BAN CHAN KREM, Thailand -- My journey begins on a small island named Okinawa, south of mainland Japan. I’ve been stationed there as a Marine for close to nine months now and, finally, got the chance to deploy.
I received orders to support exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand -- a country I’ve always wanted to visit. Soon thereafter, I stepped off a plane in Utapao, Thailand. I was anxious, as I truly had no idea what lay ahead of me.
Marines from 1st battalion, 1st Marine regiment and I then loaded several buses destined for Ban Chan Krem. Even that simple bus ride was an attraction, right down to the random elephant we passed lumbering alongside us next to the road. The children waving; the people going about everyday life in Thailand set the scene for me and opened my eyes to a new culture.
The next morning, as I walked toward the crowd of amused U.S. Marines surrounding a few Royal Thai Marines, the first thing I noticed was everybody passing around various types of fruit. The Royal Thai Marines were cutting open pineapples, watermelons, coconuts and some other types of fruit I’d never seen before.
After exchanging fruits, conversations and photos, the Thai Marines shared several jungle survival tactics. They showed how to start fires, eat spiders, scorpions and even drink cobra blood.
I’ve only seen spiders and scorpions eaten on television, but seeing it in person is surreal. A Royal Thai Marine had nonchalantly ripped off the fangs of a spider; then put the furry, wriggling spider body in his mouth -- as if it was an everyday snack.
After swallowing the spider, the Thai Marine unveiled live scorpions and asked for six U.S. Marines who were willing to eat the newest snack. Surprisingly, more than six Marines rushed to volunteer.
One by one, the U.S. Marines reached for the scorpions and tore away the stinger. The crowd waited with anticipation for the first bite. As soon as the Marines began to chew, the crowd roared with enthusiasm, cheering on the bug eaters.
Survivalists or doctors recommend that a key survival tool to follow is remaining positive – helping to provide the right attitude to stay safe in any environment. The Thai instructors reinforced that perspective, by showing Marines that there are many opportunities for food and resources in the jungle.
The Marines learned how to identify dangers, capture local wildlife, gather food and water – and even drink cobra blood. The latter is more of a local tradition, however, and by some accounts it’s intended effect is to instill bravery. The Marines who attended this year’s training were about to get the chance to test the local tradition and part of the namesake for the annual Cobra Gold exercise.
Since there weren’t enough scorpions to go around for tasting, the Thais promised the next opportunity to those who missed the chance to taste the crunchy arthropod. The additional, anxious volunteers would have the honor of chopping off a snake’s head during the cobra portion of the event.
“This next portion is very dangerous,” said a Royal Thai Marine. “Just remember to remain calm if the cobras get close to you, and don’t move.”
The Royal Thai Marines brought out a box containing the serpents. They pulled one Cobra from the box and set it on the ground. A Thai Marine then knelt in front of the snake, which was on high-alert with its neck flared out in classic cobra style. It lunged towards the Thai, trying to scare him away, but the unflinching Thai stayed put.
He slowly reached around the cobra’s head and gently guided it to the ground. Surprisingly, the cobra submitted and placed its head low. The Thai Marine then moved behind the snake and rapidly grabbed its head.
The Royal Thai Marines kept their promise and handed the machete over to one of the U.S. Marines. The snake was laid out on the box and the machete was brought down in one clean swipe. In one swift motion, the Marine chopped off the cobra’s head.
The anticipation was palpable. Quickly, the U.S. Marines congregated and knelt as the Royal Thai Marine raised the headless snake. I knew this was a tradition for all Cobra Gold exercises, so I put my camera aside, knelt down and waited my turn.
The cobra’s blood spilled over me. It was thick, but tasteless.
After getting up, I heard a Royal Thai Marine express his astonishment towards the excitement of the U.S. Marines.
“This is unbelievable,” said a Royal Thai Marine. “They are so excited!”
I could feel the excitement in the air as both Thai and U.S. Marines interacted. I noticed the simple conversation and the sharing of each other’s culture brought many smiles and joy to both sides.
On just the second day of my visit to Thailand I had already experienced something unforgettable. Only time will tell what other adventures I will come across.