The Ban Pho Thar pagod at Kek Lok Si Temple

I was looking for a place to take night photos in Penang when an image of a beautifully lit Kek Lok Si Temple popped up on my searches. The fantasy-land like lights of the temple would offer plenty of photo opportunities especially after sunset. Reading more, I learned that there’s a lot of superlatives going for this temple. Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. It has the tallest Buddhist pagoda, tallest granite pillars and the tallest statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. My interest deepened that I made sure to hop a bus at KOMTAR to Air Itam one afternoon in Penang.

Entrance to Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si Temple

Situated at hills of Air Itam overlooking the sea, Ken Lok Si Temple history goes way back to late 1800 and early 1900s. When the chief monk of the Goddess of Mercy at the Pitt (now known as Harmony Street), Beow Lean, saw the hills of Air Itam known as the “Crane Mountain” due to its shape, he saw how all the Feng Shui signs were all in the right places in this location. He was inspired to build what would be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia.

One of the prayer halls near the entrance.
One of the prayer halls near the entrance.

Construction on the sprawling 10-acre area started in 1890 and finally completed in 1905. But construction and improvements continue throughout the years. In 1930, the seven-story temple pagoda was erected. In 2002, the gigantic image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, stood on the hills overlooking the entire temple down to the land expanding to the sea.

View at the Garden Pavilion of Lord Buddha and the Five Bhikkus
View at the Garden Pavilion of Lord Buddha and the Five Bhikkus

Exploring the Temple

Kek Lok Si is a huge complex with a lot of areas to explore. It’s a maze of prayer halls, temples and souvenir shops. Some sections have a minimal entrance fee to access. Coming from the road and entering the welcome gate, the first site of interest is the turtle pond called the Liberation pond. From here on, a walk up the stairs leads to a large prayer hall with walls adorned with hundreds of Buddha images. The first among many I would see.

Lovely garden and circular gates at Amitabha Pagoda
Lovely garden and circular gates at Amitabha Pagoda

Continuing through a covered walkway along a manicured garden square I could see the iconic large pagoda from above and a mini pagoda on what is called the The Garden Pavilion of Lord Buddha and the Five Bhikkus. The walk, gently urged by the crowd led me to the interconnected Hall of Mahawira and the Hall of Devas where I caught a number of devotees chanting and praying.

Amitabha Pagoda framed
Amitabha Pagoda framed

Amitabha Pagoda

Among the free-access areas of the temple, the Amitabha Pagoda is the picturesque. The building looks new and well taken care of. Garden is beautiful and the circular gates are so instagram-worthy (even if I hate the description). I even bought a few teens taking photos here. The details continue to astound with more Buddha images adorning the perimeter walls. It’s also nice they added benches for visitors to sit down and enjoy the view of the town below.

Adorned perimeter wall with a view of Ban Phot Thar
Adorned perimeter wall with a view of Ban Phot Thar

The Hall of Buddhas of Five Regions

I followed a signage that says pagoda and paid a RM 2 fee to enter through a turnstile. I was excited to see the tall pagoda but curiosity got me to enter The Hall of Buddhas of Five Regions. A large prayer hall. Not as crowded since there’s an entrance fee to get here. Again wonderful illustrations on the walls and ceiling. What really caught my attention where the intricately carved granite pillars. I heard they are the tallest granite pillars in a temple.

Intricate granite pillars
Intricate granite pillars

The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas

I was amused with the many images of dogs in paper mâché here as I approach the pagoda that in my mind I was calling it “Temple of the dogs”. But it was to welcome the upcoming year of the dog at the time of my visit. The 30-meter high Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas, also called “Ban Po Thar” was built in 1930. It’s a symbolic medley of three architectural influences of Buddhist faith. A Chinese octagonal base, a Thai-designed middle tier and crowed by the distinct Burmese design and stupa at the top. Inside, each level has its own Buddha image as well. The pagoda is also called Rama Pagoda as the Thailand King Rama VI laid the foundation of this pagoda. It’s worth climbing up to the top to enjoy the breeze and the view.

The Rama Pagoda
The Rama Pagoda

The Guanyin Bodhimandala

I head back to the main prayer hall where there’s access to the lift to the top level where the statue of Guanyin is located. There’s an RM 3 for the lift ride which only took a few minutes. It was just a few minutes before closing time when I reached this section. I was a bit disappointed they close early at 5PM as I was hoping to catch the sunset light from here. So I just enjoyed the view and marvelled at the statue and pavilion protecting it. This 30.2-meter high statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin is a recent addition in 2002. Now a prominent image along with Ban Po Thar.

Kek Lok Si is a marvellous Buddhist temple worthy a visit for the details, views and architectural heritage. It is also a good place to observe Buddhist fait as it is a popular place for pilgrimage for devotees coming from all over Southeast Asia.

The statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy
The statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy

Going to Kek Lok Si

It is easy to visit Kek Lok Si temple from George Town. A taxi/grabcar can take you directly there for roughly RM 12-15 one way. The cheapest though is by bus. Ride bus #203 or #204 from KOMTAR station. Travel time is around 30 minutes. Alight at Jalan Air Itam bus station and take a short walk up the temple.

And while there, why not try some of Air Itam’s signature eateries. Like the Sister Curry Mee which has been serving curry mee for over 70 years.

Burmese interior at Ban Pho Thar
Burmese interior at Ban Pho Thar
Paper mache dogs guarding the pagoda gates
Wall filled with mini Buddha images at one of the prayer hall
Wall filled with mini Buddha images at one of the prayer hall
View at Amitabha Pagoda
Enjoying the view atop Ban Pho Thar
Enjoying the view atop Ban Pho Thar
Buddha at the Chinese Buddha level
Buddha at the Chinese Buddha level
Buddha at the Thai mid-level of the pagoda
Buddha at the Thai mid-level of the pagoda
Buddha at the Burmese level of the pagoda
Buddha at the Burmese level of the pagoda
Pond at the top level of the pagoda
Pond at the top level of the pagoda

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