I began to suspect we were in for a fairly unusual trip shortly after the visit to the snake farm. A man there had leaped into a pit with three deadly cobras, caught one in his left hand and another in his right and then, while holding those two squirming vipers aloft, put his face inches in front of the third. Serpent and man bobbed and feinted at each other—cobras apparently have poor depth perception—until with a sudden thrust the man crashed his face against the snake and, because the snake was on the cement floor, against that as well. The man wriggled there, as if stricken, gathered himself, then rose to his feet in triumph. To the relief and the disgust of the spectators—most of them tourists—he now had the third cobra in his mouth. His teeth grasped the back of the snake's hood, while its tail lashed him across the chest and shoulders. The proud man circled the pit, posing with the snakes for pictures.
Back in our river taxi, one of the ubiquitous, long-tailed motorized gondolas that navigate Bangkok's canals, I asked our guide, "Have you ever been face-to-face with a cobra?"
"I killed many cobra," James replied without bragging. James's real name is Chamnong Tongkaew. He asked that we call him James, though, because he likes James Bond. One of the Bond movies, The Man with the Golden Gun, had been filmed in Thailand.
"In rainy season, after flooding, cobra come inside my house," James explained. "Have nowhere else to live. Dogs help me. They bark and block the door. I use stick. I try to use my hand like the man in the snake farm, but is very difficult. I use stick. Cobra very good to eat. Old saying in our country: Mongoose, he eats cobra. Cobra, he eats rat. Rat, he eats rice. But Thai people—we eat al-l-l of them."
James sensed our queasiness. "Not city rat," he assured us. "Rice paddy rat. Is very good. Better than chicken. Not as good as cobra. You will have some before you leave. But you maybe will not know it." James smiled his wonderful smile as the river taxi continued its lazy tour of the filthy, fascinating klongs, the Thai word for "canals." My wife, Sally, pointed out a lovely private home tucked among the wooden huts and salt-barges-turned-houseboats. "Yes, very beautiful," agreed James. "Owner must be corrupt."
Sports in Thailand. That was the assignment. Go to Bangkok, poke around the countryside, paddle through the klongs and find out what 52 million Thais like to do for sport. Over the centuries people have come to beautiful, exotic Thailand looking for many things. Few have left disappointed. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, when Thailand was known as Siam (the name was changed in 1939 when Premier Pibun Songgram sought to expand his country's borders to include all Thai-speaking regions), the Burmese came looking for riches and slaves. In the mid-1800s the Chinese began a steady immigration, seeking opium and opportunity. At the same time European traders were arriving, hungering for rice, silk, teak and tin.
The Americans did not make their presence felt until the Vietnam era, when thousands of R & R-seeking GIs sought out a particular section of Bangkok known as Patpong looking for go-go girls and sex. More recently tourists of all nationalities have come to Thailand for its superb shopping, mouthwatering food (if this be rat, then bring me seconds), scenery, temples, festivals, royalty and—above all—charming, hospitable people. But to come in search of sports?
"This is a most unusual request," said James, upon being told of our mission. "I must make some phone calls."
James called us the next morning to say that we had missed by a week the elephant festival in Surin, a day's train ride from Bangkok. The event is a two-day rodeo held each November in which trained elephants run races, roll logs and play soccer. And 100 soldiers challenge an elephant to a tug-of-war.
It would have been an interesting spectacle, especially because elephants have played an important part in Thai history. One of the nation's most famous battles, in the town of Nong Sarai in 1593, turned in favor of the Thais when King Naresuan met and killed the Burmese crown prince in a duel on elephant back, ending 30 years of Burmese rule. Mongkut, King Rama IV, after whom the king in The King and I was modeled (because so much of it is imprecise history and derides the king, the movie is officially banned in Thailand), once offered to send Abraham Lincoln a herd of elephants to help stem the Confederate tide during the Civil War. Honest Abe declined.