Cambodia · Expat

Living with lizards: a love story

Cambodian Tokay gecko
A Tokay gecko with its classic rust spots and blue coloring outside our apartment (Siem Reap, 2016)

If you ask SE Asians what they are afraid of, they will most likely say: ghosts, snakes and lizards. Since I grew up in Hawaii, I can certainly understand why ghosts would be a legitimate concern. Ghost stories are very much part of Hawaiian culture, whether this be a modern development or something that spans back into earlier times, I wouldn’t know, but Hawaii people love a good ghost story and we’ve got them in plenty.

And snakes, of course, they seemed to be universally feared. Farmers often come across them in the fields. They are common and let’s face it, kind of scary. I’ve had them sneak in to my house in Thailand, too. Heck, I’ve got a couple of ‘snake in the house stories’ from back in the States, as well. We might even instinctively fear snakes.

But lizards and geckos? Why would Thais and Khmers fear them? It took a little sleuthing, but I eventually figured out through talking to many students over the years, and discovering why on my own. But I must confess, I still don’t get it. I like lizards. I suppose it goes back to being raised in Hawaii where geckos are common, not feared and part of the everyday landscape.

As children, we used to go lizard hunting. We never hurt them, but catching them can be quite difficult. My younger brother was great at it. We did this outside as I cannot imagine trying to catch them in the house as they scale walls. So, while I never enjoyed a childhood winter, I was lucky to have played outside all year around, climbing trees, running, bicycling, and thriving in a tropical climate (free of snakes I might add, Hawaii does not have them).

After we caught them, we held the lizards gently, but firmly between our thumb and index finger just below their necks so they can’t bite you. We knew how to open their mouths and we pretended they talked when we held them up. Then we let them go.

I watched one hatch from its egg once. I noticed that a mom had put them in one of the holes of a volcanic rock. Curious, I poked at it and in surprise saw that it was opening. I was afraid that I had hurt the little guy, but after he was free from his shell, he scurried off. Just one of those kid moments, I guess, where you are in-tune with your environment.

Chiang Rai house gecko
We rescued this sprout from our fridge! So glad we found him in time! (Chiang Rai, 2014)

So, it turns out that these little buggers sometimes fall on you and that’s why SE Asians don’t like them. It can be startling. I had it happened when I was washing the dishes, but I didn’t scream. I did recognize after that moment how that might scare people though.

The mating noises (that sound like kissing/chirping sounds) they make are also peculiar. Especially in a dark house, I could see how it might seem a bit spooky or even bothersome. But honestly, I think it’s the large Tokay geckos that most SE Asians fear. They are mighty defenders and have a way of getting into your house. Did I mention lizards are ubiquitous?

When I first moved into my cat cave (aka wooden house in the bamboo woods) in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t believe how much nature got into my house. When I squeezed a mop, a frog jumped out, mosquitos hungrily dined on my flesh, cicadas buzzed so loudly in the trees I thought there could not be a louder insect in the whole wide world until I heard the frogs (I know, not insects) in the nearby pond – now they were a force to be reckon with!

Cambodian tree frog
Beautiful and not noisy when he is not with his friends, in a pond, having a party. (Siem Reap, 2016)

Unfortunately, my cats liked to ‘play with them’ and by ‘play with them’ I mean, claw and kill. They were however, proficient at killing little field mice so I suppose they earned their keep. Although, I really needed them to do their work when a hearty Tokay found its way into my upstairs bathroom. And here, dear readers, is when I discovered why they are so feared.

I should mention that I did have one in the cat cave bedroom when I first moved in, and it was a little scary to know that it lived behind the wardrobe, but I also knew it had to go out on its own time. Eventually, I coaxed him out. (We don’t have Tokays in Hawaii and I’m not used to large lizards!)

BKK monitor lizard
These monitor lizards live in Lumphini Park and if you call someone a monitor lizard in Thai, it’s extremely insulting. And yeah, THESE guys are beasts. [Bangkok, 2007]
Right. So, the one in the bathroom would not get out. This I found terrifying because he opened his mouth in defense, was large and looked freaky scary and I used this toilet often. I wanted the cats to be useful and chase him out, so I threw the first cat into the bathroom. He nonchalantly sauntered back out. Then I tossed the second cat in there. He, too, promptly left.

