The 60s meets the future; Snake Temple, Penang, Malaysia
The second destination on my quest to trace my family’s 60s photographs on the Malaysian peninsula was Penang’s snake temple. This seemed a particularly essential place to visit since my father is dementedly afraid of snakes and who knows; maybe this is where it started. Unfortunately the snake temple is not in a hugely accessible area and it took me a grand total of 3 hours farting about on buses to track it down.
The first picture was pretty easy to find since it also happens to be the main entrance, the only real difference is that the caretakers of the temple no longer keep the snakes on these eye-level trees; “they bite, poisonous, very dangerous,” a local told me when I showed him the picture (which may go some way towards explaining my Dad’s fear). Instead the snakes are more free-range and go where they fancy which I’m not quite sure equates to safer.
The temple was built in 1850 in memory of a monk named Chor Soo Kong. Chor Soo Kong supposedly gave shelter to the snakes of the jungle and legend has it that since he died the snakes come to the temple of their own accord. In all fairness the place is teeming with free-range pit-vipers and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything keeping them there beyond their own free-will.
I got particularly excited about the python (who’s name is Maggie) as someone told me that they have very long lifespans like tortoises, unfortunately the resident snake man informed me that they only live to about 30 so this could not be the same one.
The resident snake man was very useful and like so many of the locals was really interested in my pictures. He was completely determined that I absolutely needed to have a picture taken with the snakes for the album which I politely declined since it smacked of that kind of awkward tourism. He took my refusal as fear and then upped the anti, saying that I should conquer my fear and that my father would be very proud. Next he brought out the big guns and said that all the proceeds went to the temple. I felt bad because I’d taken up so much of his time and offered to just make a donation to the temple fund but he would hear nothing of the sort: He wouldn’t take my money unless I posed with a snake. Well guess what I did…
I have to admit that it never occurred to me that once I had Maggie draped over my shoulders the temple snake carer would go scurrying about peeling pit vipers and other snakes off picture frames and railings until I was dripping with them. Mai Pen Lai!
Next to the snake temple was a snake exhibition containing numerous tanks and vivariums which was quite interesting and the conditions for the animals were easily as good as what you’d expect to see at home which pleased me. I was put off at the end though as in a cage the size of a broom cupboard were 3 crab-eating macaques; the particular strain of monkey which covers my home-town of Lop Buri, mugging and pestering people on a daily basis, and for whom I’ve developed a demented sort of affection. Not that I would want to see any animals in a cage too small for them. The only other creature worth noting was the biggest, most magnificent and suicidal cockerel that ever lived who was determined to get into the python’s cage.