How much money would it take for you to risk placing your hand inside the mouth of a crocodile and pulling out before it got chomped into a scrap of meat? Ten thousand dollars, a hundred thousand, a million? How about if I offered you seventy-five cents?
Every day at a zoo outside of Pattaya, Thailand, performers risk their limbs and heads inside crocodiles for a pittance. The show itself is a taut, nerve-wracking display of guts and timing. When the crocodile viciously clamps down, the noise from its jaw rings through the auditorium. Say the performer was having a bad day or was a millisecond slow pulling out his hand. We would be privy to a live amputation. It’s terrifyingly visceral when the guy places his head inside the crocodile’s mouth and holds it for several seconds. Same for the lady performer who lies on the back of the reptile. I don’t care how much training those crocs have received. It’s still dangerous. Once the show concludes, the performers make their Thai wai and plead for tips. I give the guy a twenty baht note—about sixty-six cents US, for his trouble and effort. I can’t help but think, this isn’t some restaurant where I’m giving a little extra something for service. This guy put his life on the line for the sake of entertainment and now he’s pleading for tips? It puts the whole idea of breaking a leg in perspective.
After the croc show, we head to the beaches of Pattaya. There’s a landing platform off shore where boats take guests on a parasailing ride and drive them around. I’d done it before in Cancun and I was excited about the chance to see Pattaya from up high. After clamping on my vest and harness to the parachute, the speed boat took off. I sprinted forward, jumped off the platform. I was taken up for a ride in the air, and I lifted my hands in exhilaration. But after I ascended, something bad happened. The air rushed out of my head and it felt like oxygen cut off above my chest. I couldn’t breathe and felt lightheaded. I smelled my morning breakfast, the hotel buffet of Thai curry, Korean kimchee, and imitation Western food that tasted like cardboard. Vomit edged up my throat. I was either going to throw up or faint. I tried to signal the rider to take me back, but he looked like a toy figure in a model boat below me. Besides, he was facing forward. I concentrated, took deep breaths, told myself, “Calm down, close your eyes, relax your nerves.” But it didn’t work. I felt worse and worse. I tried to calm the growing terror inside of me. The ride felt interminable. In my breathlessness, I didn’t have flashes of my life or nostalgic longing for wistful moments. Instead, a desire for the panacea of oxygen. I’d forgotten how precious air could be. The reminder came to an abrupt end as I crashed down.
The workers were prepared. They carried me to a bench, massaged me, rubbed balm around my nose. Slowly, breath came back to me, blood flowing back into my brain. My rejuvenation only took—well, forty-five minutes. I was touched by their concern, but my wife pointed out they were mainly motivated by economics. They didn’t want my collapse to scare customers and affect their business.
Fortunately for them, it didn’t. The aftereffects were a lingering headache and a heavy sense of embarrassment. This guy (me) couldn’t even handle a parachute ride? As compensation later on, I went jet skiing and shrugged off concerns for our lacerating boat ride. But I’d pay a day later, wracked by a nauseating fever.
I hate when my body burns up. I was confused by my reaction to the parachute ride. I’d done it before, and I’d braved plenty of scarier roller coasters without any problems. What had happened?
Shrugging off the fever, I accompanied my wife to a snake show even though it was blazing hot outside. A man teased cobras, ignoring their outraged hisses, even kissing one on the head. His only protection? A thick set of boots. He squeezed poison out of their fangs, playfully waved the snake at tourists, and even pretended to throw a cobra at the audience. Like the crocodile performer, once the show ended, he pleaded for tips. This time, half in a daze, feeling sore all over, I had a revelation.
Life is hard for an entertainer in Thailand.