Our arrival in Thailand this trip has coincided with the arrival of the run-up to Valentine's Day. We also arrived right at the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebration, which heralds the coming of the Year of the Snake. That is what seems more dominant in the public eye, at least as it is visible to us.

Since we have started spending some time here during Minnesota winters, we have always arrived during these two holidays. However, I do not recall the new year getting quite as much attention as it has this year. I think it is because people everywhere are fascinated with snakes; while some people may love them, it is safe to say that many if not most people are frightened of, or maybe even think they hate, them.

One of the many signs of the Chinese New Year is common every year: red, often trimmed with gold, everywhere. But this year we are also seeing lots of references to snakes. One story in a local paper was about the food being prepared; a centerpiece on many tables is a dish created in the shape of a snake poised to strike. The one was shown gold in color, coiled around a bag of gold, with gold coins spilled around it.

Another story described a meal, which if the diners felt flush enough, could be topped off with a golden pudding. Covered with edible gold leaf and topped with two 24-carat gold coins, it costs $4,000. The restaurant reported it would only produce three of them. Also included will be, no surprise, snake meat.

Maybe that menu item of snake meat explains another big story. It seems that 2,000 live cobras and rat snakes had been shipped from Thailand to Hong Kong. But they were discovered by Hong Kong customs officials inside 203 crates that had been labeled as fruit. The snakes had been returned to Thailand and would be taken to a wildlife breeding station, and some released back into the wild.

This illegal trading in wildlife is especially worse during Lunar New Year. An example is that of a bank employee in Vietnam who did a "lengthy hunt through Hanoi's black market for exotic animal parts." He was looking for a special gift for his boss, one that would help his boss remember him and "promote me to a high position next year." What he found just perfect was 200 grams of tiger-bone paste, which cost him the equivalent of US$800.

Giving expensive exotic wildlife products as gifts for the Lunar New Year is very popular and traditional in Vietnam and China: "Orders for wildlife treats soar in the run-up to the season, greasing the wheels" of a huge illicit trade in endangered species. The director of a Bangkok-based group that tracks animals and human trafficking across Asia said that, "This stuff is the eggnog of the Lunar New Year."

In addition to the snakes discovered at the Hong Kong airport, in November Thai authorities seized a truck containing 600 cobras bound for either China or Vietnam. And in December, they rescued 343 tortoises at the airport that were "intended for New Year's soup bowls of southern China. But for every seizure, it is estimated that dozens slip by."

A writer for the PETA Foundation called on people to "Shed your skins in the year of the Snake."

She wrote, "As people around the world prepare to ring in the Year of the Snake, here's a simple way to honour these mysterious, misunderstood animals: Keep them out of your wardrobe." Evidently some are heeding the call: one official reported that "orders (for exotic animals) are down from China, and some orders have been cancelled."

Festivities, food and gifts are not the only important part of the Lunar New Year celebrations. Asian soothsayers also play a role, and this year, the prophesies are mixed.

"As they bid farewell to the Year of the Dragon, the fortune tellers warn that the 'black water snake' that emerges to replace it on Feb. 10 (the first day of the Lunar New Year) could be a venomous one that brings disaster."

The sages point out that previous Snake years have included the 911 terror strikes, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the 1929 stock market plunge bringing the Great Depression.

One predictor in Hong Kong said that the stock markets in 2013 will have a smooth first-half and become turbulent in the second half of the year, "just like the movement of snakes-fast, aggressive and sharp, but cunning and tricky at the same time."

A Singaporean soothsayer said, "This is a disaster year," predicting that the European Union may split, the euro may be in trouble, and that the group itself would be threatened by division in May.

A Hong Kong astrologer predicted that May would see a dispute between Japan and China coming to a head. This would be because May is known as the Snake Month, and it is the Year of the Snake, so "between May 5 and June 6, these two snakes will meet."

Not all predictions for the new year are bad, however. Because it is traditional that people go home for the celebration of the Lunar New Year, "hundreds of millions" of Chinese migrant workers will return home, traveling long distances and spending money - good for the economy. Thailand expects the Chinese New Year festival to attract 2.6 million domestic and international travelers, who will spend more than 10.8 billion baht (about US$360,000,000) in the second two weeks of February. That's certainly good for the economy.

There's got to be some reason why the Year of the Snake has gotten more publicity this year than Valentine's Day. I'm sure it's just thinking about snakes.