Roadtrip Diaries: Visiting Kek Lok Si, The Largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia

One of Penang island’s must-see attractions, Kek Lok Si (The Temple of Supreme Bliss) is a sprawling 130-year-old temple complex located at the foot of the hills in Air Itam. Founded by a Buddhist abbot from Fujian named Beow Lean. The site was chosen for its excellent feng shui, which faces the sea and has a lush hill at its back, called Crane Hill (due to the lay of the land which branches out on two sides, like a crane unfolding its wings).

The decision to build a spiritual retreat for Penang’s Buddhist community was warmly received, and construction began in the 1890s, supported by five wealthy Penang-Chinese tycoons, as well as donations from the people. The buildings were so grand and beautiful that the temple even received recognition in the form of handwritten scripts from China’s Empress Cixi of the Qing Dynasty.

The complex was finally completed in 1930, comprising of several magnificent buildings such as the Hall of Bodhisattvas and the seven-storey pagoda which is one of Penang’s most iconic landmarks. Over the years, more buildings and structures were added to the site, creating the almost labyrinth-like medley of pathways, gardens, shrines, and pavilions that visitors to Kek Lok Si will find today.

You can start your journey from the base of the temple, which takes you past shops selling souvenirs and Buddhist paraphernalia, as well as a turtle-filled pond where you can release the creatures into the enclosure to earn merits. We skipped this as we were pressed for time, driving up to the ‘middle’ tier instead where the Hall of Bodhisattvas is located.

Stepping into the hall, we were greeted by the sight of polished marble floors that were so clean they practically shone, and stunning golden statues seated within elaborately carved wooden partitions. Overhead were colourful panels with intricate geometric patterns and dragons, as well as scenes depicting deities and gods from Chinese Buddhist mythology. Three giant lanterns with crystals hung from the ceiling.

The temple harmoniously blends different influences from the diverse communities that make up Penang. For example, although many of the deity statues here primarily follow the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist movement, there is also the pagoda which is dedicated to the late Thai king Rama IV, which has Theravadan influences (Thailand mainly follows Theravada Buddhism), and blends Thai, Burmese, and Chinese architecture.

The temple grounds are beautifully landscaped, with gardens as well as plenty of flowers and plants lining its corridors and pathways. It’s still very warm and sunny though, so I recommend sunscreen, shades, and an umbrella. You can rest underneath the gazebos scattered around the temple, and remember to stay hydrated!

As you make your way up from the Hall of Bodhisattvas, you’ll pass by Buddha’s Pavilion, recognizable by a round stone archway flanked by carvings of heavenly deities floating about on clouds. Beyond is a well kept garden, with the occasional bee clinging to the blooms to suck on their sweet nectar.

Some of the flowers we spotted while wandering the place:

The pavilion houses dozens of Buddha statues encircling the enclosure. There’s also a shrine/souvenir shop in the middle, and a traditional Chinese-style archway that looks out to the Air Itam neighbourhood as well as George Town.

View of the Pagoda from Buddha’s Pavilion.

We next made our way to the inclined lift station, which takes visitors to the giant Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin statue). Tickets are priced at RM6 for a return trip if I remember correctly. It’s a pretty steep price for a 1-2 minute ride. Alternatively, you can also drive up but you’ll still be charged RM6 for parking.

The Goddess of Mercy statue and pavilion is an impressive sight, the former towering above the landscape at 30 meters high, and the latter at 60 metres high.

Built at a total cost of over RM40 million, the bronze statue was completed in 2002 – and the pavilion followed after in 2009. The base of the structure has several large wooden doors in the style of ancient Chinese palaces, guarded by mythical lions. I’m not sure if they allow access to the pavilion, but we were not able to get close to the statue during our visit.

We returned to the complex’s lower level and headed towards the pagoda. Here we had to pay a RM2 entry fee. We also passed by another impressive hall on the way. One of the most stunning features of this hall is the caisson ceiling, which has three sunken panels that are layered and richly decorated in carvings. It’s clear that the decor is inspired by a scene in heaven, as the ceiling is bordered by figures of dancing, ethereal deities on clouds, and dragons.

Rising 30 meters high, Ban Po Thar (10,000 Buddhas) pagoda boasts a unique and eclectic architecture, featuring a Chinese octagonal base, a Thai design in the middle, and a Burmese-style spiral dome on top. Although the base is meant to be Chinese-inspired, I think the archways have sort of an Islamic look to it. It’s also predominantly in beige and green with touches of blue, rather than red and orange – a stark difference from the other more traditional-looking shrines around it.

Just outside the pagoda are stone statues and a large bell that you can ring by striking it with a wooden pole.

The pagoda’s staircase is hidden behind the Buddha’s altar on the ground floor. The stairs are very narrow and of uneven height, so observe caution as you ascend and descent. If there are lots of people you might have to make way for people to pass by first. Each level also gets progressively smaller as you ascend, with the topmost level a tiny space that can probably fit just 4 or 5 people at a time. You can stop to pray to the different Buddhas on each floor.

Climbing the pagoda turned out to be an intense workout. By floor 5 we were huffing, puffing, and sweating rivulets. But we were neither here nor there – going down at that point would have been a waste of all the effort we put in climbing, so we soldiered on.

As mentioned, the top level is extremely small, and unlike the lower tiers which are enclosed, only has an open-air balcony that you have to circle around to get to the shrine in the middle. Was proud of N as he braved the passage despite his acrophobia, although it was kinda funny to see him sticking to the wall edging his way slowly to the center 😛

There’s a lot to see at Kek Lok Si, especially for travelers who love architecture, culture, and photography. Allocate at least half a day to explore the grounds, and come early to avoid the crowds and the mid day heat. It’s also close to Penang Hill, so you might want to plan a day trip to visit both attractions.

Getting to Kek Lok Si

Take Rapid KL buses 203 and 204 from KOMTAR to reach Kek Lok Si. The ride takes about 30 minutes. Penang also has Grab services, so you can ride a cab straight to the temple’s base.


Jalan Balik Pulau, 11500 Air Itam, Penang.

Opening hours: 8.30AM – 5.30PM

PS:  If you enjoyed reading this, please consider supporting my website via Patreon. This will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Or buy me a cup of coffee at @erisgoesto. Thanks for stopping by!


2 thoughts on “Roadtrip Diaries: Visiting Kek Lok Si, The Largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.