Two French guys I recently met in Hikkaduwa decided to rent a tuk tuk from Colombo for the month, and invited me along for the ride. Unfortunately this time I was not able to hop on board as I am tied to my laptop with work. I was, however, able to spend a day with them, for what turned out to be more of an adventure than I had expected.
Our original intention was to explore the city of Galle, starting in Unawatuna. As is usual with travel plans though, this never panned out. A few rasta guys in a bar in Unawatuna got talking to us about snakes, and we learned that there was a snake farm only an hour inland from Galle.
“Snake farm is good. You go and ask for snake doctor,” one rasta guy told us.
“The snake doctor?” we asked.
“Yes yes best snake doctor in South. He make all medicine. You can go look. He have all snakes there,” the rasta guy told us, a wide grin on his face.It didn’t take any more persuasion, we were sold. And with our plans to explore Galle quickly evaporating, we hopped in the rented tuk tuk and headed inland.
The drive to the snake doctor’s house was stunning. The monsoon season is now in full swing in the South, and the sky was patched with violet clouds, and the rain was pouring down heavily. The wet rice paddy fields and dense jungle around us seemed more vibrantly green than ever, and the winds seemed to made the trees dance and sway all around us. The air was fresh and cool, and the breeze brought in smells of damp foliage. Our tiny tuk tuk ambled over potholed roads and through tiny hamlets and villages flooded by monsoon waters. Vast expanses of lush vegetation fed by overflowing rivers seemed helpless against the endless torrent of rain, but with the rain covers up on the sides of our tuk tuk, we managed to stay warm and dry.
After about an hour, we arrived at the snake doctor’s home. It was a modest little house with no obvious signs of the snake inhabitants on first sight. When we walked into the living room, however, strange bottles and vials filled with gloopy green and yellow liquids caught my eye. On the mantlepiece was a framed newspaper article of a man holding a snake. Just as I saw it, the man walked in. The snake doctor had arrived.
“Hello, hello, you come for snake?” he said. We smiled back at him and nodded.
“Come come,” he told us, leading us into a small shed on the left hand side of his house. Inside the shed we found ourselves in a room filled with caged boxes. A strange hissing spitting noise was coming from one corner. We were soon to find the source of the noise. The man pulled out a stick and without any warning he threw open the first cage and pulled out a giant Cobra. It writhed angrily on the floor, lunging at the snake doctor several times to try and attack him. We all leaped back, but the doctor was nonplussed. Using his sarong deftly to ward off the snake, he told us proudly “I’ve been bitten 16 times before. But I make all medicine here. Natural medicine, you know? Ayurvedic.”
“Is this one deadly?” I asked.
“Oh very deadly, madam. If you not take medicine, 12 hours and you dead,”
The snake doctor put away the Cobra and proceeded to show us the rest of his collection. He had about 25 different types of snake, most of them caught locally. He explained to us that there are five deadly snakes in Sri Lanka. Over 30,000 people get bitten every year – mostly workers from the rice fields – and 600 of them die from their bites.
Some of the snakes were not dangerous, and he allowed us to hold them, draping them around our necks and wrists as though they were scarves and bangles. One of the snakes we were allowed to hold was the Constrictor snake, a gigantic thing that can quite easily squeeze the life out of a cat or dog. I dared not ask if it could kill a human, but it seemed particularly comfortable curling itself around my neck!
In addition to the snakes, the doctor had a few other animals that he had picked up in his years of hunting for snakes – a tarantula, and some scorpions. He explained to us that tarantulas are only found in the dry plains of the North, but scorpions could be anywhere. I knew this only too well, only last year I found a scorpion in my friend’s house in Hikkaduwa.
When we had finished looking at the snakes, we gave the snake doctor some money and made our way back. I’m not sure quite how I feel about so many snakes being cooped up in cages, but it was interesting to learn about which ones are dangerous and which ones are not. The most deadly snake in Sri Lanka, it turns out, is neither the most scary looking or largest. It is a very small black snake whose bite can kill you in less than 7 hours. The man told us that after half an hour of being bitten, the medicines are less likely to work, but at least now I know that if I get bitten by a snake I have to make my way to a hospital extremely quickly!