While Kek Lok Si Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, the lesser-known Snake Temple in Penang is perhaps the strangest.
Legend claims that snakes came to the temple by their own accord in the mid-1800s after construction was completed. Rather than remove the snakes, the monks gave them shelter. In gratitude, the snakes have never bitten anyone; humans and untamed poisonous vipers coexist in harmony.
The Snake Temple in Penang was constructed in 1850 to honor Chor Soo Kong - a monk deified for his numerous good deeds, including healing the sick and giving snakes from the nearby jungle shelter. Chor Soo Kong, born sometime between 960 and 1279, is still highly revered; pilgrims travel from all over Southeast Asia to honor him on his birthday during the first lunar month of each year.
The actual name of the Penang Snake Temple is "Temple of the Azure Clouds" or "Ban Kah Lan" in Hokkien.
New to Penang and Malaysia? First timers will want to check out our guide to Penang and its attractions. For a broader look at the country, read our Malaysia travel guide and top reasons to visit Penang.
Yes, the Snakes Are Real!
The most common snakes found around the Penang Snake Temple are known as Wagler's pit vipers. Native to Southeast Asia, Wagler's pit vipers are now commonly called "temple vipers" because of the association with Penang's Snake Temple.
Keen to sit motionless on trees, the pit vipers are small, colorful, and come equipped with a powerful hemotoxin venom. While destructively painful, the venom is not normally fatal to humans.
Date with a snake: read all about vipers.
During afternoon heat, the snakes are so still and immobile that they appear fake.
The bright, colorful markings almost give the appearance of plastic; even the eyes remain transfixed. First-time visitors often mistaken the snakes as fakes, discounting the temple as a poor tourist attraction. To make matters worse, tacky signs placed around the temple warn visitors of the danger the snakes present. Make no mistake, the snakes are indeed real.
Many sources say the snakes have had venom removed, however the temple staff claim that the snakes are poisonous but "blessed" and have never bitten anyone. Either way, the snakes' fangs are still intact and capable of giving a very painful bite. Obey the signs, do not handle or touch the snakes!
Home hiss home: find out about taking care of pet snakes.
Visiting Penang's Snake Temple
The Snake Temple is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; entrance to the temple grounds is free. Flash photography inside of the Snake Temple is discouraged to prevent stressing the resident reptiles. Snakes can also be found hanging from branches in the courtyard interior of the temple. Be mindful that the temple is still very much in active use; never photograph or disrupt the worshipers during their prostrations.
Dos and Don't's: Read more about etiquette when visiting Buddhist temples.
Located on the grounds of the Snake Temple - to the right as you enter - is a section known as the "snake farm". The snake farm is a privately-run attraction which works in agreement with the temple.
The farm's owner is a traditional Chinese herpetologist who lends his knowledge to care for the temple snakes. In exchange, the snake farm gets to ask a $2 entrance fee from tourists. While it is still possible to see snakes for free around the Snake Temple, the snake farm allows visitors to handle and touch snakes under supervision. The snake farm is typically open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Other Sites Inside of the Snake Temple
Although the pit vipers dominate most of the attention from visitors, there are some other historic objects of interest inside of the Penang Snake Temple. Two brick wells known as the "Dragon Eye Wells" or "Dragon Pure Water Wells" date back to the mid-1800s.
The Snake Temple itself represents the head of a dragon; the wells are spaced accordingly to serve as the eyes.
Two giant brass bells cast in 1886 hang inside of the Snake Temple.
Getting to the Penang Snake Temple
Location of Snake Temple on Google Maps
Rapid Penang buses #401 and #401E leave frequently from Komtar in Georgetown and pass the temple on Jalan Tokong Ular. Let the driver know as you board that you want to stop at the Snake Temple; you will be let out on the main road within eyesight of the temple.
Bus #401E continues on to Balik Pulau, making it convenient to add the Snake Temple as part of a sightseeing day away from Georgetown.
When to Go to the Snake Temple
The Snake Temple in Penang is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The snakes are removed from public access during Chinese New Year to prevent stressing the reptiles. Entrance to the temple is free.
The birthday celebrations of Chor Soo Kong occur three times a year, corresponding to the Chinese Lunar Calendar's 6th days of the first, sixth, and eleventh months. These dates correspond to the following dates on the Gregorian Calendar:
2016 - February 13, July 9, December 4
2017 - February 2, June 29, December 23
2018 - February 21, July 18, December 12
2019 - February 10, July 8, December 1
2020 - January 30, July 26, December 20
The most raucous celebrations take place on the dates closest to Chinese New Year: these involve a great many visiting devotees, coming mainly from Thailand and Indonesia apart from other areas in Malaysia. The temple hosts a hubbub of traditional Chinese merriments, including acrobats, lion dances and fireworks.