As soon as I arrived in Penang, Malaysia, and heard that there was a temple full of snakes, I was adamant that I was going. I had a bit of a hard time persuading my friends to come with me – first of all, it’s a 30 minute car journey south of George Town, and secondly the online reviews aren’t great.
The general consensus seems to be that the Penang Snake Temple really isn’t worth the effort and that you should only bother going if you’ve exhausted your list of things to do in Penang and have time to kill.
Were they right?
Well, there was only one way to find out.
Visiting the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia
A brief history of the Penang Snake Temple
Of course, most temples are not filled with snakes, and they definitely are not dedicated to them.
The Penang Snake Temple, also called The Temple of the Azure Cloud (Hock Hin Keong or Cheng Hoon Giam) is a Chinese temple in Bayan Lepas, in the southwest Penang Island district.
It was built in 1850, in honour of a buddhist monk born named Chor Soo Kong, born in China in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) who used to heal the sick and provide shelter to snakes.
It is said that when the temple was completed, Wagler’s Pit Vipers ventured in of their own accord and made it their home, where they have remained every since.
Although most people who visit the Snake Temple in Penang are tourists, thousands of devotees make a trip to the Penang Snake Temple each year during the birthday celebrations of Chor Soo Kong, which occur three times a year on the 6th days of the first, sixth and eleventh months of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Visiting the Penang Snake Temple
In a way, I see where the disgruntled reviewers were coming from.
If you have been travelling in Southeast Asia for a while and are ‘templed out’ then the Snake Temple in Penang will not reignite your love for temples.
While it is perfectly nice, it doesn’t come close to some of the magnificent temples that you see in Southeast Asia. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like a temple at all when you enter – you don’t even have to take your shoes off!
You don’t go to the Penang Snake Temple to marvel at the ornate stone carvings.
You go to see snakes, and snakes we did.
I’ve always been fascinated by snakes. When I was about 5 years old, our local pet shop had a King Snake on display and for months I used to beg my mum to take me to the shop so that I could visit ‘my’ snake.
This interest never really went away, and I still consider the time I held an anaconda in Bali to be one of my best travel memories.
You can imagine my excitement then, when I heard that the Snake Temple in Penang was home to Pit Vipers.
Now, you do not have to be a snake handler to know that you do not want to get bitten by a Pit Viper.
Not if you don’t want your leg amputated anyway.
Pit Vipers are dangerous.
Of course, this made me want to go and visit them even more – I don’t know why – maybe I’m a dark tourist?
Anyway, as soon as I entered the Penang Snake Temple, I found that the internet hadn’t been lying – there really were Pit Vipers everywhere, nestled in the potted plants and coiled around the picture frames. These snakes were free to slither around to their heart’s content, with no barriers in between them and the public.
Fortunately for us, we were in no real danger as all of the snakes at Penang Snake Temple have been de-venomed in a process called venomoid surgery. This is a quick and painless procedure that involves removing the snake’s venom glands, making them permanently unable to inject venom in a bite. The snakes keep their fangs but are unable to cause true harm – in the wild, this would put them in danger, but there is no disadvantage to captive snakes that have venemoid surgery.
Moving into the first room, we found a man sitting with a huge python. He wanted 25 RM for a picture with it (around 5.50 EUR) but after I explained to him that I only wanted to take a picture on my phone rather than buying one of his framed pictures, he relaxed his price and I gave him about 8 RM (1.70 EUR) to hold the beautiful Nelson and take as many pictures as I wanted with him.
As soon as Nelson was safely lodged around my neck, my new snake handler friend decided it that would be fun to put a Pit Viper on top of my head as well. Deciding not to panic (nobody had told me that these little guys had been de-venomed at this point!), I instead did what every self-respecting person travelling in Asia would do – I took a selfie.
When I could finally bring myself to part with Nelson, we took a walk around the temple gardens – the main temple actually opens up into a courtyard where the Shrine Hall of Kuan Lin is located, along with tonnes of beautiful plants and a ‘breeding ground’ for the snakes to mate in – a fenced off area full of leafy green trees and plenty of hideaway spots for the snakes to get away from the harsh Malaysian sun.
Although the gardens are small and simple, the snakes seem to have a lovely habitat with few restrictions, which I really liked.
After spending a decent amount of time in the Penang Snake Temple, we decided to check out the Snake Farm next door.
For 8 RM you can wander around looking at more than 50 species of snake while an English speaking guide explains where they are from, how poisonous they are, what they eat etc.
While I have mixed feelings about snakes being kept in tanks (aside from two pythons, all of the snakes were kept in fairly small glass tanks), I did find all of the information interesting and learnt a lot from my guide.
The guide then led me into a small enclosure where a a beautiful yellow Burmese Python was reclining on a table – the tour guide told me that if I could stroke it from head to tail (do snakes have tails?!) then it would bring me good luck, and so that’s exactly what I did. There was a hair raising moment when the python jerked its head around to see what I was doing, but when he saw little old me he didn’t seem too bothered.
We then went on to a larger enclosure where the Daddy of all snakes was hanging out. This bad boy was 8 metres long and, as the guide joyfully explained, eats cows for breakfast.
He explained that as I am smaller than a cow, it would be extremely easy for Mr Python to eat me, a light snack in comparison, and suggested that it wasn’t in my best interests to touch this one.
I didn’t need telling twice.
He then distracted my by introducing me to a ‘centuries old’ tortoise, which was pretty random but hey – I’m always up for meeting a tortoise.
After meeting the tortoise, we resumed our tour of the snakes, and I was even lucky enough to see the King Cobra (something I hadn’t wanted to run into when I was living on Koh Rong but was quite happy to see behind a barrier!).
After the King Cobra, I’d just about had my fill of snakes, and so my friends and I made our way back to my hostel, buzzing about the afternoon we’d just had.
Overall, I would definitely agree that the Snake Temple in Penang isn’t for everybody: if you’re not overly keen on snakes then you will be bored at best and terrified at worst.
However, if you want to do something a little different, spend some time with animals that you may never get to see again, and learn a few interesting facts along the way, then the Penang Snake Temple makes a great little afternoon out.
Penang Snake Temple – Know before you go
The Snake Temple in Penang is located at Bayan Lepas Industrial Park, 10 KM from George Town, Penang.
The Penang Snake Temple is free to enter but you will have to pay if you would like to take a picture with the python.
The on-site Snake Farm cost me 8 RM.
The Snake Temple in Penang is about a 30 minute drive away from George Town. You can take a taxi (Malaysia has Uber and it is very cheap), or there is a free shuttle bus which goes to the airport nearby.
The vipers at the Penang Snake Farm have been de-venomed but they still have their fangs and so you should be careful not to touch them in case they bite.
Unlike other temples, you do not have to dress modestly or remove your shoes when you visit the Snake Temple in Penang. I wore flip flops and short shorts and I was fine.