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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Judith Atkinson.
Last updated on 18th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.