Exploring Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang

kek lok si temple in penang malaysia

Multicultural Penang

One thing that has really fascinated me whilst traveling is learning about the different religions and how these influence values, beliefs and rituals of daily life.

I’ve seen more temples and shrines than I can count: both ancient and modern, ruined and in all their glittering glory. They are usually the highlight of my trip and Kek Lok Si temple in Penang was no different.

It’s also intriguing how the same religion varies depending on the country or region. Multicultural Malaysia was particularly interesting because of the diversity of faiths and cultures.

In Georgetown, Penang this is especially evident on Harmony Street – where Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, Christian churches, Hindu temples, and Chinese temples for ancestral worship all co-exist together on just one street.

religious diversity temples penang harmony street malaysia

Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si temple is situated on a hilltop just outside Georgetown, near colonial Penang Hill, and is possibly the most interesting temple I have visited yet.

Kek Lok Si means ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’ and it is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Construction began in 1890 and took 20 years to build, mainly funded by donations, and the temple is still growing and being added to.

kek lok si

Despite being a Buddhist temple it’s drastically different from any of the Buddhist temples I’ve visited in Thailand.

This is because Thailand follows the Theravada school of Buddhism, and Kek Lok Si temple is primarily a Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) school of Buddhism temple with Chinese Taoist characteristics.

The intricate details of the many awe inspiring prayer halls, pagodas and sculptures incorporated many signs and symbols I had seen before in Hinduism, Confucianism, Chinese ancestral temples and the Buddhist temples of Thailand all mixed together.

It gave me a real feeling of religious fusion showing how these religions were all connected.

Kek Lok Si temple rises up on a hill and the 36 meter high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and bodhisattva of compassion, can be seen from far away.

The steps are lined with the usual touristy stalls but inside the temple is a maze of several temples and prayer halls with intricate archways, elaborate wood carvings, red lanterns and dragon engraved pillars.

The shrines adorned with offerings of flowers and fruit, the smell of incense and flickering of candles, and the multi coloured ribbons fluttering in the wind all add to the incredible atmosphere.

kek lok si collage
Kek Lok Si is such an interesting, diverse and intricately detailed temple.

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda

After exploring the lower prayer halls the highlight is climbing up inside the 7 tier, 30 meter high main Ban Po Thar (Ten Thousand Buddhas) pagoda.

The famous pagoda’s architectural design represents a blend of beliefs not commonly seen, it combines a Chinese octagonal base with Thai design cream coloured middle tier and golden crown of Burmese styles. This design reflects the temple’s embrace of both Mahayana and Theravada schools of Buddhism.

Thousands of small statues of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, line the walls of the prayer halls and the entire surface of the walls inside the pagoda is adorned with images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Chinese gods and other deities.

The Buddha and the Bodhisattva differ as the Buddha has gained enlightenment, but the Bodhisattva has chosen to refrain from becoming totally enlightened in order to help others along their path to enlightenment and Nirvana. This is central to the Mahayana school of Buddhism where the emphasis is on teaching and helping others attain enlightenment.

The top of the pagoda offers stunning views over the amazing, sprawling temple complex of elaborate rooftops, reaching across traditional houses, over misty, forested hillsides as far as the modern high rises on the outskirts of Georgetown and the sea.

Kek Lok Si temple combines Mahayana Buddhism and Taoist traditional Chinese rituals in a riotous array of colour, sculpture, design and harmony of both architecture and worshiping activities. It is a truly fascinating, inspiring temple which offered a surprise around every corner.

For more information about Kek Lok Si temple and Penang check out my epic Malaysia backpacking guide.

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Jay November 12, 2023 at 6:13 pm

It is annoying i cannot copy the names of the places…while I do understand your concerns about copying sentences of your homepage it is time consuming to write down all the foreign names only because i cannot mark them and copy them for example to check in google map where that place is.

Anna December 22, 2023 at 4:47 pm

Hey Jay – I’m sorry about that – I can see how that’s annoying. However I had to do it because people were making multiple copies of my whole blog! I’ll try to put in the google map links or more information to help you out


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