Visiting the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia: Kek Lok Si

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ May 23rd, 2011. Updated on October 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Malaysia.
Kek Lok Si Temple Penang Malaysia

The huge Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang Malaysia is easy to get to, and worth a full day trip

Guide to Kek Lok Si Temple or Temple of Supreme Bliss in Air Itam, Penang Malaysia

This huge buddhist temple in Air Itam, Penang, Malaysia first began construction in 1890, and construction continues today.

That said, this huge hill like compound is very much worth a visit if you are visiting Penang or North West Malaysia.

How to get to Kek Lok Si temple via Air Itam

From the central bus station in Georgetown called Komtar, or the bus station near the Ferry Port take either buses 201, 203, 204, 306 or the  502. There’s an information counter at both bus terminals, and they’ll tell you which bus is next.

Hawker stalls in Kek Lok Si

Hawker stalls in Kek Lok Si, easy to ignore, it can get a bit crowded

The bus driver will understand Air Itam, which is basically the end of the line. Or better yet just say Kek Lok Si Temple, and he’ll tell you where to get off. Not that you can miss it if you are keeping an eye out!

If driving, the road will lead you straight up to the top of the temple area!

Battling the hill of markets and hawkers to get to Kek Lok Si Temple

It’s not really a battle. But as you turn left off the main route where the bus drops you there’s little signage, and some building work going on. Basically keep to the left and there’s a small tunnel like start to a bunch of souvenir stalls. This is where you walk.

Be prepared to walk up several steps leading up the hill. On either-side hawkers will inundate you with “Buy t-shirt” , “Hello Mister/ Miss buy good price

Ignore all, keep to the left until you get to a giant metal circular window looking down on a mass of imprisoned Turtles in Liberation Pond (irony). If you want to see Turtle cruelty due to over crowding at it’s finest, stop here. Otherwise continue on either left or right around this part, cross a little bridge with the first of many beggars and continue on up to a shop restaurant area.

It’s all a lot easier and more pleasant from now on!

My favorite temple is the first, – the three smiling Buddhas or Chamber of Seated Buddhas

I walked up the ramp surrounded by some beautiful small pagodas, the main Kek Lok Si temple gazing down to the right as a pillar of fresh yellows and white. The main ramp up has a few beggars on either side looking for change, no one really hassles you, and they don’t go any further up.

Surrounding the first temple on either side are walls containing rows of identical standing Buddhas. While, just up ahead is great view overlooking Penang, and worth a sit down and look out. A place I sat for a while looking over Penang.

Smiling Buddha in the Chamber of Seated Buddhas

It’s all in the eyes with this Buddha in the Chamber of Seated Buddhas, Malaysia

Behind the temple is a simple shop, selling chanting CD’s, prayer beads and a few camera batteries. It’s actually work going inside as they also have an impressive displaying of pink candles flickering away.

Upstairs the temple itself contains 3 large golden Buddhas, all smiling in slightly different poses.

I do like, good, Buddha statues. As in, well presented and detailed ones. This first temple area, Pavilion of Seated Buddhas, is perhaps my favorite. Sitting inside are three golden Buddhas, all smiling, and all with slightly different hand positions.

It’s their eyes that I like the most. The detail, to me, seemed slightly beyond the normal statue coloring.

Not many people go inside. And if they do, they just go for a quick prayer.

Onwards to the giant Guardians

Kuan Yin statue in Malaysia

Giant Kuan Yin statue in Kek Lok Si Temple, Air Itam, Penang

Behind this, is an inner chamber leading to a prayer area. This chamber contains a buddha and two huge guardians. All covered in giant glass panels. It’s worth taking note of the massive guardians and they have under foot what looks to be like an African slave. I’m probably way off with that (Indian?), but this is what I saw.

Taking a funicular to the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion

Pay a few ringget and take a funicular up to the massive Kuan Yin, or Goddess of Mercy statue (Mahayana Buddhism). The Goddess of Mercy Pavilion is 82.7 meters tall. The pavilion roof is supported by 16 granite pillars embellished with ornate carvings. The pavilion was built at a cost of RM40 million, and this is the second attempt at building it. The first ending in a fire and heavy rain in 1993.

Goddess of Mercy Pavilion impressive or not so impressive?