Next, I tried holding Romeo as close as possible to the Tokay. But Romeo, my fighter, would have nothing to do with the lizard that knew better and stood still with his jaws wide open. I fetched Pippin, and by this time was sweating in stress and nerves, plus the cats were on the generous side, so I was getting quite the workout. I held him to eye level with the Tokay, but Pippin simply left, again.

I grabbed a broom and tried to shoo the Tokay out. Luckily, he snapped on to the broom bristles allowing me to carry him out while he clamped on snapdragon tight. The distance from the toilet to the outside patio never seemed father. I’m glad he never let go. Who knows what would have happened. Okay, I got it. Tokays are terrifying when backed up in defense and in your house…and on the other end of a broom that you are holding.

Interestingly, my now-boyfriend, but then new coworker, loves lizards, fish and frogs. He had them as pets. (Okay, he raised and bred them. He’s hardcore.) But I didn’t know this about him yet.

Well, one day, he decided to have a little fun with me and he stuck a toy rubber Tokay lizard on my work locker. I guess he wanted to see me scream or something, as those toys are made exactly for that purpose and you can get them at the market. Instead, I saw it, laughed then stuck it on my back shoulder and taught my following classes with the dang thing on me.

The rest you might say is history, heh, heh. We eventually moved in together and when we lived in Chiang Rai, our first house was a kind of Tokay haven. We lived in a traditional wooden house and I remember at one point we had about 4 or 5 coming into the kitchen. I have to admit that was enough for me. I don’t mind an occasional one, but they were outnumbering the humans. The bf, on the other hand, was delighted.

I’m not sure if you know this, but geckos are unique in that they make noises. (Lizards don’t, maybe the big ones hiss.) So, not just the house gecko, but the fearsome Tokay talk. Tokays are known to make a noise like, “toh-kay!” hence the name. The bf likes to make this noise in public places like grocery stores, much to my embarassment.

Okay, now obviously these are not the rubber Tokay toys, but crocheted ones we found at the market in Thailand. So cute!
Okay, now obviously these are not the rubber Tokay toys, but crocheted ones we found at the market in Thailand. So cute!

Anyway, when we were in Chiang Rai, our neighbors found one in their house (they had a 2 year old), and they came over to fetch the bf because they knew he loved them and they didn’t want to hurt it. Good people! Eventually, the men-folk got it out safely.

The sad thing is the Chinese want Tokays for their bullshit medicine. Here:

“the consumption of [the] gecko works like a charm on helping deliver baby boy only and curing ED (erectile dysfunction).”

I know, right? I’m so wrong in believing its crap. Ugh.

Okay, something else you might not know, we name our geckos. One of them we call Cornelius (a house gecko) because we caught him in the toaster with a dried corn kernel in his mouth. They normally eat bugs, so this is highly unusual, but we’re thinking they are adapting to human food as they often go in our trash to forage. The Tokays around the apartment are called Gladys and Georgina. And our Asian painted frog we call Frethel. How our frogs get up to the second floor, I’ll never know. The stairs?

On Friday, during my 6am class, we were in the computer room, so I decided to run up to the loo. There I saw a baby Tokay in the stall. And I knew that the little guy would not last in there. The front door is heavy and always is shut. He would most likely get screamed at or smashed in the door and there are no windows, just an evil fan that runs into the men’s restroom.

I went back to my class and told them about the Tokay. They looked at me like I was mad, but I was used to this as I like the very thing so many of them fear. After a short time, I decided I needed to rescue it. So I went back up and tried to catch it with a towel. And because it was so tiny, I was able to do it! Then I tried to get the little guy to go out the slats in the hallway. One of the cleaners asked what I was doing, then a coworker, but eventually, I was successful.

When I returned to class with a photo of my rescued friend, one of my students flinched away from the picture and covered her face with her hair. The rest of the class was slightly amused, I think. It doesn’t matter. I hope he’s okay. I know he didn’t want to be outside that cold morning, but the ladies WC is no safe place.

Rescued! Poor thing was terrified. I hope he's okay!
Rescued! Poor thing was terrified. I hope he’s okay!

Do you like lizards?

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61 thoughts on “Living with lizards: a love story

  1. I love the lizards especially the ones that race up the walls in Thailand. But you are right. All Thais (including my partner) seem to be very scared of them – I just think they are rather cute.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They really are everywhere, aren’t they? Just thinking about Thailand, I’m reminded of eating out at night and watching the little guys hang out by the lights and eat bugs!

