I would be lying if I said that I wasn't excited to eat at the Snake House. How could you not want to experience dinner among potentially life-threatening reptiles? And in tropical Cambodia to boot? It sounded like Rainforest Cafe but with live, dangerous wildlife instead of animatronic apes.
Besides, it had great Trip Advisor reviews: "This place bought me to tears, it's horrendous, disgusting the people who own it/run it are an example of how horrible the human race can be," raved Paul F. of New Zealand. "Just plain weird with a heavy dose of depressing," added David N.
The restaurant/zoo, owned by a Russian tycoon recently released from a Cambodian jail, is on the upper outskirts of Sihanoukville, a shady coastal city near the Vietnamese border with a reputation for abundant meth and persistent prostitutes.
On the way there, my tuk-tuk drives through blackness until I come upon a lit-up triangular gate with a sign reading: WELCOME TO SNAKE HOUSE CROCODILES FARM. I rumble under the Bond villain entrance and pass an open air pool hall before arriving at the restaurant doors. A boyish host leads the way in.
"You want snake table?" he asks.
"Yes, I'll have the snake table." Of course I'll have the snake table.
The first thing I notice is the sprawling aquarium. It is darkened until someone flicks a switch and the fish come into sight; groupers, colorful reef fish—and Jesus, is that a sea turtle?
At 9 PM, the place is deserted. Then I see the snakes. Dozens of cages resting on pumice pedestals in neat lines throughout the floor; some lit, others unnervingly shadowed. Some are marked, and in one section I count six cobras. The placards list the Latin, English, and Russian names for the serpents as well as the degrees of danger: NON-VENOMOUS, MILDLY-VENOMOUS, and VENOMOUS AND POTENTIALLY FATAL. That one comes with a skull and crossbones.
The host sits me at a table near a lit snake cage, but that is not what he meant by "snake table." Inside my table, resting underneath the glass, is a large python.
"Burmese?" I ask the host.
"Mmm," he replies cryptically before scurrying off. I sit down and a gentle mutt comes up and sniffs my leg. I look around. Twisting vines line the rafters stretching under a tightly thatched ceiling. Black elephant and dragon statues are positioned throughout the floor among the terrariums. A mysterious room with curtained windows sits above the empty bar.
Against an orchestra of crickets and softly playing Indian music I explore the menu. But the selection is disappointingly average: chicken cutlets, pork and beef ravioli, rice noodles with shrimp. I didn't come to the Snake House for chicken cutlets. With no actual snake on the menu, I gravitate toward the most serpentine item: moray eel with banana sauce.
"Actually it soup," corrects my lisped Khmer waiter.
"Can you make a White Russian?"
"No cocktails now," he shrugs.
"Any Russian beer?"
"No." I order a Tiger.
Suddenly there's splashing to my left. A chained dinosaur thrashes out of what I wrongly assumed was a koi pond enclosure ten feet away. That's when I notice the sign: DANGER CROCODILE NO ENTRY. The saurian beast was making a dash for it.
"Friendly crocodile?" I ask.
"No friendly," warns the waiter. "Angry." This place is either amazing or horrible, I decide.
I ask about the owner. "He started this 15 or 16 years ago. My boss, he make the venom from the snakes. Very experience."
Snake House owner Nikolai Doroshenko is a fascinating figure. Along with a number of lucrative real estate ventures, including his own island, the Uzbekistan-born herpetologist founded a charitable clinic for snake bite victims. He extracts much of the venom himself. The man has lived in Sihanoukville for decades and has Cambodian citizenship. His 36-year-old son is a captain in the local police force.
For the past two years, an ongoing spat with another tycoon in town—Sergei Polonsky, once one of Russia's richest men and a former business partner of Doroshenko—has dominated Cambodian headlines. Both Russians have accused each other of theft and attempted murder, among other crimes. Three months ago, Doroshenko was jailed in Sihanoukville for failure to appear in court for questioning over allegations of fraud, but was released on bail in early June.
"I hear he's a nice guy," I quip to the waiter, who chuckles and walks away to place my order. Soon he returns grinning with a complimentary morsel of phyllo bread topped with garlicky cheese and a shot of vodka.
