Beware the Jabberwock
Originally posted on Jul 1, 2017
One of the first articles I ever wrote was titled “Cobras in My Garden” (Bangkok Post, circa 1980). I told the story about finding a couple of monocled and venomous slithery friends who had invaded my garden. They didn’t fare very well after an encounter with my garden hoe though. I had chopped one in half (a big no-no I later found out), the head flying off into the bushes. The whole neighborhood screamed at me for being such a fool. About a half hour later their fury was corroborated when the head part, with its fangs flaring and cobra viscera trailing, and still very dangerous, came wiggling out of the shrubbery.
And ever since then I have had to answer the question about how dangerous snakes are in Thailand; the latest being an email telling me that a perspective female retiree to Thailand had decided not to migrate here because she was afraid of the snakes.
Personally, I love snakes. Maybe because of that I see snakes often. Most are harmless and non-venomous. Some are dangerous but sadly all snakes usually run away from me as fast as they can. In fifty years here I have never heard of anyone I know being bitten by either a venomous or non-venomous snake. So are snakes a reason for not coming here? I think my emailer is making a mistake.
Yes, you should be careful if you see a snake although most will be harmless. But there are lots of other things lurking here that, on the danger scale, rank much higher than the 200 or so species of snakes.
Before I get into things to “beware” of, I should emphasize that none of the following “Jaberrwocks” would stop me from a move here.
The tiny danger
The most dangerous animal in Thailand (besides humans that is) is not a snake, or a tiger, or a water buffalo in heat, or a rampaging elephant. All are dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as the tiny mosquito.
Dengue fever is a real threat, although for adults it is usually not life threatening. I’ve had it. Painful as hell, worse headache I ever had, 104 temp, lasted about 4 days, but I am still here. It wasn’t much more of a bother for me than a trip to Immigration. Others have had more severe cases.
Children can be hit hard by dengue and recently one of Thailand’s biggest movie stars caught a lethal strain, ended up in a coma and later died. This was a big deal here not only because of the victim being a celebrity but because it is so rare for an adult to die from dengue.
Mosquitoes also carry the much rarer Japanese encephalitis. As the name implies, it attacks the victim’s brain. There is a vaccine for it but unless you are living way out in the boondocks you won’t probably ever see this. It is also known as “sleeping sickness” because many children who get it lapse into a coma which they rarely come out of. I know of only one Expat who contracted Japanese encephalitis. He lived way upcountry and he later had severe psychological issues due to it. Since the Japanese encephalitis mosquito’s life-cycle includes time spent in a pig, if you don’t live near or around pigs then you’ll probably be fine.
And of course there is malaria. I haven’t heard of malaria up here in the north. There is some down in the south though but I have never met an Expat who caught malaria here in Thailand. If a reader knows of someone please let us know, and tell us the story. There are malaria pills but I don’t know anyone here who takes them. It just isn’t a problem that concerns most Expats.
So what does one do about mosquitoes? Screens on your house would be a good idea. I lived in a non-screened house for about 3 years and slept under a mosquito net (When I wasn’t sleeping under a net was when I caught dengue even though the dengue mosquito is most active in the daytime.) There are many insect repellents available here. The best ones use “deet”. Mosquitoes are definitely “repelled” by it, but many people have side effects using it so be careful. There are also mosquito coils which you burn and do keep the little buggers away. But I don’t like breathing in the fumes.
There are also lots of other little buggers that hang around trying to eat us. If you get a scratch or a scrape or break the skin in any way, be sure to quickly wash it out with soap and water and use an antiseptic. You may not be able to see these bacteria but you are now in the tropics and they will find you. A friend of mine almost lost a leg when he got a simple scratch which got infected and it took some serious antibiotics and weeks walking with a cane before the infection was gotten under control.
They’ll eat you out of house and home
Probably the most destructive insects here are the termites. If you have any wood in your house, even door frames, or book cases, or books for that matter, they will find them, and eat them. They won’t physically hurt you but your bank account might get eaten away after paying for house repairs. I have some climate-change-activist friends who tell me that if we don’t stop the destroying of our environment immediately then our species doesn’t have much longer to live on this planet. I hope they are wrong, but if that is the case, then I think the termite will be crowned the new “King of the World”.
There are lots more biters and stingers here who can make life painful and itchy. I’ll just mention the ones I have encountered personally.
There are many species of bees in Thailand. The jungle produces lots of illegal honey (which sometimes finds its way into our kitchen), and bee keepers produce a good quality legal kind. We once had a hive of tiny bees living inside the walls of our house. They entered and exited the hive from the outside so we weren’t concerned. Their stings are only bothersome unless you are allergic.
It’s the wasps and hornets that can knock you out with their stings and there is a buzzing, hairy bumble bee whose sting feels like a gun shot. Avoid these guys if you can.