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  2. Aaaah. Asians and lizards 😛 LOL at you and your brother grabbing the lizards’ heads and opening their mouths. I don’t know if the lizards liked that…well, they were getting an extra dose of oxygen 😀 Growing up I’ve always been taught they were no good, that they are dirty things and who knows where they have been crawling out in the woods. Living in tropical Malaysia as a kid, my family saw heaps of them big and small. But nothing like your Tokays. In fact, your Tokays sound very friendly. That one hanging on on the broom sounded like a very stubborn one but it didn’t seem like it wanted to bite.

    I don’t know if Tokays are meant to run fast. They seem to be the bigger kind of lizards, so maybe not. The lizards I remember from my time living in SEA scampered very fast all over the place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s so weird that you were told they were dirty. I never got that growing up in Hawaii, even with a Thai mom! I’d think those damn rats and roaches would be considered the dirtiest first.

      Tokays aren’t known for their speed. They are strong, stalk and wait for their prey. In fact, their toepads are of such a wonder that NASA has been studying them for future technologies.

      But friendly? Nah. They aren’t aggressive, but I don’t think they want to have a cuppa coffee w/ you. Hahahahah. I wouldn’t mind though!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve lived in the deep South in the US all of my life (I’m 56). I’ve lived in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana…..all three are states in which wildlife abounds. I’ve visited in Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia and the Virginias……places also blessed with plenty of wildlife. It’s always been a source of amusement to me that in all the places that I’ve lived or visited, people…. especially women in my experience….are freaked out by and/or afraid of lizards. Why? I mean, I get being afraid of snakes but…..lizards? Now if I saw a lizard the size of a dachshund it might give me pause but not your average, garden variety lizard that’s no longer than my hand! I don’t consider them to be dirty either. Rats and roaches? Totally dirty and disgusting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the South is well known for its crazy creatures! I think I saw the biggest spider I have ever seen in Northern Florida!

      Yeah, not quite sure what lizards are feared by women. And you are right, they are not dirty. Rats and roaches are utterly disgusting, but no feared here! It’s crazy, just the other day at a restaurant, a big rat was approaching our table and so I let out a little cry and no one flinched or moved.

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      1. Seriously? They would probably have kicked me out of the restaurant because I’d have levitated to the top of the table as I hurled plates and forks and glasses at it, shrieking at top volume as I did my best imitation of an Indian war dance, lol! I absolutely despise rats and nasty cockroaches.

        As for spiders, we have what’s called banana spiders in this area. They are HUGE! They construct webs of a size you’d have to see to believe between trees, bushes and buildings. I would estimate that some of their webs to be eight feet in diameter including anchor strands and the spider it’s self can be nearly as long as my hand. Now, I have a healthy respect for spiders since some can bite you but I’m not scared of them. But if I’m wandering around the yard at night in the dark and happen to blunder into one of THOSE webs….. I promise you it’s quite a spectacle as I shriek and jump around, frantically ripping off clothing and brushing at my limbs and hair….. I’m pretty sure that I appear to be demon possessed, lol! Banana spiders on a web are one thing. Banana spiders on my person? Entirely different story!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I love lizards, but hate cockroaches. It’s interesting to me that a lot of Thais don’t seem bothered by the cockroaches but hate lizards. I love the sounds geckos and tokays make. When I visited Hawaii, I discovered that geckos love grape jelly and will even fight each other over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me, too. Roaches are nasty. I can’t stand them. I hate trying to kill them or removed them from my place. Luckily, our current apt is free of them. A small miracle in Asia.

      Those geckos that love grape jelly must be the day geckos!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m fine with lizards and geckos, not scared of them. Well unless they are as big as a cat and inside my bed, haha, but there aren’t big lizards in Spain or in China so I’m out of danger.

    I am also amazed at all the bullshit in Chinese “medicine”. Right, eat a gecko and have a baby boy, sounds totally legit. An ex-colleague is now selling brown sugar that is consumed as a tea and the ads she sent say that “if you can’t conceive it’s because your womb is cold, drink this brown sugar tea and you will be fine!”. I’m amazed how this is even legal, this kind of advertisements should be banned…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So no Chinese rules about false advertising? There should be, maybe the demand for tiger and bear and rhino bits would decrease and the species could be saved.

