Snake Temple (Hock Kin Keong)

A bit of a gimmick

What we say: 2.5 stars

On first entering the incense-heavy interior of this recently restored heritage temple, you would be forgiven for suspecting the whole snake thing was dreamed up to get a handful of extra oglers through the doors.

Snake temple, home to a tangle of pit vipers.

Snake temple, home to a tangle of pit vipers.

However, as your eyes adjust to the shadowy hues, you will spot your first pit viper, its skin a zesty lime green with yellow striped undertones, wrapped snugly around a Chinese vase on the altar, prostrate beneath an incense urn, apparently drunk on the fumes, or slunk over the granny smith apples, offerings to the gods. Thankfully they seem entirely insouciant, soporific and ever so slightly snobbish. However, for would-be Cleopatras, strategically placed signs reminding onlookers that the snakes are indeed poisonous, avoid them ever becoming cuddly.

A soporific snake takes a nap on an altar vase.

A soporific snake takes a nap on an altar vase.

Chor Soo Kong, the Buddhist monk in honour of whom the temple was built mid-19th century, was a famous healer and legend has it that snakes, shared as a symbol of Western medicine, were drawn to his shrine. Scottish plantation owner, David Brown, cured of a deadly tropical disease after praying to the deity, apparently donated the land for the temple so that other miraculous recoveries could be made.

The poor snakes must overcome the embarassment of having their love nest exposed.

The poor snakes must overcome the embarassment of having their love nest exposed.

Like stubborn tenants, the snakes refused to budge, daringly setting up a breeding ground in the shady fruit trees beside the Kuan Yin pavilion near the gift shop. Despite their best efforts, the population is apparently in decline, no doubt a consequence of the heavy industrialisation in this area, which has led to the destruction of their natural habitat.

Come for a closer look, if you dare!

Come for a closer look, if you dare!

There is an intimate, well-loved quality to this temple setting, with the guardians’ clothes hanging out to dry in the back courtyard and tumbling creepers, which thankfully transcends the rather trashy annex touting snake souvenir photos with two utterly bored pythons in glass boxes. And in a pleasant way, the ever-so-relaxed snakes seem to have given the temple a special sort of blessing that makes it feel quite unique.

Monks' laundry hanging out to dry in the sunny back courtyard.

Monks’ laundry hanging out to dry in the sunny back courtyard.

The temple is especially busy on Chor Soo Kong’s birthday, which turns up three times a Chinese lunar year and of course during the year of the snake. It is a bit out of the way from the sights of Georgetown, towards the airport at Bayan Lepas (a 30-minute bus ride from Komtar on bus 102), but if you are a snake-lover or a curiosity-seeker on their way to/from the airport or the long distance bus station at Sungai Nibong, then you could persuade your taxi driver to make a quick stop and indulge in some scale gazing.

Last updated: 16th November, 2014

About the author:
A childhood of Northern Irish rain clouds and tribal loyalties made Judith long for distant, different shores. She sampled Edinburgh and Paris while studying History and French at university; London became home for a first job in advertising; Rome her base while leading European educational tours. Her future husband lured her away from pizza, piazza and prosecco back to the U.K where she taught yoga to kids and wrote her first novel. Another adventure beckoned and with toddler in tow she headed to South East Asia. She has settled in Penang where, in between looking after her son, she mostly writes, reads and eats, but not always in that order.
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