The Water Monitors of Bangkok

“When you go, check out the city parks – those are the best places to see water monitors.”

I’ve heard this advice from several sources, and since we had a number of days scheduled in Bangkok, it seemed like a no-brainer.  One of the reasons I picked a hotel out in the suburbs north of the airport was the large park it bordered, and that turned out to be a good decision.  Our first morning there, eating breakfast on the verandah overlooking the park, Jeff said “there’s one!”  and we watched a medium-sized Varanus salvator swimming across the lake.  There was no mistaking that large lizard head in profile.  Breakfast On The Verandah Life Lister Number One.

A first look

A first look

Still a bit woozy from twenty hours on two airplanes, we walked over a bit later.  The well-manicured park was fitted with walking and biking tracks, and low-impact fitness equipment.  Thai people take their physical fitness seriously, and from six in the morning until nine at night there were hundreds of people walking, running, pedaling, hula-hooping and doing the old wax-on, wax-off routine.  This was the backdrop for our monitor quest, and it only took a few minutes to spot a large Varanus, a four-footer, basking on a grassy bank.  It spooked when we came too close, plopping into the water and swimming off.  It emerged onto the bank further away, and we were able to photograph our first wild monitor.

Watching us watching back

Watching us watching back

‘Wild monitor’ may seem a bit generous, but these lizards were here long before Bangkok expanded to encircle them, and they had cousins living in the rice fields a mile or so west of the park.  The monitors we saw paid little attention to people on the paths circling the lake, and humans ignored them in kind, large lizards being just another fixture in the park.  The only creatures violating their personal space were the three of us; the lizards regarded us warily, and the local people regarded us as crazy tourists.  Like many herp-minded people, I’d seen my share of captive monitors in zoos, pet stores and swap meets, many of them dull-colored, sluggish and overweight, with bits of unshed skin on their faces.  Here in the park we got to see Varanus salvator in true form – sleek and handsome, active and alert in a hot and muggy environment not easy to duplicate in captivity.  No doubt they were snacking on birds, fish, turtles (another blog post), and anything else that might be living along the water.

Lumphini Park - stylish living for upscale Varanus

Lumphini Park – stylish living for upscale Varanus

The most famous urban spot for water monitors is Lumphini Park, located smack in the middle of downtown Bangkok.  We went for a visit one day, and spotted our first salvator as we crossed the entrance bridge.  The big lizards were everywhere, and we saw several dozen, including several six-footers.  The monitors at Lumphini were far more indifferent to humans than those at our hotel park, some of them moving about within several feet of visitors.  In turn, most visitors ignored them or casually watched them pass – people get used to anything, and like pigeons and squirrels, large carnivorous lizards become humdrum and ho-hum.

Dāv Kaufman gets in closer

Dāv Kaufman gets in closer

Lumphini Park gave us many photographic opportunities, and the chance to just watch and observe Varanus salvator at length.  Dāv put hands on a small one, and paid with forearms pricked and bloody –despite their manicured low-security prison, these lizards are still wild animals and can ruin your day.  Later in our visit we saw several wild monitors, who were much warier, and usually obscured by vegetation, so our park visits really paid off – never mind the bermuda grass, we had a great time viewing those magnificent lizards.

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  1. Peter Berg

    Mike, very cool little story about Thailand and water monitors and human behavior in their midst. I had a friend from Spain who came to Chicago. He saw a squirrel for the first time and noticed that they were everywhere. Apparently, he had never seen them in Spain. He asked me what are these animals running around all over the place. I had no idea what he was talking about until he pointed one out and I laughed. We see squirrels so often that we don’t even see them anymore. For us squirrels are kind of cute, but would our society tolerate water monitors the way the Thais do?

  2. pingleto (Post author)

    Great comment, Pete – and for a while, you no doubt saw squirrels through fresh eyes 🙂

  3. Pingback: » The Water Monitors of Bangkok – @HerpNation

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