      I knew a guy who insisted his special water could cure AIDS and made a ton off the internet. FBI finally busted him and trashed his place. He complained about the FBI being horrible, but how is that more horrible than conning desperate people?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There is a law about false advertising (there was some update recently and posters were put up in our elevator!) but I don’t know exactly what they include. I guess in most cases they can’t find the lying ads unless someone reports them (maybe I should do that!).

        There was a campaign a couple of years ago against the buying and selling of elephant tusks and it seems it was quite successful! They should do the same with all other animal parts that supposedly cure illnesses.

        (BTW, a few years ago there was a hilarious news in China, a man claiming to be a traditional doctor was curing women of their gynaecological problems with his semen, who according to him was miraculous xDD).

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Yes! As long as lizards are not the size of a small dog, I’m okay! 😀

      But, yeah, the Chinese medicine. I’m sure there are qualities of the practice that work and are proven to be true. But after time, some of the questionable ones, like the brown sugar and Tokay consumption, just seem like a way to make money off of superstitions and false beliefs.

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  6. I’m all for lizards. Anything that eats bugs that eat me. My cats catch them, sneak them inside, and try and play with the lizards. Lizards are having none of it — they zip under the file cabinets. A week later, I find them on the back of the laundry hamper or on top of a curtain rod. So I sweep them into the dustpan and put them outside, admonishing them to eat more bugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Exactly! They eat bugs and who the heck doesn’t like that? The Tokays will even gobble down a roach if desperate enough and NOTHING eats them. So, you would think, in the land of mosquitos and flying critters, SE Asians would be thrilled to have them around. Nope.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yep, lots of bugs where I live that think I’m a walking bug buffet…..all you can eat for free, lol! So any critter that will eat the bugs that are eating me is my friend. I have a live and let live attitude toward spiders for the same reason……they eat bugs!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. YES! I ignore the spiders in the corners of the house and even the black and brown widows outside. If it eats something carrying west nile or zika, it should live.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m nice to house lizards. I shoo them away when the cat’s around. But I don’t touch them. Now tokays…I’ve probably just seen a max of 3 in my lifetime, but we have them, probably not as often as often as you do there. I do hear them often enough to know they’re somewhere not so near, but not so far either. Their size scare me, and you did say they tend to be kind of menacing (well, my words, but that’s what I felt you meant). Big lizards generally scare me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmnnn..guess you’re right. I mean, cats are cute, unless they’re lions and tigers, which maybe beautiful, but when they’re near you, you’d rather hide or run away.

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    1. My dog and cat like to “play” with lizards as well so I do my best to catch them and put them outside. Caught one by the tail the other day and his tail came off and continued wiggling between my fingers sans lizard who had zipped under a cabinet leaving his tail behind. THAT was freaky! I dropped the tail on the floor and it wiggled around for about three minutes all by its self. Weird!

      We have a species of small green lizards here that have a beautiful red throat sac. The males will puff out their throat sacs to show off to females. They also puff it out to look menacing to other creatures as well as rival male lizards. The son and I were sitting on the back porch one day talking. I told my son that there was a lizard on the railing next to his shoulder, posturing, and as he turned to look at it…..it jumped on his shoulder, adopted it’s aggression stance and started puffing out his throat sac at my son! A six inch long lizard trying to pick a fight with my six foot tall son…..talk about your David and Goliath, lol!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL!!!! Who won, though? 😉

        So far, the house lizards I’ve seen aren’t so interesting to look at, unless they are some socializing, chasing each other, even fighting. The tail coming off and still wiggling is a natural occurrence. Weird, but natural just the same. We’ve had our share.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you on Instagram? Anyway, just google it, it’s not a very exciting looking frog. The name sounds more exciting. He’s just a little guy with a stripe on his side. 🙂

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      1. Nah, no instagram. Don’t have photos to share anyway–I don’t travel, I don’t eat out or eat fancy stuff, I don’t attend events…Yeah, pretty boring life here, he he…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It was too funny! They had a staring contest for 2 or 3 minutes with that little lizard puffing his throat sac further and further…….until my son couldn’t stand it any more and busted out laughing! Startled the lizard so bad that it fell off of the railing into the bushes!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Couldn’t type a reply under the thread about false advertisements, but when I read about the “magic semen”, my brain said, “Oh. My. God.” then laughed when I read YOUR comment…LOL!!!