Yes, it’s impressive, for volume alone. But dig a little deeper and discover that this statue still is not finished. Disputes cover

Temple of 10,000 Buddhas in Malaysia

Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas

payments and completion dates mar its finalization. Moreover, if you look closely at the construction, and carvings somethings seem not to be finished well. Already there are some cracks appear, and little sealing.

More disappointing to a tourist is that you can’t get into the pavilion as it’s often sealed off due to said construction. Beside all this, it’s well worth the visit. The surrounding views over Penang and the gardens are very nice.

Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas

A small payment is needed to get a ticket into the (star) attraction that is Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas. A winding staircase leads you up floor after circular floor. On each floor is a small are with a unique buddha statue. The aim of the game is to make it all the way to the top without getting too creeped out by the hight.

At the very top you are rewarded by a stunning view of the Kek Lok Si temple and all of Penang. A word of warning though, if you are not fond of heights, you may not like this climb. At the top, the pagoda feels quite narrow, and on a windy day you may also feel that lurching feeling that often comes with heights.

Overall experience at Kek Lok Si temple

I’ve been here more than once. The first was on a weekend, and it was quite overcrowded. The second was during a weekday, and far more enjoyable.

I’m quite “templed out”, when it comes to Buddhist or Chinese temples. Few hold interest to me these days. But far from being an attraction just because it’s South East Asia’s largest Buddhist temple.

Kek Lok Sis is a very enjoyable experience and well worth a day visit for solo or family travelers alike.

View of Penang from Kek Lok Si temple

View of Penang, Malaysia from Kek Lok Si temple

Off the tourist trail?

I met up with a group of travelers a few days later who were taking a very expensive all costs included tour through Malaysia. Their guide, a New Zealander, refused to acknowledge this place existed. I found this very strange. Perhaps I’d caught him off guard and he was trying to protect his reputation.

If you are taking a tour of Malaysia, then make sure this is on your guides to-do-list.

That being said, it’s a very easy independent trip to make!

It’s also a good place to come and simply sit in the gardens (bring your own food). The views are great, it’s peaceful, and you won’t get touts annoying you.

Penang’s allure pulls me in

I’ll come out on a limb, and say Penang is winning me over in terms of places to stay or even live. I can understand why too. Everything is spread out, and there is more to see and do here than you’d first expect.

However, the best thing about Penang, Malaysia that I like, is its ability to hide tourists. They are there, but I rarely see the same ones over and over again.

Penang also seems to offer something for everyone. It’s got that hard to beat feeling of a place with many layers. And, layers are something I enjoy. It keeps me stimulated and interested in a place. It can be an easy here, or you can set a challenge to keep you occupied. I am doing that right now.

Just like Kek Lok Si Temple, it’s hard to get a bad feeling about Penang.

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Planning on booking a hotel room in Malaysia?

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Coming Soon:

A morbid sense of the past …

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24 Great responses to Visiting the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia: Kek Lok Si

  1. Wow, looks amazing! How shady that the Kiwi guide claimed this place doesn’t exist, just because he doesn’t go there on tours. I’ve been wondering– why do you never include photos of yourself on this site? I’m curious to see you riding a “funicular” (I had to look that up) or posing in front of a tourist welcome sign. Cheesy I know, but I’d love to see you in the context of these destinations :)

    • I have no idea why the Kiwi did this. Only to say that perhaps he’s following an itinerary so cannot veer from it. Shame, that he couldn’t even say this to his clients. If only to acknowledge it’s existence.

      Re my photo :) It was there for a long time. Then after the Tibet riots in 2008 I took it down. These days you’ll just have to make do with the one on my about page ;)

      • I checked the “about” page. I like your cartoon avatar but don’t see a real photo of your face. You are a man of mystery! I realized you don’t have photos of yourself when I spotted a time lapse video yesterday from a traveler going by “The Longest Way.” He took a photo of himself every day during a walking trip across Asia and strung them into a video, so you could see the transformation in his appearance. At first I thought it was you but then I realized it was a different site :)

        • Yep, that’s Christoph from Germany, I featured him some years back on my Great Modern Travelers :)

          Check out the FAQ’s on my about page, I wrote a paragraph explaining about the photo. Every genre needs a man of mystery eh? Breaking the mold, making the exception to prove the rule :)

  2. i love those eyes, too. amazing!! is any of it handicap accessible?