Scorpions are just about everywhere. You’ll often see the large black ones, sometimes frying in a wok in the market as they are considered a delicacy. They are huge and look like black lobsters, but their sting is more or less just a bit of a bother. It is the little red ones that give the big stings. Just turn on the lights, as scorpions are usually photo-phobic, and, like New York roaches, they’ll scurry away.
I can’t fail to mention the one time I was walking through my garden and my arm brushed along the underside of a leaf. POW! I thought I had been bitten by a cobra the pain was so intense. I turned over the leaf and there was this hairy caterpillar looking up and smiling at me. It took hours for the pain to go away. Moral of the story, if it is hairy, stay away.
You will get bitten by ants, that’s for sure. Little black ones hurt, the big red weaver ants, the ones that make those cool woven nests and whose eggs and larvae are so tasty, can give a painful bite. But it is those tiny red ones, the ones that the Thais call “mot khan fai”, the “ants that itch and burn” that can really hurt.
After a heavy rain ants sometimes like to move house. One rainy season morning I went downstairs, eyes still closed, and stepped right into a moving parade of the “itchy burning ants” going right across my living room floor. They flew up my leg and started biting. I looked down and saw what was happening but it was too late. There was so much pain I thought I was going into cardiac arrest. After getting all the ants off my leg my heart was still racing, my leg felt like it was being cut off, and if I wasn’t flat on my back, and if I had a phone, I would have called 911 (nothing would have happened anyway because emergency here is 191). I survived though, and ever since then, no matter how sleepy I am, I open my eyes wide before going downstairs.
Other biters are centipedes, the big long 8” variety that can put you into the ER (Note: Those huge millipedes are harmless and are in fact good for the garden.); during the rains there are tick invasions, especially in houses with dogs; leeches you’ll discover on your jungle trekking experience; and there are little bugs you can’t even see, like scabies. I caught scabies once in a hill tribe village. Little red dots on the skin, the insect is microscopic, that itched like crazy. Made me feel dirty. If I got them in one night in the village what must it be like for the villagers?
But the bites you want to avoid are from our best friends, dogs. Rabies is endemic to Thailand and a large percentage of the dogs here go unvaccinated and are prone to this virus. If you are bitten or simply scratched by a strange dog then to the doctor you must go and you will probably be in for a series of the rabies vaccine. It is a series of shots over a number of days. They are costly and chances are you wouldn’t even have needed them, but peace of mind sometimes costs a bit. To paraphrase Cercei Lannester, the Mad Queen in Game of Thrones, “If you play the game of rabies, either you get vaccinated, or you die.”
Note on soi dogs or dogs you meet on your walks or runs. They will sound really aggressive but they are just doing what dogs do, protecting their territory. Some people carry sticks or stones with them. That just makes the dogs angrier. Here is what I do. When I pass by a yapping pack of soi dogs, I just stop, arms hanging low, palms out, non-aggressive, and I speak sweetly to them and say, “Please let me pass. I know this is your territory and I promise I won’t do anything to mess it up.” And they quite down, sniff my palms, and then let me go on my way. Amazingly this works almost every time, and I have never been bitten.
So you like it raw?
Do you like sushi and sashimi, raw fish? Live tiny shrimp, still wiggling are favored by many beer drinkers. Lots of people here will eat raw meats including pork. I suggest you go onto YouTube and search for “intestinal parasites pictures”. I would normally put the link here but the sites are not for kids or the squeamish so I’ll let you do it for yourself if you can take it. After seeing them, tell me you still want that nice raw salmon or tuna.
But not to worry. If you cook your foods well and unless you are extremely careless about what you eat, get really drunk often and don’t know what you are eating, or are just addicted to Japanese sashimi, you’ll probably never get a picture of your intestines posted on YouTube. Many old-timers here will do a series of deworming pills once a year as a prophylactic (ask you pharmacist), just as you would for your dog or cat. I used to, but now that I am more careful about what I eat I don’t see the need.
In Nature, it is always a war. Either something (big or small) is trying to eat you, or something is afraid you are trying to eat it and will throw up protection. Because Thailand is in the tropics, is hot, and damp most of the year, and is blessed with so many and varying species of plants and animals, we tend to come into contact with these battles more than if we lived in the more moderate regions of the world (although if my climate-change-activist friends are correct then every place may soon become tropical).
But is that a reason to avoid a retirement here in Thailand? I mean, America has black widow spiders, alligators, rattle snakes, gila monsters, the zika virus, lime disease, its own share of parasites, the Kardashians, Chipolte, and now the U.S. even has dengue fever. I might be afraid of moving THERE.
For some, maybe there are good reasons for avoiding Thailand and the tropics; they simply want to avoid the Jabberwocks. For others, Jabberwocks just make life a little more interesting, and that is one of the reasons I love it here.