    Lots of Chinese products that make false claims are brought and sold here and, unfortunately, many still fall prey. One of the worst is fake rice–the supposed rice grains are made of plastic!!! Now, many of use are afraid that we might buy them and won’t even know….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Couldn’t type a reply under your reply, lol! Goliath almost went tail over teakettle over the railing himself he was laughing so hard!

      And, fake rice? Seriously? That is just absolutely unbelievable! Not as gross as the “doctor” with the magic semen but mind boggling nonetheless! (Shudders dramatically)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The thing is, at least, you somehow know what’s going to happen with the doctor (not that it’s an excuse for him to be like that and for people to be ignorant), but with the rice? You could be eating it and not even know it.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Lizaeds and wall geckos are common in Nigeria. I don’t like either, although I am not scared of them. I wouldn’t have gone as far as you and your bf did in caring for the lizard/tookay though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I loved this post since I barely know anything about geckos, lizards. I live in a country that’s just too cold for these creatures. (bears, moose are greater threats). When we were in Hawaii, we found it a bit freak to see tiny lizards (or geckos??) inside a home that was a b ‘n b. Then we realized Hawaii was full of creatures because of its weather.

    Great photos, Lani!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post! Yeah, I can’t imagine having too many lizards in Canada. 😛 I was surprised to hear that in the average California home you won’t find them.

      Geckos are lizards.

      It was one of those posts that the bf recommend that I write. I never really thought of my affinity towards geckos as anything but normal, until my bf pointed out that I rescued that guy from the WC – and that says a lot. Hahahhahaa. Funny to have things pointed out to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Lizards creep the women in mu family out though my Mom loves how they eat spiders. But tokays (or tuko as we call them in the Philippines, after the “tuko!” sound – fun similarity!) I fear even more. I don’t mind hearing them but actually having one in my home would freak me out. Interestingly, I grew out of the snake fear. Probably because my family has had snakes in our home as pets since I was a kid. So it was either hate them and get super stressed everyday since they were always around or let go of the fear lol. I can even tell you a story of how one of my sister’s snakes curled round my leg in the car at night and woke me up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG. That’s crazy! I think the night time element is the most freaky because you can’t see!

      Yeah, my friend from college had pet snakes and loved them so being around them helped me. I suppose I fear them in a good way, as a creature to respect from afar. Also living in places where they are known for getting into your house also creates a certain kind of awareness and attention that didn’t bother me too much, just made me want to be smart around them, you know?

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  12. Well, you taught me something new today. Had no idea about Asians and their fear of lizards! Feel like their reaction to lizards is similar to most people’s reactions to spiders in England.

    I like geckos—they’re cute! When they’re not keeping you awake with their “song”. Ugh… years ago on a family trip, we were staying a an awesome resort in Langkawi. We rented some seriously tricked out huts in the rainforest, and it was awesome. After the first night. That first night was terrible as these huts had probably been empty for a while, so there were all sorts of geckos all over them. And at night, boy were they loud!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahha. Yeah, they can be loud and odd sounding if you are not used to it, or even aware of what it is!

      I’m glad you learned something new! It’s funny what you get ‘used to’ when you’re an expat. Sometimes we skip over the interesting bits because they have ceased to be novel.

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  13. Great post… I Love lizards as you do. There is actually one living in my yard, below a bulb light, and close to plants… I have three cats and one of them is quite a hunter, so I could totally relate to what you mentioned in your post…but I have also seen that after being caught they can regenerate their tales without dying… Quite neat… Finally- last but not least- I have a lizard tattoo on my right toe… 🐉🙊
    Love and best wishes 🌻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG. That is so cool. I don’t know anyone with a lizard tattoo. Respect!

      Yeah, the cats love to play with them. Curiously, not dogs though. And regeneration! Superhero powers!

      Cheers 😀

      Like

  14. Loved reading this, a really enjoyable and entertaining read. I love the geckos you get in your house in Thailand even if they do have a habit of jumping on me at the most inoportune moments to scare me, its not that i find them scary but something jumping onto your leg when your not looking and then scuttling up it always gives me a scare.
    I thought you might like to read this about Tokay geckos as you mentioned some Asian beliefs about them https://nickswildlife.org/2017/02/22/ten-terrific-tokay-facts/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sending me your ‘facts post’. Enjoyed reading it, and sent it off to the bf, too. Glad you liked the stories, ahh, the adventures of living in SE Asia. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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