Finish your blood
Sra sau is a surprisingly smooth and refreshing Cambodian concoction. It’s a homemade rice wine, tastes much like Japanese sake, and is easy and dirt cheap to produce, thereby making it a favorite among the Cambodian working class looking to get tipsy. I, myself, have a zest for all things fermented, and only minutes ago, a messy-haired and strikingly pretty small Cambodian girl shuffled across the flimsy bamboo slats of this rural restaurant clutching my first glass of sra sau in both hands. It was full almost to the brim and swirled with her every step.
“Awkun,” I said in thanks then quickly emptied the glass. I needed to calm my nerves. I needed courage.
I’m now sitting cross legged on a straw mat, elevated 20 feet above a Cambodian swamp and gazing out at expansive rice fields and crystal blue skies when I finish my first glass and my second is delivered to me. It’s in a water bottle this time and is accompanied by a small convoy of four shoeless children and a shirtless Cambodian man in pleated slacks who is carrying a meat cleaver, a chopping block and a bulking and writhing plastic bag.
Rewind to three days ago.
Sherry and I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia and were ushered off the plane and into a taxi driven by a young, shaggy-haired and slouching man. “Where you from?” He asked in a gentle voice. “Ireland,” I said sticking to Sherry’s and my agreed upon alibi without making even the slightest attempt at an accent. “What about your lady? She look Asian, yeah?” “Khmer, actually,” I said, delighted at my interracial marriage, and suddenly he too was delighted to have a fellow countryperson in the backseat. “Bong aiyn Khmer?” he looked at her in the rearview mirror. “Cha. Yom Khmer,” Sherry said and then slipped into a surprisingly fluent exchange with our driver, whose name was Bun, and watching the two chatter back and forth in unknown vowels and syllables and somehow understand and deliver the appropriate responses to one another, I fell in love with her all over again. My introduction to Sherry’s life killed her bilingual skills – or so I thought, and apparently so did she, because I could see the surprise in her eyes at how quickly her mother language was coming back.
“Ask him about cobra blood.” I murmured quietly from the corner of my mouth, because Bun also spoke English, and I was too shy to ask. Sherry shot me a reproachful look, as she's terrified, absolutely terrified of snakes, but did ask him a few minutes later. He did know of a place where I could consume a cobra’s life force – where they would kill a cobra in front of me, drain the blood from the body and serve it to me in a glass - and suddenly my spirits were lifted with the realization that my first trip to Cambodia wouldn’t merely be a trek through the predictable paved streets of South East Asian tourism.
Rewind to several years ago.
I suppose my obsession with drinking cobra blood began when I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. At the beginning of the movie, he narrates a montage and condemns travelers for visiting far off lands to simply do what they could do at home. Watch movies. Eat hamburgers. Speak English. Sleep in beds. Then cut to Leo in a dimly lit backroom somewhere in the bowels of Thailand, surrounded by several menacing Thais, one of which had an eye-patch, if memory serves. Leo boldly and unflinchingly slams back a shot of freshly drained cobra blood, bangs his hands on the table and makes a hasty exit.
“You have to do that,” said the goblin living inside me as I watched the scene. “No dude, that’s sick,” I said. “You have to do that,” he told me again with a gleam in his eye. “Why?” “Because everyone else is too chicken shit to.” “No, dude.” “Yes, man.” And the goblin was right. I did have to do that. And at some point over the years, drinking cobra blood was officially placed at the top of my unofficial things to do before I die list (along with getting a tebori back piece of Mt. Fuji and getting shot three times by a Mexican gang). It became that mountain peak that was too tall and treacherous to climb. It became the line that separated the sensible person and what they are resigned to experience in a lifetime from the extraordinary person and what they are willing to subject themselves to in the spirit of being alive. It became the gauge that I compared what I was to what I wanted to be.
Fast forward to 45 minutes ago.
Bun pulled his silver Celica to a hut at the side of the road, rolled down his window and hollered (later translated for me by my darling, bilingual wife). “Hey! You got any snake!” The proprietors of the hut made a quick phone call – to the keeper of the snake, I assume – and there was one cobra restlessly waiting to be bled and devoured, anxious to merge his spirit with mine. So, we got out of the car as a lady ran at the same time from the restaurant and whizzed away on a moped to fetch the snake, and we made our way across the flimsy bamboo flooring of the restaurant and settled on a straw mat in a far corner. Four children stared at us from a distance, from behind a sofa. I asked Bun if I could have a glass of rice wine. I needed to calm my nerves. I needed courage.
Fast forward 25 minutes, to now.
Hanging awkwardly at the side of the shirtless Cambodian man in pleated slacks, the bulging plastic bag rotates just slightly with the restrained movements of its contents. It wriggles and writhes in a seemingly endless twisting of scales and sinew. In one brief twist of the bag I see the cobra’s hood flare, the telltale sign that it’s feeling threatened – rightfully so – and is ready to fight for its life. The man sets both the chopping block and meat cleaver on the bamboo floor and pulls a small aluminum wire from his pocket. He studies the cobra inside the bag and then with a sudden snake-like strike of his own, seizes the cobra’s head and pinches its mouth shut. He fits the aluminum wire around the snake’s neck, just behind its eyes, and briskly twists the loose ends together as if he’s sealing a bag of bread. Then the plastic bag is opened, the tail end removed and a female member of the family, who is to serve as the primary operator from this point forward, lifts the tail and stretches the snake horizontally. The shirtless man in pleated trousers still clutches the head within the bag. The snake is about four feet long and a glistening midnight black. The woman grabs the snake from the top and with a small cloth thoroughly swabs the oils off the length of its body. She then crouches down with the tail in her hands, lays it straight across the chopping block, picks up the meat cleaver and begins sawing.
