Chapter 27: Snakes!

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Monday, February 23, 2004

Thursday was another long bus day. I left Melaka early in the morning and didn't arrive in Tanah Rata (The Cameron Highlands) until 6pm. I'm getting almost as good at sleeping on buses as I am on planes, though, so I don't mind the long hauls. I checked into the Cameronian Inn, which is a low-key and lovely place on the edge of town, and had another fantastic and cheap Indian dinner around the corner.

Friday morning I set out to do some jungle trekking, so I walked through Tanah Rata first to pick up some snacks. I instantly liked the Cameron Highlands; the air was actually cool, and that combined with the gorgeous mountain scenery and the clear streams made me feel like I was somewhere in the Appalachians or back in New Zealand. There are about a dozen trails of varying difficulties scattered around the area; I chose #9A because it was close to my hotel, well-marked, and it ran by a waterfall. Ten minutes into the walk I found my fourth wild snake of the trip so far, but it bolted across the path quickly and I have yet to find a field guide to identify it. Looked like a small water snake of some kind. It only took 2 hours to walk down and back up 9A, so I started track 8 afterwards, but gave up and came back after 45 minutes because that trail was much more difficult (steep) and muddy.

Saturday I took a bus to Georgetown, on Pulau Penang. Georgetown is a crowded, large city with a lot of British history and Chinese cultural influence. I got off the bus with Alan and Megan, two Scots just starting their year abroad, and we walked together to the Love Lane Inn in Chinatown. I explored downtown that night, bought more cheap DVDs ("Alias" Season Two! Gotta feed the addiction...), and had a swell dinner of chicken satay and rice (followed by more cendol) at a Malay food stall.

For some reason I'd decided before I even got to Penang that once I got there I would rent a bike and take it the 8-10 miles south of the city to visit the famous Snake Temple. Even after the bus ride in through the chaotic one-way streets that change names every few blocks, and despite the facts that I didn't have a map and it was like 95 degrees with 95% humidity, I stuck to my plan and hired a clunky old dirtbike yesterday instead of taking a bus or tour. Thank god I have a good sense of direction, because I navigated my way all day using only that and the position of the sun. Of course, I almost got lost a few times, took a few wrong turns, and I ended up on the highway for several miles... but overall I was proud of myself, and I ended up finding not only the Snake Temple, but the nearby orchid, hibiscus, and reptile garden as well.

The Snake Temple (Temple of the Azure Cloud) was built in 1850, and supposedly numerous local snakes started hanging out there of their own accord soon after. Contrary to my mental image of a secluded, mysterious shrine in the jungle, the temple is actually a big tourist spot right next to the main road to the airport, surrounded by tacky gift and food stalls. Inside the temple, however, is rather atmospheric (maybe it's the incense?), and there are indeed about a dozen beautiful (and venomous) Wagler's Pit Vipers lounging around in tree branches - some above the altars, and some, worryingly, out in the hall. The monks claim the snakes aren't "fixed," but that the incense dopes them up a bit and makes them less inclined to bite, or even move, for that matter. In the back room you can get your photo taken holding a viper for 30RM. I opted against the expensive photo, but convinced the handler to let me play with one anyway, so now I can say I've held a poisonous snake. Cool!

About 100 snake snapshots later, I was on my way to the Bukit Jambul Orchid, Hibiscus, and Reptile Garden (!), armed with some vague directions from the monks at the Snake Temple. For some reason the park isn't mentioned in many tourist guides, so I was the only obvious foreigner, which seemed to amuse the staff almost as much as the fact that I biked there. I can't say I looked twice at the flowers, but there were two striking tigers in a big pen, and the reptile house was quite well kept, with an impressive collection of local and international snakes and turtles. They even had a Brazilian Rainbow Boa, which made me miss Babysnake.

The highlight was the Snake Show, which I lucked into since it only happens at 3:30 on weekend afternoons. A local snake enthusiast took the "stage" for 45 minutes and put on an edu-tainment show in Malaysian and English with his pet python, a mildly venomous Mangrove Snake, and a highly irritable 10-ft-long King Cobra. The guy was missing most of the middle finger on his left hand, which led me to believe A) that he'd been doing this for a while, and B) that the snakes weren't fixed. He let the Mangrove Snake bite his arm so he could demonstrate proper first aid (he must have some killer resistance to the venom by now!), and he stunted a little by kissing the huge cobra's head a few times while it was in full "hood" mode. I talked to him for a few minutes after the show; turns out he has several pet snakes and does the show for spare cash on his days off.

After the long ride back into the city, I walked around the historic section of Georgetown and watched the local kids flying their kites near Fort Cornwallis. Georgetown was nice enough, I guess, but without the nearby snakes it would have been just another hot and crowded Southeast Asian city with cheap bootlegged entertainment. Today I rode across the country again along the Thai border to the east coast city of Kota Bharu, which is steeped in traditional Malay culture. I raided the night market for dinner and had some local specialties: chicken & onion murtabak (like a hot pocket made with roti bread... and yes, I seem to be getting over the "onion thing"), and ayam percik (chicken on bamboo skewers). From here I'll spend a few days on Pulau Perhentian Kecil (hopefully diving), and then I'm off to Thailand, which I'm really excited about!

Much love,
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