    • Parts are Jessie. You can drive all the way to the top. And the funicular will take you down to the next level. I do believe I saw some ramps too. But, they were steep, so I would imagine you’d need a push to get up them. I also think talking to a monk might end up with some one being offered to help you around. The temple of 10,000 Buddhas is all steps, and quite narrow.

      • thanks, dave – great insights. i hope to get to penang and would LOVE to see this place. ;)

        it also makes me wonder what people with disabilities do, in their own country, if it isn’t so accessible. you know? just visiting is one thing, living there is another.

        • No problems Jessie ;) I notice in many South East Asian countries that when someone does have disabilities they often have a dedicated person to help the person around. Either a family member, or a house help. This is one of the major differences in East & West accessibility when it comes to disabilities and getting around. Not to mention the cost of hiring some one in SEA is a lot lower than in the west.

  3. Anna's World says:

    I have never heard of this place! So strange considering its Asias biggest temple. And that bad guide!

    Why do you think more people dont know about it?

    It’s so beautiful and seems to have so much to offer.

  4. Ciki says:

    Penang is great ! Food wise and the beach.. hard to top la;) Don’t forget to try Char Kwey TeoW!!

  5. hayadith says:

    okay, I know why u choose Penang as home, perhaps..
    it has something to do with the tandoori chicken, right?’

    ..i know.., i just know…

    HAHA :p

  6. iamthewitch says:

    Wow the pavilion is gorgeous now! I have been to Kek Lok Si probably close to 5 times and during my last visit, it was still under construction and the pillars were not all up yet. That aside, it’s quite an interesting attraction and I always felt the sort of peace and tranquility when I’m inside the prayer hall…

    • It’s still got some work until it’s finished. Looks great at night. But they’ve closed off the bottom section which is a shame. And, there seems to be some issues with the construction. But yes, still a peaceful and enjoyable place! Time for you to go back! We can eat take away tandoori!!

  7. Jason says:

    Great to see your enjoying your time in Penang Dave. I like the image of the temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The exposure of the sky reminds me of a slide film print for some reason.

    As always with all great sights, they are constantly under going renovation, and there is that typical crane or scaffold in the background (top image).

    • I really thought about not posting that photo with the crane. Or trying to angle it to block it out. But it’s been there for years, nearly become a part of it all now. I think judging by the cracks in some places, it might come back too.

      Next weeks, the mood changes ;)

  8. Nathan says:

    Hi – first time commenter, long time reader.

    Penang is high on my list of “countries I need to go back to, and spend a significant amount of time in”.

    The blend of food and cultures, as well as the run-down heritage of Georgetown, Penang has quite the allure. It’s not perfect, and ironically that’s what make’s it closer to perfection, for me.

    In any case, keep up the journey. My journey will begin (again) in earnest later this year, and I regularly check your blog for insights and ideas.


    • Hey Nathan, thanks for the first comment.

      I agree with your statements about Penang. It really does hit the spot in many regards. I don’t know whether it’s the colonial aspect of things, its close proximity to Thailand, or its history. But I do rank Penang very high on a list of top places to stay in Malaysia.

      Like you say, it’s not perfect, no where really is. But Penang certainly does have an allure!

      Enjoy the preparation for you journey.

  9. Paula says:

    This was a “blast from the past” for me! I lived in Malaysia in the mid-60s when I was 8/9 yrs old. Myself & my parents had a holiday in Penang, and I loved it there. Even travelling from the mainland on the ferry from Butterworth was an adventure, and I loved looking at all the jellyfish!

    The Ayer Itam Temple (as I knew it then) was my favourite place to go. I loved all the Buddhas – I remember the Golden Buddhas, and if I remember rightly, there was also a huge reclining Buddha. I remember the turtle ponds you mention, though I don’t think they were overcrowded then. They also had a monkey on a chain which nicked my bag and camera, and when I tried to get them back, bit me on my cheek! No scars, fortunately.

    I also remember very well the bazaar next to the temple, and buying several items there – one of which I still have. We also visited the local snake temple (can’t remember its name), and I had my picture taken with a pit viper draped round my neck (it had had its poison fangs removed, of course!). I also remember going somewhere out in the hills where there were lots of very pretty waterfalls. I had a fabulous time in Penang – the only downside was when I got swept out to sea in my little rubber canoe and my parents had to call out the coastguards! Your article brought back many pleasant memories of Penang, so thank you very much for that.