The hustle and bustle of Bangkok can be overwhelming to visitors. Even before the sun goes down and the metropolis comes to life the never ending crush of humanity, the debilitating one-two punch of SE Asia’s tropic sun and humidity, and the non-stop commercialism that passes for the locals’ brand of greed and avarice can, for some, be too much to take. Fleeing back to your air-conditioned hotel room is an option many choose. Fleeing into the dark and slightly less stifling shadows of a bar to find solace in your favorite libation is another, though that option does nothing more than provide an early start to your night of dealing with a new round of heat, humanity, and commercialism gone wild.
Finding a bit of peace and tranquility within the city’s landscape is another option, though the idea of being able to do so is as foreign to many as is the city itself. That relief from the overpowering turbulence of Bangkok can be found smack dab in the middle of its skyscraper lined streets is as paradoxical as its provision of first class establishments overflowing with luxury and refinement tucked into third world pockets of filth and despair. But nestled within the city’s downtown area, the shaded haven of Lumpini Park awaits. This oasis of greenery, one of Bangkok’s oldest and largest parks, sprawls over a humongous portion of the metropolis, offering inner-city visitors and residents a cool oasis of fresh air, shade, and respite from the city’s busy boulevards.
I was introduced to Lumpini Park by a bar boy. You wouldn’t think the grassy expanse and shaded walkways that meander past man-made lakes would be on a bar boy’s list of things to do when mega malls filled with gold, watches, and cell phones beckon. But then Nut was fairly new to Bangkok himself, a transplant from a much more rural area of SE Asia and his soul too needed relief from Bangkok’s bustle. That the park also offered a free weight-lifting and exercise area populated by his bar mates and bar mates to be was an added bonus. For both of us.
But the purpose behind my first visit wasn’t for Nut to get in his daily dose of weight lifting or for me to ogle the mass of muscles that hang out at the park. That visit was nothing more than an hour of sitting in the shade lakeside while feeding fish. The spot he headed for when we entered the park by its Silom entrance was covered in grass but part of Nut’s ritual required renting plastic beach mats from a wizened old local lady who also had the good business sense of offering plastic bags full of stale bread crusts to feed the denizens of the park’s waterways.
We spent a languid hour or so accomplishing nothing other than existing until either out of boredom or in need of amusing himself Nut started to teach me how to count in Thai. The old lady who’d parked herself nearby in hopes of selling another bag or two of bread found my attempts at pronouncing some rather simple Thai words as amusing as Nut did. The Thai language lesson was an one-off event, spending some time relaxing at Lumpini became a routine whenever I was in Bangkok and spent the day with Nut.
Noom, a different bar boy than Nut in both build and demeanor, is not as enamored with the tranquility Lumpini offers. Shopping is a better way to kill time in his book, and if downtime is needed, it’s better spent back at the hotel in a properly air-conditioned room where he can arrange himself among a forest of soft pillows. Noom knows of Nut and is a bit jealous of our relationship. If he knew Nut introduced me to Lumpini he probably wouldn’t be as willing to indulge me with afternoon visits to the park.
Noom is a bit more action oriented than Nut is too. When we hit Lumpini, as soon as I find the best spot to sit, he heads over to work on his body and chat with friends at one of the exercise yards. If he stays to feed fish with me he empties his bag quickly, not so much feeding the fish as causing chaos amongst them; his is a well-thought out plan of attack aimed at producing a massive feeding frenzy. Noom’s idea of communing with nature is closer to the dog-eat-dog world of competing vendors and tuk tuk drivers found on Bangkok’s streets.
Lumpini’s lakes and ponds are filled with catfish whose mouths open wide hoping to catch whatever food is tossed their way before it lands in the water. Turtles too are in abundance; they pop up from the shallow depths in a more serene manner than the catfish exhibit and seem a bit more picky about what they are willing to consider as food. Less in number and generally uninterested in bread crumbs are the park’s community of monitor lizards. Half-lizard, half snake, monitor lizards fascinate me. We have catfish and turtles back home. Creatures from the Black Lagoon, not so much. Noom is less fascinated by them. In fact, as soon as one appears, he leaves. “Dey bite,” he informs me. “Not good,” he clarifies. “It bad.”
The locals call them Dooa Nguen Dooa Thong, or hia for short. The shortened version is an insulting, obscene word you don’t want to use carelessly about a person. In its less vulgar translation it means bad or evil. And Thais consider the monitor lizard to be both.
Though they are not aggressive and will begrudgingly make way for humans, you don’t want to take on a monitor lizard anymore than you would their close cousin in humanoid form, the gogo bar mamasan. Noom, deciding a lesson about the dangers of one of the city’s strangest denizens was of more use than learning how to count in Thai, offered up a warning coupling a bit of English and lots of pantomime to inform me a bite from a monitor lizard could mean having your bitten limb amputated. Being bit by a mamasan would probably result in the same degree of loss.
Evidently it is not the monitor lizard’s venom that is problematic, but rather that the nasty variety of pathogens in their saliva are so dangerous that if you do suffer a bite you should seek medical treatment quickly. I took Noom’s warning with a grain of salt and was not really concerned. Those I’d run across seemed to be as equally affected by Bangkok’s heat and humidity. They move slowly, with no real sense of purpose. But then one afternoon I saw one take off after scenting a meal, exhibiting a speed reminiscent of that employed by barkers along Soi Twilight when fresh meat enters their street of sin. A visitor could no more out run a monitor lizard on the attack than he could maneuver freely past Twilight’s barkers. And both use their claws to latch onto prey.
Unlike mamasans, however, monitor lizards are considered to be intelligent. Some species can even count (obviously that would be the lizard and not the mamasan). Feeding studies done at the San Diego Zoo showed they were capable of distinguishing numbers up to six (similar studies on mamasans show they top out at five). Some have been observed to cooperate when foraging for food, and the largest of the species, the Komodo Dragon, recognize their keepers when held in captivity and display distinct personalities. On an evolutionary scale, they surely rank higher than mamasans.
Varanus salvator is the species of monitor lizard found at Lumpini Park. Most I have seen average around three feet in length, though a lot of that is tail. They can grow to a bit over ten feet in length and can weigh up to 55 pounds, though most are half that size. The lizard’s body is quite muscular and they use a raised fin on their tail to swim gracefully through the water. The Thai version are carnivores, have a wide range of food, and are known to eat fish, frogs, rodents, birds, and sometimes turtles. The semiaquatic monitor lizards that hang out at Lumpini Park also eat fruit and anything that passes as carrion. They don’t give me much concern, though I freely admit if I feel a nap coming on I move to the shade of a tree far removed from the water.
Thais don’t like them. They are nasty, evil, and according to locals bring bad luck. Since it is one of the few native species Thais do not consider a food source, the locals have no use for them. The government often sends the army into Lumpini to catch lizards in an effort to keep the population under control. Using long poles with succulent pieces of meat attached to their tips to entice the lizards, watching the army boys at work is good entertainment. Watching the lizards that have been captured struggle to free themselves tips you off to how vicious these critters can be. And gives you a good warning against pissing a monitor lizard off.
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