I nibble at the phyllo and sip the vodka. In the distance I can hear dogs barking along with the crickets and Indian music. The shrill sound of children playing comes through the wall behind the croc pit. The place is totally dead, but one can sense the presence of a hundred beating reptilian hearts.
I inspect my table mate through the glass. He's curled up at the base of a little tree, his prison alit by a ring of small lights above what amounts to a glorified pot. I'm not even sure the snake is real until I see its arm-sized body expanding with breath. I pity its scaly soul.
Just then, four women enter the room and sit down on the other side of the restaurant near the mildly venomous vipers. They too choose a snake table. Behind them an old TV plays some bizarre Asian movie. The wait staff gaze listlessly at the blinking screen as the women chat animatedly in Russian.
Feeling like I'm being watched, I turn around and suddenly find myself staring straight into the yellow eyes of a sinister-looking serpent. There's no placard, so I don't know where he lies on the POTENTIALLY FATAL scale, but he certainly looks like he's packing. I carefully observe the ophidian but he stays put, resting suspiciously on a patch of plastic grass next to a pile of freshly shed skin.
Suddenly the door of the mysterious room above the bar opens and two men walk down the stairs into the restaurant. They're both grinning like someone's just made a fart joke. One of them is Doreshenko. They walk by my table.
"Are you the owner?" I blurt. They stop abruptly.
"Yes," replies the oligarch. He is dressed in a clean white button down with jeans. He's got a hard face, even features, and a knowing smile with deep eyes. The other man is skinnier, wearing a slick button-down and sharp spectacles. They look like they're in a rush so I get straight to the point.
"I've heard that there are vodka shots with snake venom here. Can I take one?" The word on the street is that Doroshenko milks the snakes into the shots at the bar, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to try to see that.
The bespectacled one takes over. "Mhmm, yes, we have those," he says in Russian accented English. "But not now. Come back in the morning. The snakes. They are asleep." Poisoned vodka shots before lunch? I appeal to Doroshenko. He shrugs with a grin and they walk off.
Soon the waiter arrives with a bounty of moray eel in sweet white soup with peppers and ginger slices in a bowl, along with a plate of white rice. The eel is subtly fishy, but with the consistency of chicken skin. It looks like a bunch of rubber snakes cut up with scissors.
I ask the waiter where the bathroom is and he points outside the restaurant down a dark path. "No crocodiles right?" I joke. "No crocodiles," he reassures, "Only snakes."
A posse of mosquitos ambush me in the bathroom. On the way back, I pass the restaurant entrance and head into the darkened quarters of the Snake House. I use my phone's flashlight app to illuminate the cages that line the path. As if in a some horrible laboratory, my light reflects eerily off the faces of monstrous fish, noxious serpents, and an outright demonic caiman.
Following the breadcrumb trail of terrariums, I come to a bridge. A sign warns the wanderer: "Crocodiles are dangerous! We do not accept responsibility in case of any injuries caused by crocodiles if approached!" Below the bridge is a pond, and when I shine my light downward, several pairs of sparkling eyes shine back at me. I think back to the waiter: No friendly. Angry.
I walk back to the snake table, finish my eel, and order dessert—an intriguing dish called the Drunken Pineapple.
As I wait, I check on my neighbor. Previously inanimate, the snake is now growing restless. He slithers up his tree. The spider at the top of the cage flits nervously across its web. The snake reaches higher and higher, darting his head mechanically and tasting the air with his forked tongue. He is looking for a way out.
Then my dessert arrives. It is a colorful concoction. In between two slices of pineapple lies a heap of diced mango, apple, pineapple, dragon fruit, and melon, all drenched in a brown glaze. Alcohol was somehow involved in its preparation, I am told. To be on the safe side, I pour the remainder of my vodka shot onto the sugary mix.
The caged cockatoo by the door squawks loudly. I turn to the snake. He has returned to his faux grass, laying still and defeated. Better luck next time, bud, I think before downing my Tiger.
I look down at the table python. Still sleeping.