In 2007, I drank cobra blood from the bloody stump of the snake’s neck, and now I’m invincible.
At least the first part of that sentence is true. The rest is an embellishment on an ancient belief in some Asian cultures that consuming snake flesh or drinking snake wine has medicinal value and promotes vitality and health.
True or not, it’s fun to tell my friends that because I participated in this controversial Thai warrior ritual, I now have superpowers. What can I say? I’m a storyteller. Sometimes we embellish. That said, all the rest of this is true.
Cockroaches, grasshoppers, and grubs taste like burnt chicken skin. Bamboo and a lot of elbow grease will start a fire. Chicken necks are not very resilient. Cobras take it personally when people don’t look them in the eye.
In a small, backwoods training area in the heart of Thailand’s vast subtropical landscape, American Marines learn those lessons and more during a crash course in jungle survival during Exercise Cobra Gold. Over the almost 40-year history of the combined, annual exercise, the day of survival training has become the must-see event for Marines who participate in the field training.
The year I went as a member of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, we Marines sat in a semicircle formation in the woods and learned from a man best described as the Thai Crocodile Dundee. Thai Master Chief Petty Officer Pranom Yodrud, a 27-year reconnaissance veteran and jungle survival expert, held the Marines’ attention, using the universal language of humor to compensate for broken English.
“In Thailand, we have only three seasons,” said the small, animated Marine early in his presentation. “Hot, very hot, and damn hot.”
After the lesson on Thailand’s climate, Yodrud showed dozens of examples of plants, vegetables, and fruits people can survive on and several water collection methods.
Several American Marines played taste tester as Yodrud kept them guessing about how they should react. Their faces told the story: Squinty eyes and pursed lips meant bitter and unpleasant; wide eyes and elevated eyebrows meant “not bad.” Most reactions got a chuckle from the man feeding mystery plants to the crowd.
US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Charles Edkins, a hospital corpsman from Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, opened wide when Yodrud shoved a bag of gray fruit flesh in his face.
“It’s good,” Edkins said. “The texture is like caviar, but there’s no real flavor.”
Plants and fruits gave way to insect cuisine as the training progressed, and American Marines jumped at the chance to put away some roasted bugs.
“I had a cockroach and a grasshopper, and they didn’t taste bad at all,” said Dallas native Lance Cpl. Kyle Roberts, a heavy equipment operator with 12th Marine Regiment. “It was pretty cool; they tasted like burnt chicken skin.”
The training progressed past the taste tests as two Thai Recon Marines made quick work of starting a fire with nothing but bamboo by rubbing the convex side of one half of a chute on the sharp, rigid edge of another. Two American Marines struggled to mimic the feat until Yodrud eventually had to bring the training back on track, helping them with a pocket lighter.
Thai Chief Petty Officer Piroj Parsansai established himself as a crowd favorite when he served as lead demonstrator in the two most popular portions of the training. When an American Marine failed to pop a chicken’s head off with a firm grip, a slight twist, and an aggressive windmill swing, Parsansai accomplished the task by using his teeth and hands and followed the feat with a raucous war cry to encourage cheers from the crowd.
But Parsansai wasn’t done. His cobra-catching routine was the much-anticipated highlight of the training. Kneeling down to lock eyes with the snake, his manner changed to almost Zen-like, and Parsansai’s charges instantly went silent.
Slowly, he reached out to press down on the snake’s head, but it resisted. The two locked in a dangerous dance that, at one point, had Parsansai barely dodging one of the snake’s deadly strikes. In the end, Parsansai’s cool demeanor won over the snake, and he was able to slowly push its head into the dirt and snatch it up in a one-handed grip.
He emptied the snake’s venom into a cup and released the animal back into the circle so Marines could practice the proper way to catch it by the tail.
The beast’s inevitable demise followed as the Thais demonstrated how to skin the creature. The head went first, and several Americans followed Parsansai’s lead as he performed a Thai warrior tradition of squeezing some of the snake’s blood into his mouth.
“Is there anything cooler than drinking cobra blood?” Cpl. Garrett Bain, a fire direction control specialist with the 3rd Marine Division from Napa, California, asked after the training. “The Thais are outstanding. The knowledge they passed was awesome, and their willingness to show us their culture, knowledge and traditions has made this a great experience.”
Apparently, “hardcore” is a language both nations’ Marines speak fluently. And we’re all invincible now.