Posted: June 2012

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"Conquering my Fears in Pulau Penang"
By Wendy Merrett, June 2012

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So today is the day. Today I get to face my fear – properly. I’ve had a few run ins already this trip; dead ones on the road in India, 8 ft ‘harmless’ (allegedly) ones in the garden in Sri Lanka. But today is different. Today we are going to the Snake Temple.

And I am terrified!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot better at dealing with my ophidiophobia. I reckon I could even watch "The Jungle Book" all the way through now, well as long as I had a cushion to hand. 

When I first read about the Snake Temple, and the vipers that were sat about the alter I honestly thought they were statues and based on that I suggested we visit the place. The statues at Kek Lok Si Temple were incredibly lifelike but I found something quite fascinating about them. Then I read further. The temple was built around 1850 in honour of Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist monk who was  very serious about spiritual attainment. He was a healer who gave shelter to the snakes of the jungle. Apparently after the temple was built and dedicated to his memory the snakes (yes, real ones) started arriving and they have been there ever since. It is said that the incense that is constantly burning makes them drowsy and therefore harmless. It is also said that their venom has been removed. So the temple that was once known as the Temple of the Azure Cloud, is now known as the Snake Temple And just to be clear the snakes are very very real.

The bus journey, as all bus journeys we have taken in Penang, was very straightforward. A quick look at the theme park style map at the bus station and we saw the temple icon with the snake wrapped round it, so we know exactly which bus to catch. The maps at the bus station are that good you could just turn up and plan your trip based on which pictures looked nice! The conductor will even tell you when to get off or be very apologetic if he forgets and drops you 100m further down the road.

So we had arrived. The walk up to the snake temple takes you past a few open air cafes, food stalls and 
souvenir stands. Oh and lots of trees, enough of a stroll to psyche myself up for the snakes. Oh how I hear the Snake Gods chuckle now! Because snakes move and some of them are rather daring and leave the safety of the shrine and pop out for a coffee or a nasi lamak. 

There were a number of snakes in the trees and even one sat on a bench in a café, ‘come in’ says the owner! No thank you! Think I’d rather just get inside the temple. I’m still not sure what to expect who how I will react to the snakes but there is a part of me that is eager to find out and a part that is eager to get it over with and get back on the bus to Georgetown.

The temple itself is like many other Chinese influenced temples in Malaysia with intricate carvings and
 lots of colour. And there sat on posts either side of the altar are (poisonous) temple vipers. They have the diamond shaped head of a viper with black, yellow and green markings and they are all asleep. In
fact they are so still they don’t seem real. As you walk into the next room there is a tree in the doorway and at first you notice one and then a second, third and so on. It is like one of those magic eye pictures you could get in Athena. I never thought I could stand being around so many snakes and whilst I do feel very nervous (wouldn’t any normal person?) I feel drawn to keep looking. 

Outside around the back of the temple there is a garden area with a number of tall, leafy trees. There is 
a small wall around the garden, I think it is more for resting your camera on than security. Once again, the longer you look at the tree the more snakes you see. They are everywhere! Are we really to believe that they came here of their own accord? One thing is certain, they are not in cages and so if they wanted to leave they could. And as for the claim that they have had their venom removed, that would be one mammoth task and how would they know if a new snake had arrived? Still I am not going to test the theory and would not recommend anyone else to. 

Venom or no venom they are still vipers, but in their slumber they are bizarrely relaxing.

After the relaxation (?) of the snake garden there is one more room to investigate inside. And this it seems is a bridge too far for me. I don’t think that it is the vipers casually hanging over the picture frames, light fittings or bookcases that freak me out, I think it is the two large pythons that are sat there for you to have your photo with that do it. Doesn’t this place have enough snakes already?! I take myself outside sit in the middle of the steps away from all plants, trees, picture frames, light fittings and bookcases and take a few deep breaths. I take my hat off to the ladies that clean this place. You can’t tell me that the snakes sleep 24 hours a day, who knows what they get up to overnight! 

I need the toilet and there is not a chance that I am going to use the one in the temple so I think the
time has come to go home. It has been an incredibly fascinating afternoon. I mean there are just so many of them. Why this temple? Can it really be that they all just turned up to honour the man that saved their ancestors in the jungle? Who knows, sometimes the stories behind some of the temples and religious places are what makes them so interesting. 

So the question remains – Am I cured? Well I doubt it, I still wouldn’t want to go into a reptile house, in fact I would recommend the Snake Temple over one of those any day and if the video of me in the temple is aver made public you will see a sheer nervous fear. 

So no I am not fully cured but I am pretty damn proud of myself.

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