Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kek Lok Si Temple - Air Itam - Penang - Malaysia

When I arrived on the island of Penang on the Thursday night, I managed to pick myself up a fold out map of Penang and its main town, Georgetown. As my taxi weaved its way through the excessive holiday traffic, I read up on the area. Georgetown was the cultural centre. The airport had all the factories. Batu Ferringhi was the resort town nearby. Air Itam was home to South East Asia's largest Buddhist temple. That, of course, caught my attention and I decided that I would make the journey out to Air Itam, where the Temple was located. I knew that this would be a great place do some cultural photography (this was all prior to the camera failure).

I woke up early, at around 7am, and headed out of the hotel to the bus station. It was a five minute walk but already the humidity was high. I got to the local bus station just as the rain began to fall - this would end up being the first raindrops of the weekend and did not stop thereafter. Not to be discouraged from my grand cultural adventure, I arrived at the bus station to find that it was the local hang out for many of Georgetown's unfortunate population. A large number of homeless people were laying across the benches of the station and I had to be very quiet as I walked past them. I did not want to wake them from the only blissful part of their day - sleep.

As I arrived at the bus station, I caught the attention of a young indian bus driver, who (whilst leaning out of his bus, which was parked adjacent to where I was standing) was determined to ensure that I found the quickest and most appropriate bus to get me to my destination. He informed me that I could catch the 237, 238, 239 and a number of other buses and these would all get to Air Itam, the village where the Temple was to be found. After waiting for barely 3 - 4 minutes, he started to worry that I was not going to get the help i required and he kept assuring me that there would be a bus "soon, soon, one more minute, one more." In between that, he'd puff nervously on his cigarette, as if his whole day depended on me getting to my destination. Just as I turned my back to look around, he tooted his bus horn frantically, waving at the bus across the road. His eagerness woke all of the homeless nearby, but he was excited that I had the chance to ride the "express" bus to Air Itam (as opposed to a lowly local numbered bus). I thanked him kindly and he seemed relieved that my expectations had been met.

After paying RM$1.50 (about US$0.40), I climbed aboard only to find that I was its only passenger. I was concerned that it would stay there until other passengers came, but it did not. The door was shut as quickly as I got in and it lurched its way out of the bus station and onto the busy roads.

I arrived in Air Itam, only to find that it was not the quiet, peaceful village but a hub of local fruit and wet markets. The stench of fish was overwhelming but it appeared to be the drawcard for many of the locals, who were fighting their way through the crowds in order to purchase bags of the catch of the day (or month, because i could have sworn they smelt like they had been there for weeks!).

The traffic through the village had grinded to a halt and scooters were weaving their way in and out of the lines of people in order to pass. Horns were being blasted, engines were being revved yet it did not entirely drown out the shouts and hollering of the wheeling and dealing marketeers, who were selling anything to anyone for very low prices.

I managed to fight my way through the crowds and up towards the sign which pointed to the Temple on the hill. Already, I could see the large Pagoda roof in the distance, and it was amazing. Its gold shone out like a beacon as stark contrast against the grey tones of the concrete village beneath it.

I commenced the ascent up a long and windy road. The village had by then disappeared into the background and I was soon surrounded by trees and the odd house. The atmosphere had quickly changed from one of insanity to one of serenity. That is the amazing thing that I find about Buddhist Temples.

I arrived just as they opened the doors to the Temple premises and in I went, like a kid in a candy store. For the first 30 mins, I pretty much had the entire place to myself, to explore, to photograph and to wander around aimlessly, reading the inscribed chinese symbols throughout the sacred areas.

Wikipedia (my source for all travel information!!!) states that the temple begun being built in 1890, and was named "Kek Lok Si", to mean "Temple of Supreme Bliss." The seven story pagoda (pictured left) was built in 1930 and was built to have designs that represented China, Thailand and Burma.

Wiki is quoted as saying "the temple itself consists of several large hall for assembly and prayer, here, statues of Buddha, various Bodhisattvas as well as Chinese gods are being venerated. Intricate woodwork, often brightly painted and a plethora of laterns add to the visual impression." The place is alive with designs, patterns and colours. There were literally statues of Buddhas everywhere, just as Wiki says.

After wandering around for a while, I then took an inclined lift which carried me up to an elevated platform. Here, there was a gazebo, with a pond filled with Koi, as well as the main attraction, the towering statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy.

This is (i read somewhere) the largest gold statue in the country. And it is massive. The only problem was that it was conceal by a great deal of construction due to an upgrade. However, I could still get the sense of her size and it was quite a surreal sight to see.

From there, I just enjoyed wandering around, taking photos of all of the interesting patterns and symbols, and generally enjoying the serenity of the place, as opposed to the intensity of the rest of Penang.

Hope you enjoy the rest of the photos.

One of the gold statues guarding the Goddess.


One of the many Buddhas around the temple.

Overlooking the hills of Penang.

Rows and Rows of Buddhas.

A local giving her blessings to Buddha.

The reflection of a lantern in a rain puddle.

The smell of burning incense hovers around the temple, like sacred smoke.

The shadows of the imposing temples.


  1. these are extraordinary! and you look wonderful - so happy and relaxed.

  2. These are quite incredible!