The sprawling temple is perched conspicuously on a hillside and provides amazing views of Georgetown on the island of Penang. Kek Lok Si holds the record in Malaysia for tallest temple pavilion, the tallest granite pillars, and the tallest statue of Kuan Yin – the Goddess of Mercy.
More than just one of the top things to do in Penang, Kek Lok Si Temple is an important place of worship for both Taoists and Mahayana Buddhists. The temple becomes an impressive site during Chinese New Year when thousands of lanterns and candles provide an atmosphere that forces visitors into a whisper.
Best of all, Kek Lok Si provides an interesting contrast from Penang's more touristed areas.
“I'm glad I spent time at Kek Lok Si Temple, because it provided a nice change of pace,” Will Fly for Food blogger JB Macatulad explained to me; he had traveled there recently in search of a “legendary hawker stall”, and took a detour to the temple itself. “It was quiet and the weather was mild, quite a different environment from the hustle and bustle of George Town.”
The History of Ke Lok Si Temple
Driven by the need to build a sanctuary for Buddhist practice in Penang, the chief monk of the Pitt Street Goddess of Mercy temple proposed (and helped raise funds for) Kek Lok Si.
The foundation stone for Kek Lok Si was first laid in 1893. The leading Chinese Hakka tycoons of Penang were roped in to provide financial support; Cheong Fatt Tze (whose house still stands in George Town) contributed generously.
The temple opening in 1905 was blessed with a stone tablet and 70,000 copies of the Imperial Edition of the Buddhist Sutras by the Manchu Guangxu Emperor, who died three years after.
Construction never ceased on Kek Lok Si. The most iconic part of the temple - the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas - was not constructed until 1930. The 100-foot-tall statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, was added to the temple in 2002. Construction of an elaborate shelter around the statue continues even today, funded by the Malaysian Chinese community.
Visiting Ke Lok Si Temple
On any given day, Kek Lok Si is a bustling hive of activity, underscored by the proliferation of statuary, worship halls and ponds scattered over the grounds. Not really known for subdued colors, the palette in Kek Lok Si leans towards bright, just teetering on the edge of gaudy.
JB Macatulad himself was struck by “all the pink Buddha statues with svastikas on their chest.” (Please take note that these symbols are not reflective of any anti-Semitic feeling; the Nazis appropriated the symbol from the Buddhists, not the other way around.)
“I found the temple to be striking in good and bad ways,” explained JR. “Not to be disrespectful, many parts were beautiful but I did find some elements to be a little kitschy.”
While Kek Lok Si is a popular tourist attraction, JB cautions visitors to remember that this is an active worship site as well.
“When I was there, most of the visitors were pilgrims - it was more than just a sightseeing tour for them,” JB remembers. “It was obvious because they would pray before the statues and give offerings.”
The Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas
Aside from the bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas is the biggest draw to Kek Lok Si – and its structure encapsulates the design jumble you'll find in the rest of the complex.
Also known as Ban Po That, the official name of the pagoda is "Pagoda of Rama VI" because the eponymous king of Thailand laid the first stone. With a Chinese-inspired base, Thai middle tier, and Burmese spire, the pagoda represents a blend of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist beliefs rarely seen in Southeast Asian temples.
At 291 feet, the pagoda has become an iconic image in Penang.
Inside, the continued patronage of the Thai Royal Family manifests in a statue of the Buddha donated by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Finding Great Food Around Kek Lok Si
Given its out-of-the-way nature, Kek Lok Si isn't as famous for its food choices as other spots closer to the George Town tourist district. But food bloggers know better; just ask JB Macatulad, for whom the food came first, the temple later.
“We probably wouldn't have made the trip to Kek Lok Si had it not been for Air Itam Assam Laksa and Sister Curry Mee,” JB confided. “Food is a big reason why we travel, so visiting these two legendary hawker stalls was our intention.”
Those hawker stalls, JB told us, are nothing short of awesome.
“[Air Itam Assam Laksa] has been selling their assam laksa for over 30 years, while the two sisters [who run Sister Curry Mee] have been offering their bowls of curry mee at the same roadside stall for over 70 years,” JB gushes. “That's impressive.”
That's not the end of it: for more, you'll want to check out JB's impressively written and photographed piece on Kek Lok Si and the aforementioned legendary hawker stalls nearby.
Chinese New Year in Kek Lok Si
Chinese New Year in Penang is celebrated with extreme enthusiasm at Kek Lok Si. During the New Year celebrations, the entire complex is lit up with thousands of lanterns, each one representing a donation from well-wishers and devotees. These days, the lanterns number by the tens of thousands.
If you can't time your visit with Chinese New Year, try visiting the temple at sunset for incredible photo opportunities.
Getting to the Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si is located around 40 minutes outside of Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia. Take bus #201, #203, #204, or any bus signed for Air Itam from the Komtar shopping complex in Georgetown. JB suggests you prioritize the bus: “It's easy and cheap,” he explains. “It's just MYR 2 each way and takes about 30 minutes from Komtar bus terminal.” (Read about transportation in Penang.)
Once you've disembarked at the village of Air Itam, ask directions to Kek Lok Si, or make your way through the market toward the temple situated conspicuously on the hillside.
Entrance to Kek Lok Si is free, but an entrance fee of MYR 2 (about US$0.45; read about money in Malaysia) to enter the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas will be charged. The inclined lift to the Kuan Yin statue costs MYR 3 (about US$0.67) one way.