We’ll begin with a warning — not about snakes, as the majority of those are pretty harmless, but about our identification abilities. Not being a qualified herpetologist (we ahem looked that up on Google), it’s often very difficult to identify our wriggly friends who tend to vary considerably in colour and markings from region to region, time of year, age, sex, no other reason than to confuse amateur snake spotters and so on and on.
As we mentioned in an earlier bird post, Chiang Mai being a leafy kind of town and surrounded by farmland and forest there’s quite a bit of wildlife to be found and that includes snakes. There’s reckoned to be around a couple of dozen or so species common to the city (and there’s at least as many in central Bangkok), so here’s a quick run through.
We’ll kick off with the most dangerous, and notorious: the king cobra.
This was a big one — around two metres — but to be honest it was firmly in the ‘burbs at Sankamphaeng that we saw it. They’ll go after chickens, rats and so on and while unlikely to take up residence in the city, may certainly make forays from time to time.
Same goes for the water-loving, giant reticulated python, which you’re unlikely to run into in the night bazaar but are occasionally seen in the Ping River.
Probably the most dangerous common variety in downtown would be one of the pit-viper family. These are usually not very big, and green coloured with black markings, but many variations exist and they are difficult to tell apart, though all are potentially dangerous. Below is a relatively easily identified green tree viper, followed by a pit viper which wasn’t actually shot in Chiang Mai, but we liked the photo.
Now pit vipers can be nasty and are even potentially fatal, but the good news is they’re nocturnal and generally pretty unobtrusive. They love sleeping and when they sleep, they sleep so you’d really have to go some to annoy one. They like height so are often found in, for example, straw roofs or overhanging vines. They are well camouflaged and not necessarily very large snakes so though there’s enough about, you’re still very unlikely to run into one say at your hotel.
Other common though harmless species found in town are the tree racers and tree snakes, which also come in several varieties and being diurnal, are relatively regularly spotted. As the names suggest, they are found in trees but the former is known for its ability to move very quickly, while the latter is also called a flying snake, since it glides through the air from tree to tree.
I intended to add a picture of a green tree racer at this point, but on closer examination the above seems to be a far more dangerous white-lipped pit viper. Anyway: another common Chiang Mai one is the aptly named common house, or wolf, snake. It’s a medium sized mottled grey snake, which once got into our 2nd floor bathroom at home via a carrier-bag of Tesco’s toiletries. The 1.50m certainly freaked out the cleaner but is perfectly harmless, and no, she didn’t get a photo of it.
I’ve also had some too small to identify baby snakes appear up the bathroom drains, so yes, downtown Chiang Mai has plenty of snakes around, but as is the case of snakes anywhere, they know you’re coming long before you see them and most are far more scared of you than you are of them. A sighting is really a lucky event.
However, if you are as bad at identifying them as we are, it’s best to consider all of them dangerous and to be treated with respect.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 21st June, 2011.