It goes without saying that Snake Palace (Istana Ular) is not an attraction that will appeal to everyone. However, if the idea of exploring a cave that is home to a large population of snakes and bats appeals then a visit to Snake Palace is sure to earn you some bragging rights.
Snake Palace cave is actually a long tube (possibly a lava tube) stretching back hundreds of metres into the limestone hillside adjacent to a river. It’s dark, dank conditions are perfect for the thousands of bats that roost inside, so many they can be heard at the cave entrance. The ready food source no doubt explains why so many snakes, mostly reticulated pythons, congregate in and around the cave. Some are obviously doing very well for themselves judging by their size. Local lore tells of an enormous snake that resides at the end of the tube.
Considered a mystical place, the local villagers have long regarded the reptiles with equal parts trepidation and reverence. Local villages claim that during the rainy season the snakes come out of the cave and are responsible for the disappearance of dogs and chickens from around the village. Despite this nasty habit, the villagers will not disturb or harm the snakes in any way. Before entering the cave, a prayer or even the ritualistic sacrifice of a small chicken is made to appease the snakes and request permission to enter.
During the wet season from November to March and at other times after heavy rain, the cave and adjacent river become inundated with water and are impossible to visit. Even during the dry season, the cave retains ankle to knee deep water which when combined with hundreds of years of bat droppings, has been likened to wading through a ‘river of semi-liquid guano’ mud. We’ve read reports that deep in the cave, the guano soup it becomes chest deep and the air is so thick with ammonia it becomes difficult to breathe. So, unpleasant, foul smelling and also potentially harmful as the bats are known to carry diseases such as Australian Bat Lyssa Virus and Hendra Virus. Needless to say, entering the cave is highly ill-advised – satisfy yourself with snake spotting around the cave entrance and surrounding river valley.
Snake Palace is located in West Manggarai about 65km’s east of Labuan Bajo along the Transflores Highway. About 4.7km‘s after passing through Lembor, you’ll reach a cobble-stone road branching off to the left towards East Daleng Village. Follow the road approximately 5km until you cross over a bridge and reach the ridge top just beyond. The road becomes impassable from here so you’ll need to leave your vehicle and trek the remaining 40 minutes to the cave entrance over sometimes tricky terrain. It’s a pleasant walk down to the river valley with some nice panoramic views, but you’ll need to wade through the river to reach the cave entrance. You should procure a local guide from either Lembor or Daleng village to help you locate the cave entrance and ensure local rituals are performed before you approach in accordance with local custom.