Living abroad often comes with an array of challenges and frightening encounters. In the 1930s before joining the Foreign Service, Ken Landon served as a missionary in Thailand with his family, where his run-in with a king cobra would prove to be one of his most vivid experiences during his time in Asia. The king cobra is not only extremely venomous, but it is also much larger than other cobra species and a bold predator. Inhabiting many parts of Southeast Asia, king cobras, although posing an obvious threat to humans, are often depicted as protectors in Buddhism, making these snakes culturally significant figures in Thailand.
Soon after moving to Nakhon Si Thammarat province on the Malay Peninsula, Landon was walking home from church one Sunday when he came face to face with a king cobra as it encircled his newborn daughter near their home. In this 1982 interview with Albert W. Atwood, Landon recounts his quick response to the situation and the king cobra’s importance in Thai folklore.
You can read about how Landon’s wife wrote the book that would later become The King and I and about the different exotic pets Foreign Service families have had while overseas. Go here to read other Moments on spouses and children.
“To my horror I saw our baby girl lying naked on a mat with a 12-foot king cobra encircling her”
LANDON: In Nakhon Si Thammarat we lived in the compound of a girls’ school with the principal, a Miss Helen McCague. Our first incredible experience occurred one Sunday when I was coming home from church dressed in a white duck suit and carrying a Malacca cane. As I came up the road toward the house, which was on the edge of town, I looked across a high hedge and saw five servants of the compound standing and looking at something.
I came through the gateway, and to my horror I saw our newborn baby girl lying naked on a mat with a sun helmet over her head to shade her eyes, but with a 12-foot king cobra encircling her and with its head erect and swaying above her while it examined her, presumably to determine what to do with her.
The king cobra is different from the ordinary cobra, which is generally 3- to 4-feet long. This is a giant breed that is not afraid of people and will attack, sometimes without provocation. They may grow in size to between 9 and even up to 15 feet. Such a cobra may strike chest high on a person while the ordinary cobra seldom hits above the ankle.
Well, I, being a father, didn’t think of all this. I just let out a war whoop and started racing across the lawn leaving my Malacca cane. The king cobra, apparently recognizing a reckless father coming to save the baby, reared up an extra foot or more to view the approaching conflict and suddenly took off like an express train, spinning the baby like a top as it unwound.
I later observed portraits of Buddha in temples encircled protectively by such a cobra with its coils keeping him safe from the monsoon wind and its hood spread like an umbrella over his head. And as Buddha was a prince, son of a king, a mythology developed that if one were so embraced by a king cobra, that person was a prince or princess.
The myth was reinforced by the fact that a Sino-Thai infant was so embraced and grew up to drive the Burmese out of Siam and become King Chao Tak, a boyhood friend of the man who had him later assassinated to become king himself, the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty.
I was frequently informed by Thai that my daughter would grow up to become a princess and marry a prince or even a king. She did, American style, marrying a football hero….