Snake Temple, Penang, Malaysia

Just Give it a Little Snakey Lick

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?

24 Comments on “Just Give it a Little Snakey Lick

  1. I have shivers. What a great story! I used to live on a remote Pearl Farm in the Kimberlies, Western Australia and we had constant snakes slithering around camp. I was always tip toeing around terrified of receiving a kiss on the fingertips. Going to the outside toilets was always a freaky experience

    • Hi yTravel. I’m in Nepal at the moment and they are harvesting the rice. I
      asked about the danger of walking around in chest high rice, not being able
      to see what was at your feet, and was told they have no snakes. An our later
      on a trek, a four-foot rat snake slithered out of a small dirt cave in an
      embankment alongside the trail. I swear they follow me! But the Kimberlies
      do not sound like fun, especially the bathroom part. I think I would have
      been afraid to sit down for fear of being bitten in the butt.

  2. OMG, seriously snakes?? Travelling you really get an idea how different places bear different traditions, in Penang they pray at poisonous pit vipers, in Italy there is scared screaming everywhere as soon as a tiny snake shows up!

    • Hi Angela. *Really?* Scared screaming of snakes. That’s fascinating. I
      wonder where that comes from in their culture. So many of the older cultures
      seem to have snake deities.They were displayed everywhere on Mayan
      architecture in Mexico.

  3. Oh my. I thought I was brave when they hung the snake around my neck in Viet Nam. I would have found myself very self-conscious around all of those pit vipers. Great video.

  4. Barbara,
    Poisonous pit vipers in Penang! I’d go there just for the alliterative possiblities. Great video and entertaining post.
    Jason

    • Thanks Jason – LOVE the alliteration, just wish I’d thought of it.

  5. Brave you 😉 I don’t mind snakes as long as they are not poisonous. By now you know what a sucker I am for your writing! And now you’ve become an excellent videographer too. Gosh, I have so much to learn;)

    • Fida: Don’t sell yourself short – you’re also a great writer!

    • Hi Anis. Yes I thought that was hysterical too and it’s exactly what reminded me of the old Cosby bit – I’d forgotten all about it. Glad you liked it.

  6. This is great, Barbara. Loved the narration. You’re a natural.

    • Thanks Johanna – I was finally forced to get in front of the camera because
      I entered it in a contest that required me to show my face for a few
      seconds.

    • GlobalButterfly – definitely an adrenaline rush, and butterflies in my
      stomach!

  7. this would probably one of those places that I will skip hehe… im so ashame to say this but im really afraid of snakes… i dunno whats with them but i makes me shiver…

    • Me to, flipnomad, but they sure seem to like me for some reason!

    • I’m with you Anil. Hard to believe more people don’t get bit, especially if
      they’re there in the early morning, when the snakes are coming in from the
      jungle, and like me, they don’t know what they’re looking for. I had visions
      of stepping on them all over the place.

  8. Gosh, Barb. It’s been too long since I’ve checked in on you! The new blog layout is great! I really enjoyed your visit to Snakeville! I hope you are well – I think of you often. Much love & light, Colleen

    • Hi Colleen! Great to hear from you. Hope all is well on the OBX. I’m off to
      Nepal today, althugh my coverage of Malaysia will continue for a while. Lots
      to write about here. Much love and hugs back to you. XOXOXO

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