How to survive in the jungle: a drop of cobra blood with Khun Norris

February 22, 2013

Chon Buri province, Thailand

By Damir Sagolj

“Gentlemen, that was excellent!” said a young American called Richard as he downed a glass of snake’s blood in a room full of cobras and tough-looking Asian men. “Never refuse the invitation, never resist the unfamiliar.”

But those lines come from a movie called The Beach, and Richard was played by Leonardo DiCaprio. A few days ago, another young American, this time a real-life U.S. Marine training in Thailand, told Reuters what cobra’s blood really tasted like. “Terrible. Really terrible. But it’s a good experience. It’s something I can always tell my grandchildren about.”

And that sums it all up. For troops attending this strange training exercise, it’s something to tell grandchildren and friends at home. And there is Facebook, of course – many thumbs-up for bad-ass Marines.

Cobra Gold is an annual military exercise that gathers more than 10,000 troops from the U.S and its Asian partners. It includes other more conventional exercises, but journalists can pick only a few events from a busy schedule to cover, and top of the list is jungle survival.

It looks much more exciting and tough in pictures than in reality.

First, the Marines listened to a Thai instructor, a sort of smiling version of Chuck Norris, at a military base just behind U Tapao airport in Chon Buri province. The idea was to prepare them if, by some miracle, they ended up alone and unsupported in the hostile jungle.

What happened in reality was that a group of young Western kids, eyes wide and cameras ready, listened to Khun Norris tell them about the jungle: what to eat, what to drink, where to find shelter – in short, how to survive before the rescue team snatches you back to the world of hamburgers and cholesterol.

The training itself offers useful information; how to desalinize sea water, how to sleep in a tree, how to find and prepare food that in the real world grows on supermarket shelves. Everyone seemed bored. They were waiting for the most spectacular part. Cobras!

But before the cobras a Marine tried to bite the head off a live chicken. This is what happened:

Two birds were brought in. Khun Norris killed the first by holding its neck and swinging its body onto the ground. The chicken’s head remained in his hand, while the lifeless body lay at his feet. He made it look easy.

A Marine volunteered to kill the second chicken. But after swinging it twice the head of the stubborn chicken refused to be disconnected from its body. Khun Norris said he must now do it with his teeth. Meaning, he would have to bite the bird’s head off.

A frantic battle ensued between perfect American dentistry and the leathery neck of a farmed Thai chicken. Both sides ended up losing. Khun Norris (who wore a barely visible, Mona Lisa smile) ended the slightly embarrassing episode with a Rambo knife.

Enough with chicken, bring the snakes in! The Marines formed a wider circle (safety first!) and a wooden box was placed in the center. Khun Norris opened it and nonchalantly caught a cobra as if it was as harmless as a water hose, not one of the deadliest snakes in nature.

For those who live in Asia and whose understanding of usual and normal is in serious disorder (me included), this could be just another show with dangerous animals and reptiles. But for American Marines who are probably more familiar with more sophisticated military techniques, catching and eating a snake to fight a war is probably totally alien.

The most important part comes right after the cobras are beheaded. The Marines stand in line with mouths open, like little birds waiting for their mother to feed them. The blood drips in. Some miss the mouth, which adds to the drama.

Photos are taken. The media is happy and the Marines have digital certificates that they once drank cobra blood. We say goodbye to the very likable Khun Norris over a glass of army rum – with a drop of cobra blood in it.

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