Panarat Chaiyaboon was using the toilet in her downstairs bathroom in July when she felt a sharp bite on her thigh. She jumped up to see a scene straight out of a nightmare: an 8-foot python emerging from her toilet.
She rushed to the hospital, bleeding heavily, and still bears the marks from eight tooth punctures that were around half an inch deep.
That snake was captured. But a week later, Panarat’s 15-year-old daughter found a second python in the same toilet. The daughter was so shaken, she went to stay with relatives.
It could be argued that snakes have always owned this corner of Thailand, and that the people of Bangkok are merely borrowing it from them. The main airport, Suvarnabhumi, was built in a place called Cobra Swamp, and the city itself took shape on the Chao Phraya River delta – a marshy reptile paradise.
But this year, the Bangkok Fire and Rescue Department, which removes snakes from homes, has been busier than ever.
As of Monday, the department had received 31,801 calls this year for help in removing snakes. That is more calls than for all of last year (29,919), and more than three times the number in 2012 (10,492).
On one recent day, the fire department received 173 snake invasion calls, versus five fire alarms.
“There’s no way we could survive if there were more fires than snakes,” said Prayul Krongyos, the department’s deputy director.
The department’s figures don’t even include the many thousands of snakes that are killed or removed by residents on their own or taken from homes by volunteer handlers.
Most of the snakes rescued by firefighters are taken to a wildlife center and eventually released in the wild.
Prayul and the department are nowhere near panic. One reason for the rising numbers is growing public awareness that firefighters can help remove snakes and other animals.
It has also been a wet year, even by Bangkok standards. Heavy rains bring a surge in the number of snakes seeking refuge indoors. Flooding can turn city streets into snake highways as the creatures are forced from their hiding places and swim for higher ground.
And as the city of more than 8.2 million people continues to expand into formerly wild lands, the number of snake encounters is rising. Most of the snake removal calls come from neighborhoods on the perimeter of the city where new housing is destroying what’s left of the creatures’ domain, Prayul explained.
“When people build houses in their habitat, of course they will seek a dry spot in people’s houses because they can’t go anywhere else,” he said.
All reasonable explanations. But casual discussion tends to end when it’s your toilet the snake is in.
“There are snakes everywhere!” said Kanok Praditkranok, Panarat’s husband. “They live beneath people’s houses, they live in holes, they live in the wilderness and in the ground. But they shouldn’t be able to enter people’s houses.”
The reality, though, is that humans cause snakes much more harm than the other way around.
Thailand has more than 200 snake species, including about three dozen that are venomous. But most do not pose a threat to people.
“Stories of snakes invading homes always sound scary, but as long as you don’t provoke them, they won’t hurt you,” Prayul said. “There are only a few cases where snakes come into people’s houses and hurt them.”
In Bangkok, where garbage bags often pile up on sidewalks awaiting collection, snakes perform a public service by catching rats and other vermin.
“Snakes are among the most misunderstood animals in the world,” said Nonn Panitvong, a leading expert in biodiversity. “People are afraid of snakes and don’t take time to identify them. In Thailand, they just kill the snakes.”
To keep the animals from being needlessly slaughtered, Nonn helped set up the “Snake at Home” message group on the popular Line phone app. People who encounter a snake can send a photo to the group’s volunteer experts and get an immediate reply on whether it is venomous.
“We can give them instant answers so maybe the snake will live,” said Nonn, who in August was named Thailand’s first ASEAN Biodiversity Hero, a new award created by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to honor conservation advocates.
Started this year, Snake at Home has 29,000 followers and receives nearly 30 identification requests a day.
The identification service also has helped save a number of humans.
Doctors make more than half the identification requests in the hope of learning whether a snake that bit a patient was venomous and, if so, which species, so they can use the correct anti-venom.
“In Thailand, homes continue to expand into the natural environment, so there will be always more snakes in the homes,” Nonn said.
After the second python appeared in Panarat’s toilet, the family discovered that the soil under their five-year-old house had subsided and that there was an opening in the sewage pipe large enough for a big snake to enter.
The family fixed the problem and has not seen a python since.
Despite the widespread fear of snakes in Thailand, an encounter with one is considered by many to be a sign of good luck.
Panarat, who told her story on Facebook and posted photos of the captured snake, received half a dozen inquiries from people asking for her house number so they could use it when buying lottery tickets.
One relative wrote on her page, “There’s an old saying that if you encounter a snake, you will meet your soul mate.”
Panarat jokingly replied, “I’d rather be a widow.”