A rooster crows incessantly. A baby cries in the distance.
Once it’s determined that the life vein has been adequately severed, the snake is held vertically over the water bottle of sra sau. The body contracts and relaxes. Twists and straightens, and losing its gracefulness, it cricks and jars like the links of a rusty chain. Our driver, Bun, steps in and together he and the woman squeeze the snake’s body between their fists, milking the blood into the water bottle, which is now a deep ruby red. When they finish about five minutes later, the empty shell of the snake is taken away, and the bloody bamboo flooring is doused with a bucket of water. Bun stands, swirls the bottle of blood and inspects it against the light like a seasoned winemaker.
It’s a lot of blood.
“I would like to share,” I say to Bun and make a nervous whirling motion with my arms, gesturing to everyone in sight. Bun looks confused. “I’d like to share.” I say again. It’s too much blood. “Chite, chite khneah.” Sherry says to clarify. “Chite khneah.” Bun smiles and examines the bottle again. “It’s good for two people,” he assures me and sits beside me on the straw mat.
Two glasses are brought out on a silver platter. One is a manly tumbler, which Bun pours the blood into first. The other, my glass, is a dainty snifter of sorts. “Any last words?” Sherry asks after Bun fills my glass and I study my drink. I do have last words. I have several.
What I want to do is release a throaty and cracking high-pitched mating call across the rice fields and into the jungles of Cambodia and deliver a diatribe on what it is to truly live and pound my chest and aggressively claim that King Kong ain’t got shit on me and go on and on about how I will wake up tomorrow a different man than I did today, better, faster, stronger, and then raise my glass and toast to truth, your truth and my truth, our personal truths, and finding these truths and following them to the end of the world if goddamned need be!
But instead I shrug and look to Sherry and the video camera she’s holding to document this experience, and I say, “There are no words.” I turn to Bun, who has his glass raised slightly and continues swirling the blood around and inspecting its density, flecks of the snake’s blood still splattered across his forearm. I raise my glass and nod. He does the same. We clink our glasses, toast in Sherry’s direction as well. And drink.
Much to my surprise, it actually tastes like my first glass of sra sau, but I shudder slightly still with the knowledge of what I just drank. I look at Bun as I finish mine and he takes the last swallow of his. Blood pools in the corners of his mouth. I wipe my mouth, smack my lips, and then I taste the blood. The unquestionable, undeniable metallic taste of blood lingers in my mouth, sticks to my cheeks and teeth, as if I just bit my tongue. Like I've been eating pennies.
Bun has disappeared. Sherry’s still shooting the video, narrating and asking me several questions, none of which I answer interestingly, eloquently or wittily. That’s what journals, memoirs and blogs are for. Before long Bun reappears with a small organ between his fingers, the snake’s gall bladder. He holds it over the water bottle and picks at the elastic skin of the organ as he explains how the bile inside will enrich the taste of the blood. He says something to Sherry in Cambodian, and she responds, “Bitter.” “Yes, yes. Bitter. It’s more bitter.” he says and breaks the skin of the gall bladder with his fingernails. The bile oozes out, glow-in-the-dark green like engine coolant, like ecto plasm, and dribbles into the bottle. We have a few more drinks, and it is in fact a bit more bitter. Then Bun sets the bottle of blood on top of a karaoke machine in the corner and says, “We’ll leave the rest for later.”
As we emerge from the restaurant and into the sunlight, headed now to the floating village of Chong khneas, I bow emphatically to the family responsible for making me one with the cobra. “Awkun chranh, awkun chranh,” I say repeatedly. We walk toward the car, and Bun takes notice of the goofy white boy grin on my face. “You drunk?” he accuses and teases. Bun’s English is very good, but I’m not sure how to explain how monumental and important this afternoon has been for my personal evolution. “No, Bun,” I say. “Not drunk. Just happy. Very very happy.”
Fast forward to two hours from now.
While we’re away touring the floating village of Chong khneas, the family will cook the cobra and upon our return will present us with a cobra feast. We will eat every bit of the cobra. Stir fried cobra. Cobra soup, from which I will pull sections of the body, peel away the rubbery earlobe-textured skin and devour the meat like catfish and then marvel at the engineering of the vertebrae. It’s like a child’s toy, I’ll giggle and wiggle it at Sherry, expecting confirmation, but she will just return a disparaging look and quietly scold me for playing with my food. Together, Bun and I will share several more shots of cobra blood laced with sra sau, each shot warmer and thicker and harder to take than the previous. With one drink left in the bottom of the bottle, Bun will instruct me in a fatherly tone, “Finish your blood,” and though the floating bits will make it damn near impossible to swallow, I will do as I’m told, with tears in my eyes.
Then we will drink several cans of Angkor beer, lie in hammocks and enjoy the breeze whizzing off the rice fields. Sherry will ask Bun about Cambodian weddings, and Bun will ask me about Obama, and I will ask Bun about Cambodia’s recent election. None of us will really pay too much attention to each other’s explanations. We’re all too full with the satisfaction that tomorrow we will wake up different people than we did today.
Links to a few of the videos, should you be so inclined: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_QAeMyinr0