When I learned about the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, I knew I had to visit. Snakes and I have a long-standing relationship, which may have begun back in 1968, when my father brought home the new Bill Cosby album, “To Russell My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” One of the bits was about his parents, who insist there are invisible snakes on the floor so Bill won’t get out of his crib. When they leave, what ensues is an hysterical monologue between Bill and the snakes:
“I’m just gonna stick my toe out here, snakes, so don’t you bite me or nothin.’ Just give it a little snaky lick when I stick my toe out. Okay, look. You can bite it, but don’t put none of your juice in it, okay snakes?”
For some reason, that bit was indelibly engraved on my memory, and ever since, I have attracted snakes. As a child we had a snake that lived under the foundation of the garage. I can still remember sitting for hours, watching his little hole, willing him to come out. As an adult they have crawled across my feet in botanical gardens, sprawled across trails I hiked, and appeared wherever I lived. My magnetic draw for snakes peaked during the eleven years I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with a rat snake that lived in my attic crawlspace and a a three and a half foot Red-Bellied Water Snake that took up residence under my side deck. I affectionately named the latter Myrtle and I was the only person who could get close to her; whenever anyone else approached she would make a beeline for the protection of the deck. The idea of a temple full of snakes was just too good to pass up.
The Snake Temple looked pretty much like any other Chinese Temple, with its obligatory concrete urn outside and red and gold altars inside, although this one was a bit less showy than others I had seen. I wandered around the main hall, watched people light candles and prostrate before the altar, and continued my circuit back to the front of the hall. I was mystified; there were no snakes here. Thinking maybe I was in the wrong place I approached a shaven-headed nun and asked where I could find the snakes. She looked at me like I was mad and insisted, “Snakes everywhere. Look.” My gaze followed her pointing finger to the rear altars, where naked tree branches protruded from china vases and intertwined to form miniature denuded trees. Wrapped around the branches were dozens of poisonous pit vipers. I had walked right by without seeing them.
Suddenly, I was excruciatingly aware of where I was walking or placing my hands. I watched a young girl with a dust rag swipe at the altar tops and reach into cluttered boxes on lower shelves with apparent unconcern. “The snakes can go anywhere?” I asked the nun. She nodded. “Don’t you worry about putting your hand in a box full of stuff? There could be snakes hiding in there.” Her one word exclamation was an understatement, to be sure: “Careful!”
The Snake Temple was built in 1850 by a Chinese monk on land that was, at that time, surrounded by untouched jungle. Soon after the temple was completed snakes, particularly pit vipers, started taking shelter there, and the pious monk welcomed them as a sign of good fortune. Pit vipers, known to be an aggressive species, become sluggish and docile inside the temple, and it is believed that the smoke from burning joss sticks has rendered them harmless. Since much of the surrounding land has now been developed into factories the snake population is declining, but plenty of snakes still slither into the temple each day and wrap themselves on the mock trees, leaving each night to hunt.
And so I wandered around the temple and grounds, watching my every step and peering into thick vegetation that overhung walkways before I dared pass. Even so, I held my breath, envisioning a pit viper with an attitude striking out from the cover of dense leaves. At the end of my circuit I stopped by a lovely little altar in an alcove I’d not previously noticed. No sight of snakes here, I thought. Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught movement in the potted ficus tree I was standing next to. Sure enough, two more pit vipers, so well camouflaged by their color that it would have been impossible to see them had they not moved. Fascinated, I watched them dart in and out of the leaves, noting their deadly triangular-shaped heads. A sign on the tree warned not to let the pit vipers kiss your fingers. “Just give it a little snaky lick,” I thought. “Okay, you can bite it, but don’t put none of your juice in it, okay snakes?“