I’ve lived in Mayangon township for more than fifteen years. I had a spacious house on a big compound in the vicinity of A-1-Road. As I’ve been told, A-1 is the name of a film studio. One of the first of its kind in Burma. Rumour has it that the owners chose this location as it was in the middle of nowhere and well suited to shoot ‘jungle scenes’. Later the area was developed and nowadays the former wilderness has become a place where land prices have gone up quite a bit in the last decades. When I moved into this house with my girlfriend the ‘garden’ consisted of a lawn and a few trees. Illuminated by three whip poles with neon light. Beautiful! But as we all know, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. We were not happy with what we had and quickly started to redesign the garden. We planted a lot of bushes and trees, laid out a fishpond and soon our compound had been turned into a green oasis.
It is a common saying that in the tropics you can put a walking stick in the ground and it will start to sprout after three days. Which is perhaps a little bit exaggerated. However, all sorts of animals quickly made our little paradise their home. Among them quite a few snakes that found a richly laid table in my fish pond: frogs and lazy goldfish galore! In my opinion, a garden like this has a number of advantages. On the one hand, it simply looks beautiful and, on the other hand, its denizens won’t come into the house! What would you do if you were a snake or a scorpion arriving in a compound that has been concreted over completely? You’d look for the next hiding-place, of course! And that is the house! In contrast to many others here in the country, I have never had a dangerous visitor in my house.
Now, as I said, the table in my garden is well laid for snakes – but a deadly danger is lurking there: my gardener! Ko Oo is a true nature-boy who belongs to the Chin Nation. He isn’t afraid at all of snakes. I believe he can catch them with his bare hands. In the rainy season there were a lot of snakes in the garden. Sometimes he caught three snakes a week. The snake you see in the photo met its destiny near our fish pond just after swallowing a goldfish. As you can see, the fish is clearly visible. Ko Oo proudly presented it to us. After that he squeezed out the fish, fed it to his cat and fried the poor reptile…
In the West, snakes are considered as evil. Who gave Eve the apple of knowledge after all? They are associated with cunning, meanness and hatred. In the Tibetan ‘wheel of life’ (Sanskrit: bhavachakra) it also symbolizes hatred (Skrt.: dosa) and Krishna defeats the snake king. Otherwise however, snakes enjoy a good reputation in India and the indianized states of Southeast Asia. They embody the watery element: if you take a closer look, you will see countless nayas, snake-like creatures on the wooden roofs of religious buildings in Myanmar. They are supposed to protect the building from fires. Unfortunately, they’re not always successful.
And not to forget the serpent king Muchalinda, who shielded the Buddha during a storm (see the picture from Bodhgaya – there are many examples!
One day our friend Sonny was visiting. He worked as a radio operator on various ships and has sailed the seven seas. He speaks very good English and compared to other Burmese he even has something like a cosmopolitan attitude. In the course of our conversation I mentioned in passing that we had a lot of snakes in the garden this year. “Really? That’s dangerous! How do you protect yourself?” he asked. “Oh, no problem, our gardener is catching them all!” – “Well, I’m glad to hear this! What does he do with the snakes? ”. – “Why? Of course he’ll eat them! The whole family likes to eat snake meat!” I said innocently. Sonny turned pale: “I beg your pardon? They eat them? You gotta be kidding!” – “Why, what’s so bad about that?” I asked. He looked at me with a stern face and said: “Don’t you know that snakes live in families just like humans? They always take care of each other. Now, if your gardener kills a snake, you can be sure that the murder is being watched by a relative of this snake. And then it’ll take revenge!” I looked at him in disbelief: “Are you pulling my leg, Sonny? That’s the biggest nonsense I’ve ever heard …!”. Our usually reserved friend got a bit angry: “You can’t kill snakes! That means courting disaster! You foreigners always think you are so smart! But in reality you know nothing about our country!” he reproached me. “You know, Sonny, I think we’d better change the subject, this discussion is leading nowhere!” I said and then we forgot about it.
Not long after that, Sonny’s friend Tony came by. He had accompanied me as a local guide on many tours. We talked about this ‘n that and somehow we got to talking about Sonny: “Say Tony, your friend Sonny is a little weird, isn’t he?” – “Why?” he asked me. I told him the story and he shook his head in disbelief: “I have to admit that sometimes I am ashamed of my own compatriots. This superstition is really embarrassing!”. I felt reassured: at least my friend Tony seemed to be sensible … “Although,” Tony continued, “There is a certain kind of snake for which that applies! But only for this variety!’ – ”Now that you say it, I remember something strange!”, I replied: “The other day I saw a snake in the garden and it wrote something on a piece of paper. Most probably Ko Oo’s name! I hope nothing will happen to him!” I joked. And what did Tony do? Just like his friend Sonny, he scolded the ignorant foreigners. So we changed the subject and after a drink the matter was forgotten.
However, I couldn’t get it out of my head! Could it be a coincidence that two of my friends harboured identical absurd views? I gave it another try, this time with U Saw Aung, a businessman who sold stationery for the Staedtler company. When I stopped by his shop once, I brought the conversation to his friends Tony and Sonny. He threw up his hands in disbelief: “That’s incredible! You see, these two have a university degree and traveled the world. And nevertheless they believe in this nonsense!”. – “Yeah, I can’t understand it either! Actually, they are quite sophisticated people!” I agreed with relief. “Although” said U Saw Aug ‘If you kill a snake, you absolutely have to cut off the head and bury it separately!” – “What good is that for?” I asked him. “You know, at the moment of death, the murderer’s reflection is burned into the retina of the snake’s eye. If then the relatives … ”- Aaarrghhh! I left the shop without a word and vowed never to speak to a Burmese again about the snakes in my garden. After all, you don’t want your last illusions being destroyed …