawang Themtong, 37, Boonreung's childhood friend and right-hand man, who still lives next door to the Buachans. The pair took their show to the holiday island of Koh Samui. 'We risked our lives every single day. I'd help Boonreung get the snakes out of the boxes and put them away,' says Sawang, who is sceptical about any suggestion of supernatural powers. 'He certainly had a way with snakes, but I don't think it was anything magical,' he says. 'He just knew his business. He'd spent so much time around snakes, he knew how they would react. There are very subtle changes in the animal's posture, the extent to which it flares its hood. And, of course, if snakes aren't hungry, they're less aggressive. So, we always made sure they were well fed.'

The pair spent five years in Koh Samui before Jirachit Pongsida, a talent scout for Kantana, Thailand's biggest television production company, brought them to Bangkok. 'The idea came to me that the snakeman could go for the world record,' Jirachit says, when I meet him in his Bangkok office. 'Great television. So, I tracked him down and put it to him. He was excited, said he knew he could do it.'

A square glass room, three metres wide, was erected in one of the capital's busiest shopping centres. Into it went two king cobras, 100 Thai cobras and 20 scorpions. Wearing normal clothes and some safety goggles, Boonreung casually climbed in, to the gasps of a captivated crowd. Besides the writhing knot of snakes, the room contained a bed, a television and a curtained-off lavatory. 'It was amazing, seeing him climb in there without batting an eyelid,' Jirachit says. 'There were huge crowds every day. He smashed the old record. After seven days, he said he could have easily gone on, but he was getting bored.'

Pon stayed at his son's side throughout. 'I was terrified and I was very proud,' he says. 'I prayed every day that he wouldn't suffer a fit. I talked to him through the glass, told him to be careful.'

Even among the bright lights of Bangkok, where the snakeman ended up performing for three years, Sawang says his friend cared for little but his snakes. 'He never went out drinking. He didn't go to karaoke. He always had girls chasing him, but he never seemed very interested.'

But when Boonreung returned to Ping Pong village, he was disillusioned and broke. Phao says her son received marriage proposals from a number of local women. She shrugs. 'He always told me he was happiest alone - just him and his snakes.'

On March 18, Boonreung began his show at 1pm for three women from a nearby province. 'He was a bit tired, but otherwise there was nothing out of the ordinary - except that a few days before, a framed photograph of him fell over and broke, so I was feeling uneasy,' Phao says.

The show over and the tourists gone, Boonreung was putting the last cobra - a big one - back into its box, when he was distracted for a split second. The snake bit him above the right elbow.

Dr Wipha Praituen, from the district Praibung hospital, says Boonreung would have survived, but for a tragedy of errors. 'We had cobra antivenin on hand. If he'd been brought here quickly, he would have lived,' she says.

Phao was the only person who saw the bite. 'I wasn't worried at first,' she says. 'He'd been bitten twice before, and treated himself with a herb in our yard.'

Her son calmly picked the leaves, soaked them in rice whisky, swallowed some and rubbed the rest on the bite. He told Phao he was fine, and asked for some of his parents' land to build a house. Shortly afterwards he collapsed.

'I screamed for help, but no one believed he'd been bitten,' says Phao. 'Everyone thought he was having a fit. He'd gone all stiff and couldn't talk. In the village, everyone thought he had magical powers, so no one believed a snake could hurt him.'

Even when it became apparent that he was in serious danger, for an hour no one could be found who could drive the village's only truck. By the time he got to hospital, more than two hours had passed since the bite. Dr Wipha says the delay cost the snakeman his life. 'I really believed he would live.' Phao says.

Sawang says he's still heartbroken by his friend's death, even though he expected it, believing Boonreung had grown overconfident and careless. 'Towards the end, I could see him lose his focus sometimes. Getting them [the snakes] out and putting them away is the riskiest part of the whole show. You have to concentrate 100 per cent.'

Sawang wants nothing to do with snakes any more. He helped the Buachans find a zoo willing to take away the boxes containing more than 60 cobras and kraits. The only snake that remains is a six-metre python named Mee (or Noodle). It sits coiled in a large crate, thick as a man's arm.

Last month, using money given to her by Boonreung, Phao ordered workers to build a house on the small square of land her son had asked for. 'I'm building it because it was his last wish,' she says. 'No one is going to live there. It's just for him.' She blinks back tears. 'But if the snakes come to stay, I won't chase them away.'

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