Samui Wining & Dining
Lounge Lizards

These little scaly-skinned creatures are everywhere in Thailand,
and not a slicked back quaff or smoking jacket amongst them.

 

80They’re everywhere! Just look up. One of the things you’ll notice about the walls and ceilings in the open-air buildings here is the number of little lizards that crawl around on them. They’re not dangerous and are, in fact, made very welcome as they have a fondness for insects; particularly mosquitoes. Every home has a few in each room and they barely register with people living here all the time. They’re more likely to notice if they aren’t there.

 

Around the world, lizards are a very large and widespread group with nearly 3,800 species. They range across all continents (except Antarctica) as well as most oceanic island chains. And in Thailand there’re four main groups: Varanidae (three main species) which include the water monitor lizards, geckos (37 species), the agamids (34 species) and the skinks (38 species). But let’s focus on the three main species you’re most likely to see; two of which live on Samui.

 

If you spent a few days in Bangkok before coming to Samui you might have strolled around Lumpini Park. And you’d know that’s where it was because there’re several hundred rather large water monitors that hang around the lake. For first-time visitors, it can be a bit of a jolt to the system. They are a distant relative of the famed Komodo dragons and can grow to over three metres in length and weigh up to 90 kg. Just like their Indonesian relatives, they harbour toxin-producing bacteria in their saliva which can quickly cause infection. It’s an effective method of killing their prey but don’t worry, we’re not on their menu; it’s mainly fish, frogs, rodents, birds, crabs and snakes. In Thai, they’re generally known as dooa nguen dooa thong and it’s considered unlucky to have one close to or inside your house. Though I suspect the superstition is more about a fear of getting bitten.

 

Common to most areas of Thailand, the Emma Gray’s Forest lizard is an agamid and can be seen in towns, gardens and climbing the tallest of trees in tropical forests. Diverse in colour, it has three rows of spines on the back of its head with twin spines above the typanum (external ear-drum) and one continuing down the neck to the back gradually disappearing. The colour generally varies between brownish-olive to green. Normally there are brown or black bands across the back which arc and are lighter in the middle with white bands running down the sides; however, there have also been other variations in colour observed, such as light orange and light green. Look around the gardens where you are staying and you’ll see them. If startled, they run with what looks like a fast waddle and their heads held high.

Without a doubt, though, geckos are the most obvious of Thailand’s, and Samui’s, lizards. In Thai, they call the common house gecko a chingchook (a few centimetres long) and the largest of the geckos, the tookay (around 12-15 centimetres). So amazing is their ability to climb walls and ceilings they are often seen walking on or hanging upside down even on glass. This is because of their feet which have special pads on the bottom on which every square millimeter contains around 14,000 hairs or setae. These setae have a diameter of around five micrometres (human hair ranges between 18-180 micrometres). Each of these is in turn tipped with 100-1000 even smaller hairs or spatulae which are around 0.2 micrometres in diameter and that is just below the wavelength of visible light. These adaptations to their environment allow the gecko to have a seemingly otherworldly grip when moving over any surface. And they can move fast when they want to, just try grabbing one of the little ones, it’s almost impossible.

Tookays in particular are renowned for their loud vocalizations. Their mating call, a loud croak, is variously described as sounding like took-eh or gekk-gekk, where both the common and the scientific name (deriving from onomatopoeic names in Malay, Sudanese, Tagalog and Javanese), as well as the family name Gekkonidae and the generic term gecko come from.

It’s also considered the ‘pit-bull’ of the gecko world due to the fact that when they bite they often won’t let go for a few minutes and sometimes for up to an hour or more. And if it does get a hold, it can be difficult to remove without harming it. One way of getting it to release its bite is to submerge the animal in water or settle it down, which will encourage it to let go without causing it any harm. A less stressful method is to simply put a drop of vinegar onto its nose. This is sometimes enough to get them to let go. That said, they aren’t going to attack you so just avoid sticking your fingers somewhere they don’t belong.

There are some superstitions surrounding the tookay as well. It’s said that when a small creature with a tail falls down, depending on where it lands in relation to a person, it might bring good luck or trigger a series of unfortunate events. If a lizard ever loses its balance and falls off the ceiling in front of you, make a note of where it lands and ask a Thai person what lies in store. If you’re lucky, and the lizard lands in front of you with its tail pointing to the right, your relatives will shower you with gifts. On the flip-side, though, if the lizard hits your right hand then run for the hills because you are doomed to a life of unhappiness. And it’s also supposed to bring misfortune if one lands on your head, but better a tiny gecko as opposed to an elephant I say.

Though that does beg the question of how the elephant managed to cling upside down to the ceiling before losing its balance. But that’s another story for another time.

Johnny Paterson

 


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