Therefore when we were contacted by a company called Bang Productions in July of 2000 we did not hold any great expectations. We were visited by an outlandishly beautiful half-Japanese girl called Manami Szymko who had come all the way from Hong Kong (where the company was based) to interview us as possible presenters on a Discovery Channel project called Mysteries of Asia. In particular she was interested in the Naga, a gigantic legendary snake reputed to inhabit the Mekong river. Other episodes will feature the yeti, ghost hunters in the Philippines, Indian holy men with healing powers, the supposed undersea city off Japan, and UFOs in China.
Manami interviewed me at length about the monster and filmed a screen test. She met all our exotic pets and then vanished and we never expected to hear from her again. That was in July 2000. Imagine then, gentle reader, your humble narrator's surprise when a young lady, Sandra Egart from the aforementioned company, called in early October asking if I could join them in Thailand in a handful of days' time.
The next few days were a blur of injections, and procurement of tropical accoutrements. Then all of a sudden I was thousands of feet over Asia on my way to Boy's Own (the 1920s comic, not the limp-wristed "boy" band) style adventures.|
It may be prudent at this point to give background on the naga itself. Nagas are gigantic snakes found in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. They bare an erectile crest upon the head like that of a cockatoo but consisting of scales. The naga holds this aloft when angry rather like a cobra opens its hood. According to Buddhist scriptures the naga can kill in four ways. Firstly by biting and injecting its venom. Secondly by spitting like certain species of cobra. In this case the venom has a paralysing effect causing the victim to become as stiff as a statue in death. Thirdly by constriction with its powerful coils. And fourthly by its baleful glare, much like the basilisk of medieval Europe and the Middle East.
According to legend nagas have immense intelligence and magickal power. They could transform themselves into humans and walk un-noticed in the world of men. It was believed they inhabited grand underwater palaces rather like the dragons of China. Unfortunately for folklorists of the Michael Meurger ilk the naga is not satisfied with being a legend and still rears its scaly head today.
I was met at the airport by Sandra the production assistant who had contacted me earlier and Peter Daniel the producer. I was surprised at their youth, having expected middle-aged people. Sandra, a former model, was of a particularly striking beauty.
I had been told that due to budget restrictions we were staying in a cheap hotel. "Cheap hotel" seems to have a different meaning in Thailand. The Amari Atrium in which we stayed whilst in Bangkok was by far the finest hotel I have ever had the pleasure of patronising. This begs the question of what an expensive hotel would be like.
Presently we were joined by the other members of our crew. The researcher and interpreter Athihan Srivetbodee, or "Bob" for short, who also worked for a charity protecting captive elephants. The camera man was Derek Williams who in a thirty year career had covered just about every event of importance in Indo-China. His mother has been badgering him to write his autobiography for years. I for one would love to read it. He was ably assisted by his soundman, Somyot Pisapark who had accompanied him on numerous previous adventures. Somyot was a dedicated man. Halfway through our filming schedule he was told his wife had developed throat cancer but he continued all the same.
Bangkok is a strange city. It bares an uncanny resemblance to Birmingham. It even has an office block shaped like Birmingham's famous Rotunda. Gaining planning permission in Bangkok is as easy as fancying Kim Director. So buildings spring up like fungi. So fast do they get built that often times some small things like foundations or strengthening rods are forgotten and the building is abandoned. Unlike Birmingham however one often comes across an elephant wandering nonchalantly down the street or rooting through a bin outside a bakery!
Later that evening I was shown some film of the giant Mekong catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) This animal is the largest (in terms of bulk) freshwater fish in the world and has been mooted as an explanation for the naga. The sequence showed four men catching an eight foot specimen. The silvery grey fish is of massive bulk and has bizarrely situated eyes, very low on the head. The men manually stimulated the fish's cloaca to collect its milt to use in captive breeding programmes. Strange to think I had travelled all the way to Thailand to watch film of a fish being masturbated!
The day after my arrival we visited Samutprakarn crocodile farm , home to the largest crocodile in captivity a 20 foot indo-pacific, Siamese cross named Yai. Yai in Thai means big , what a lot of thought went into his naming! Yai was sharing a network of pools with around 100 other crocodiles. Conveniently for us he was in a small shallow pool that allowed me to walk up and down his entire length and confirm his size.
The keepers swore that Yai was the largest crocodile on the farm, but out in the main lake I saw a number that appeared to be several feet longer. Two specimens looked around 23 feet and a huge individual appeared to be around 25 feet. This latter giant stayed in the centre of the large pool and would not be tempted closer to the bank. He showed only the end of his huge jaws and a portion of his scuted, treetrunk like tail. Ergo an accurate measurement could not be made.
I had a theory that the Mekong monster could be a large (30 foot+) indo-pacific crocodile (C. porosus). I later abandoned that idea after hearing eye-witness accounts but this gave me a chance to view my favourite creatures closer up than ever. The crew had me talk about crocs and the titanic sizes they can reach whilst filming me infront of the pool. Then the gates were opened and I was presented with several buckets of chicken carcasses. "You lean through and feed them . We'll film you from over here," they said.
My days as a zookeeper taught me that captive crocodiles are much more interested in eating the food a keeper presents them with than the keeper himself. Yai was not hungry but several of his comrades came whizzing in like Polaris missiles with bear traps attached to them. I must admit to enjoying feeding them immensely and became nostalgic for my years as a zoo keeper.
Samutprakarn would not past muster for a zoo in the west. Its promotional material pushes the conservation angle but by cross breeding (the Indo-pacific's huge size and fast growth with the Siamese's less aggressive nature being the 'ideal mix' for skin farming) the gene pools both species are being diluted. The Siamese crocodile (C.siamensis) was until recently believed to be extinct in the wild but thankfully they seemed to have survived unscathed in Cambodia where they were rediscovered only this year!
Elsewhere at Samutprakarn were tigers attached to four foot chains that visitors could be photographed with. The docile creatures appeared to have been doped. Baby orang-utans were paraded in dresses for the same purposes.
This day seemed to be one for appalling zoos because in the afternoon we visited Pata zoo in downtown Bangkok. Believe it or not this zoo is situated atop a department store. One of the floors houses a reptile collection that is not badly maintained. Also here they had a preserved specimen of a creature I had only ever read about in Karl Shuker's "Lost Ark", the giant freshwater stingray (Himantura chaophraya). Only discovered in 1987 this fish is a monster in every sense of the word.|
The nearest description of this piscine titan I can give is an organic flying saucer! Greeny grey in colour its flattened body disc measures some seven feet by six and a half feet, big enough to cover a double bed. Its eyes were tiny like those of the Mekong catfish with whom it shares its habitat. These bottom feeders must rely on touch, scent and electro-reception in the Mekong's muddy waters.
A woman was selling cakes to feed to them so their existence was nothing more than sleeping and begging. Ironically the zoo had some rare animals hardly ever seen in British zoos such as umbrella birds, Burmese ferret badgers, and yellow martins. These were totally wasted as exhibits in such a vile excuse for a zoo.
We were meant to be interviewing the director of Pata zoo who had taken some film of an alleged naga swimming in the Mekong. However he had fallen over and banged his head. He was in critical condition in hospital at the time. It seems karma really works! Instead we talked to a Dr Apicsart who was a fish expert not connected to the zoo. Dr Apicsart had spent many years on board Japanese trawlers studying rare fish often from the deep seas. He was sceptical about the naga believing witnesses had seen shoaling fish. As I was to later find out this explanation did not stand up to scrutiny.