Not for ophidiophobics
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
The concept of a “snake temple” may conjure up all sorts of Raiders of the Lost Ark type scenarios with pits of writhing serpents, and if that’s your idea of fun, prepare for disappointment at Penang’s heritage Snake Temple.
We’re not saying it’s devoid of the oft-feared reptiles, it just takes a moment before you will spot your first pit viper, its skin a zesty lime green with yellow striped undertones, wrapped snugly around a rattan frame on the altar, prostrate beneath a Chinese vase or slunk over the plump dragonfruit, offerings to the gods.
Until recently it was believed that a heady dose of incense smoke kept the snakes in a hypnotic stupor, but in fact is not only false, it’s harmful and shortens their life. For the welfare of the animals, the burning of joss sticks is banned within the prayer hall. Regardless, they (thankfully) seem entirely soporific, but even so, strategically placed signs remind would-be Cleopatras that the snakes are indeed poisonous, poke them at your own risk!
The temple is built to honour the deified Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist monk and famous healer. Legend has it that a devoted acolyte arriving from China in the mid-19th century bought with him a statue of the deity, and Scottish plantation owner, David Brown, cured of a deadly tropical disease after praying to Chor Soo Kong, apparently donated the land for the temple so that other miraculous recoveries could be made.
The tale has it that snakes, shared as a symbol of Western medicine, were drawn to his shrine, they moved in and refused to budge, daringly setting up a breeding ground in the shady fruit trees. Sadly, despite the best efforts of the temple caretakers, the population is now in decline, no doubt a consequence of the heavy industrialisation in this area, which has led to the destruction of their natural habitat.
The temple is under the guardianship of the Hokkien Kongsi, based in Georgetown’s Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple, and as with several others of their temples in Penang, the Snake Temple underwent a major restoration, completed in 2010, so along with the slithery residents, expect some fine architecture and craftsmanship. After admiring the altars and deities, avoid the trashy annex touting snake souvenir photos with utterly bored pythons in glass boxes, and head to the leafy back courtyard where from the Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) shrine you can view an enclosure filled with fruit trees seething with ever-so-relaxed recumbent Wrangler’s pit vipers.
The front of the temple is lined with souvenir and food stalls, and a sign directs you two two ancient wells. According to feng shui principals, the temple was built on the “head of a dragon”, fitting for a Snake temple, and at the eyes two wells were dug. Drinking water from the wells is said to bring good fortune, good health and longevity. One can be found in a small food stall outside the temple, and the other is apparently inside the neighbouring snake farm. We didn’t enter this business as they advertised somewhat dubious “snake shows”, probably best avoided.
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, but if you wish to see snakes avoid festival times as the creatures are removed to protect them from the crowds. As an aside, for folks who like to read fiction based on destinations they visit, this temple is a location in Tan Twan Eng’s novel “The Gift of Rain”, referred to in the book as “Temple of the Azure Clouds”, its Hokkien name.
The Snake Temple is a bit out of the way from the sights of Georgetown, towards the airport at Bayan Lepas (a 30-minute bus ride from Weld Quay on buses 401, 401E), 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. Alternatively, make a day trip and stop by on the way to Penang War Museum and Sam Poh Footprint Temple.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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